Flight Attendant Up in the Air for 53 Years

Continental Flight Attendant Norma Heape
Norma Heape when she first began her career as a flight attendant, and in 2010.
Remember when it was about the joy of air travel; not the ordeal of transportation?

Norma Heape does, reports CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg. She's been flying for 53 years - longer than any other flight attendant at Continental Airlines.

"I'm just fortunate that I chose something that I enjoy doing, and I've never lost the love for flying or for traveling, or for serving people," said Heape.

Heape began flying for Continental in 1957 - when she was 20 - before they were even flying jets. They were called "hostesses", required to be single and slender.

"They would put us on a scale before each flight," said Heape, "to make sure we were in compliance with our weight. Everyone wore a girdle."

They were the original jet setters with style -- and service with a smile. Passengers were on their best behavior. They even dressed up for our flights. Because for them, half the fun of the trip, was just getting there.

"Times change," said Heape. "When I started flying, we served coffee out of a metal jug. And now we're doing cappuccinos and espressos. So you tell me what's glamorous."

In her long and illustrious career, Norma's logged more than 63,000 in-flight hours, and travelled more than 26 million miles - the equivalent of about 50 round-trip excursions to the moon!

And if you think that's impressive, wait till you hear what other record she holds.

"I'm very proud that I have perfect attendance at Continental," said Heape. "I have never called in sick a day of my life."

In an industry where the fleet is aging, Captain Ruth says this 74-year-old senior flight attendant is still very fit to fly.

"I hope when I'm her age, I'm in that good of shape as she is," said Ruth. "I'm fallin' apart already."

And while many of think experience in the cockpit makes the difference, Heape says there is no susbstitute for experience in the cabin.

"Just like when that airplane of Capt. Sullenberger's went into the drink, I mean, who got the passengers out?," asked Heape. "It wasn't the pilots, it was the flight attendants. And they were all over 15 years in seniority."

You might say Norma Heape is top of the heap - out of 9,500 flight attendants at Continental, she holds seniority number one - which means she gets her pick of destinations. Today, it's a 15 hour flight to Hong Kong.

"Want to go?" asked Heape. "We have five seats."

And while she's probably asked, "how long till we land?" almost as often as "how long till you retire?" The answer in both cases is: not anytime soon.

"The day that I can't be the onboard leader or perform what the company wants, then I think it's time to step down," said Heape. "Not today."