‘At the age of 6, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to fly. I wanted to see everything and be everywhere … What I settled for was to become a flight attendant.’
Vikki Panan, Elmont
“The events of 9/11 changed my life drastically. I’m the first in my family to be born in the United States. My family is from Trinidad and Tobago. My parents were going through a divorce, and it was very difficult for my mom because my parents had their own business. My dad left America and moved back to Trinidad, so I was in New York with my mom and my sister, and it was very hard for her with my dad no longer in the picture. She was used to working with my dad.
“When 9/11 happened, my mom was afraid for our safety, she feared that something would happen to me and my sister because of the way we looked. It’s kind of similar to what’s happening now. I’m not Muslim, but people tend not to be able to differentiate between people from India, people from Pakistan, from the Caribbean. It’s very hard for people who are not of those backgrounds.
“My mom sent us to Florida to live with relatives, but after two months, she made the decision to send us to live with our dad, so I was back in Trinidad and Tobago. I spent age 11 to 25 in the Caribbean, and during that time I found a huge appreciation for my culture. My dad was very proud of our background. He made sure that I knew about carnival and all the local food. I got my bachelor’s degree when I was in Trinidad, and then I started working in a call center for Caribbean Airlines; that was my first job.
“But when I was 25, I said as much as I love Trinidad, I need to get out, I need to spread my wings. I moved back to New York on my own and applied to Delta. It was good timing for me. I got hired quickly as a flight attendant. I don’t know if it was because I was seeing my parents not get along — and I’m pretty sure that’s what it was¬ — but I knew at a young age that I couldn’t sit around and have a family. I wanted to see the world. At the age of 6, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to fly. I wanted to see everything and be everywhere. That’s where it started. What I settled for was to become a flight attendant. It’s wonderful. I’ve seen so much of the world, but there’s so much more I want to see.”
I’m making announcements saying, please help us, there’s a hurricane approaching, we need to go.
“Flying into Hurricane Irma in 2017 was a major point in my career, a video about it went viral. It was just supposed to be a turn for me, fly in to San Juan and come back to JFK. Going to San Juan, the flight was empty, about 20 people. When we got to San Juan, we only had about 20 minutes to turn the plane around–for the passengers to deplane, clean the plane and get around 180 new passengers back on board.
“That’s really fast, normally boarding alone takes 40 minutes, and now we’re trying to do a whole turn around in 40 minutes. It was hectic, I’m making announcements saying please help us, there’s a hurricane approaching, we need to go. That particular flight was the only flight that got in and out of San Juan during the hurricane. Some of the flight attendants were scared. One of them was crying, I told her it was ok, we wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t safe. You have to trust the pilots. It was a quiet flight, passengers clapped upon landing. The pilot hugged me. It was a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
“I enjoy where I’m at right now. Recently I took on the role of purser, a more managerial position. I manage a group of eight to 10 flight attendants on trans-oceanic flights. I have to be sure everyone does what they’re supposed to. Some of my pet peeves? Passengers who walk into the bathroom barefoot, I just don’t understand. And not paying attention to the seat belt sign. Or people touching the entertainment system with their toes, you can’t believe how common that is. I can’t believe I have to tell grown adults to not do that.
“My most memorable trip so far was Japan; we went on vacation for my boyfriend’s birthday in October. My whole life I’ve always dreamed about Japan. The people are so respectful and calm, they think about everything that they do. I want to incorporate that into how I live my life. With the holidays coming, I’m going through a spiritual transformation. People are very sensitive — I’m one of them. I lost my dad five years ago, and I want to say that if people are experiencing grief and loss during the holidays, they need to know that they will be ok, that they will get better. I’m a living example of that.”
Interviewed by Barbara Schuler