Alice Waweru

Alice Waweru, a retired Kenya Airways senior flight attendant, gestures during an interview at Nation Centre on August 24, 2023.

| Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Alice Waweru: ‘My 38 years of service and passion in the sky with Kenya Airways’

All was going just normally for passengers settled in awaiting takeoff of the Kenya Airways flight KQ3 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on August 7. The 1:30pm, direct flight from New York to Nairobi sat on the wet tarmac on this gloomy Monday afternoon that had been preceded by one of the most rain-filled mornings of the hottest American summer in history.

“We would like to announce that this will be a very special flight. Our flight purser, Alice, is retiring on this flight after 38 and a half years of service. We will also be landing in Nairobi on her birthday and would like for all of you to join us in singing her “happy birthday” as we wish her well in her future endeavours,” The flight captain’s voice breaks through the speakers.

Then, a lady in the signature red suit uniform of KQ, in a short natural hairstyle with a beaded hair piece dropping to her brow, energetically goes from the front of the plane to the back on one aisle, then from the back of the plane to the front on the other aisle of the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner as she high fives passengers while they applaud her. At Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the plane goes under a water cannon salute, as two fire trucks at even distances from the aircraft direct streams of water to form a high arch over it (usually to welcome a new aircraft after its inaugural flight into the airport).

A flight purser ensures that cabin crew carry out their duties, both safety and in-flight services as stipulated, ensuring passengers are safe and comfortable. They are the eyes and ears of the captain. This is the height of a cabin crew member’s career.

The crew had been told from the time they were leaving Nairobi a few days prior that the return flight would be Alice’s last. They pampered her during their stay in New York.

“Looking back at where I came from and where I was at that point, it was like, “Girl! You did it!”,” beamed Alice, who looks nowhere near her age of 60, during the interview.

In 1984, a 21-year-old Alice Wamaitha Waweru applied for the position of check-in clerks (now customer service agents at the airport). However, when her letter of appointment came that December she had been accepted as an in-flight attendant. She didn’t even know what the position was about and had to consult a family friend who worked at KLM. That’s when she knew it involved flying.

Alice Waweru

Flight purser Alice Waweru (centre) passes a guard of honour by flight crew and pilots at her retirement ceremony after 38 years of service with Kenya Airways on August 8, 2023.

Photo credit: Pool

Born and raised in Jericho, Lumumba as the seventh born of ten children to a businessman and housewife, Alice had been influenced a lot by her mother’s cooking. This made her want to be a nutritionist or chef. With her family moving, Alice finished her primary school learning at Loreto Convent Valley Road and joined State House Girls. Her father wanted her to do a secretarial course at Queensway Secretarial College, before she worked for physician Dr Peter Wainaina Kamau for a year. She made the KQ application while working there. His wife, Mrs Kamau also became her mentor in her culinary dreams.

“One evening I was talking to God at around 7.30pm, I asked him “What plans do you have for me?” and I looked up to the dark skies and the stars formed the outline of an aircraft. That’s when I knew,” Alice tries to poker face like that last part truly happened.

Flight attendants have to have great inter-personal skills which help them relate with passengers. Working at the doctor’s office and interacting with patients had given her some practice that maybe the panel saw in her. The secretarial training went a long way in helping her write and submit reports. Training included in-flight emergency safety training for the crew, the aircraft and passengers. However, she doesn’t remember much of her first flight. As a supernumerary passenger (extra crew that comes with the purpose of being trained) a Boeing 707 headed from Nairobi to Mombasa and back, they were to observe how the flight attendants performed their duties and offered service. She felt very woozy on throughout the flight, suffering from air sickness.

The feeling extended the 10 training flights and into Alice’s first flight service, on a Fokker 27 propeller jet whose cruising altitude was between 17,000 to 19,000 feet. She consulted an aviation doctor who prescribed air sickness tablets to counter it. She was now okay in the skies.

Between 1989 to 1992, Alice was one of two KQ cabin crew members that worked in a venture between the national carrier and now defunct Air Holland from flights from Mombasa to Amsterdam. Her first time working with an international carrier, they had to be retrained to work on the Boeing 767. Their observation flight was from Amsterdam to Tunisia. She termed it a fantastic experience. It was also the first time she encountered pilots who weren’t stuck up on formalities and hierarchy with the crew. They even played tricks on the passengers, like when the captain announced that they would be crossing the Equator and started a countdown, then the plane seemed to jump off a bump. They all cheered. When she asked her KQ pilots why they never crossed the Equator, they just laughed at her and told her she had been fooled. What she got from that is, to enjoy your job; you don’t have to stick to the same script.

Alice Waweru

Flight purser Alice Waweru (centre) with her husband and children at her retirement ceremony

Photo credit: Pool

Initially, Alice was to work at KQ for three years and get to see the world before coming back and starting a bakery. However, in aviation, there is always training and she was experiencing immense self-development. Her levels of patience had grown substantially. She was also interested with the options presented to her. She became an in-flight entertainment instructor, training under Boeing 777 and 776 in Los Angeles. She became a safety auditor and then trained to be a sky chef and mixologist at Utalii Colllege. She has been a brand facilitator and been on many development projects on how to develop in-flight and make KQ a better airline. KQ adopted some of her ideas. One which is still in place today and is money generating, is charging more on exit rows because of the demand people have for extra legroom.

Alice also met her husband, Zacks Waweru, as a flight attendant. He has been supportive to her even when she is away for long periods at a time; including some time she was away for two weeks straight on training. They have two sons and a daughter. Their last born, a son is nineteen. During her pregnancies, KQ would allow her to assist as a crew administrator and then work in the sales office after delivery, before she got back to the cabin.

“I give him credit. I tell him, “You’re the one who brought up the kids!” I used to be with them till the babies were six months, and then I’d go back to work,” she says, with her mind still stuck on how she was leaving a child that was barely a year old.

She laughs when thinks back to when it was expensive to call on landlines and she would just call to ask if they’re all fine and tell them she arrived safely. But once internet calls and social media like Facebook and Whatsapp made voice and video calls affordable, she was able to be more “hands-on” even from afar.

She missed out on a few school activities for the children and also family get-togethers, and her social life wasn’t there much due to her work hours and days. It was home-aircraft-destination-aircraft-home and she thought about quitting at some point. But the job also came with some freedom that she can’t explain. When she got back from work, she would put on her mother and wife apron on and go on with the duties that entailed. But first she had to get that rest required to shake off the jetlag. Her husband would ensure not even the children disturbed her during that time. Her children would even write on essays and insha how she loved to sleep and she explained to them why it was necessary.

Kenya Airways flight purser Alice Waweru

Retired Kenya Airways flight purser Alice Waweru (right) in a photo from her family archives.

Photo credit: Pool

She would drop the children and pick them up at school, spend the weekend with them and take them swimming. They would long to hear her stories about the flights or being out-stationed (at the destinations) and she would even include the accents of people to make it more lively.

Alice has seen changes in the aviation industry over the decades. When she started out, flight attendants were actually carrying trays on them to serve passengers. The veteran ones would even balance up to twelve long trays and small ones on themselves while serving hot meals, tea and coffee. The collection was also done similarly. It wasn’t until the Airbus A310 that the job became easier with trolleys and carts. She’s also flown on Fokker 50, McDonnell Douglas DC-9, Boeing 707, Boeing 720, Boeing 737, Boeing 757, Boeing 767, Boeing 777, McDonnell Douglas DC-8, and Embraer E-190.

Some people had advised her not to become a flight attendant; the women were thought to be loose and there was no “grandeur in serving people. Now, there are also graduates who are flight attendants. Initially, only relaxed hair in ponytail or curly kits were allowed because they uniform also included hats. Then, braids became okay, before short hair, corn rows, locs and now almost any style can do. The red uniform came after the Airbus acquisition, before that KQ uniforms included beige uniforms for summer and kitenge outfits.

As a cabin crew member, Alice enjoyed shopping abroad and not being taxed when returning, the opportunity to be a member of the hotels they were staying in during layovers (enjoy full benefits), seeing the world without spending a coin, and she and her husband enjoy free lifetime tickets on KQ to any destination and discounted prices for tickets with any KQ partner airlines.

Alice Waweru

Retired Kenya Airways flight purser Alice Waweru in a photo from her family archives. 

Photo credit: Pool

Their safety training includes their own safety. Alice once experienced severe turbulence. The craft she was in lost 5,000 feet in seconds. In the forward gulley about to open the meal cart for final service for first class passengers, she found herself on the carpet in the third row and had to crawl back to her seat. Unable to secure herself, she “was bounced up and down like a ball. There was a time where I was just suspended in the air.” After it settled, she checked on herself to make sure she was okay, then her colleagues before they went to check on the passengers, as their training states.

Sometimes, passengers can be a handful. Though the cabin crew are trained on how to restrain people considered threats to the safety of the crew and aircraft, and even have handcuffs on board for such, the most Alice has had to do is talk down a group of angry men who thought a certain route was unnecessarily longer for them. From the safety report she did, the airline did actually change its route and that destination was now brought to the fore.

There is a motto in the aviation industry, “Be prepared, any day is May Day”. Through training and trusting the engineers who look after the airplanes, fuel operators and pilots. Unfortunately, plane crashes can happen even though flying is one of the safest modes of transport. Alice lost colleagues in the KQ flight that crashed in Douala, Cameroon in 2007. There are counselling sessions offered to the staff. And the issue is discussed to address root causes and resolutions during trainings.

Among the passengers she has served include the king and queen of Spain, the late president Mwai Kibaki and former President Uhuru Kenyatta.

She still has the travel bug, despite having been to more than 50 countries in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and North America. She would like to visit more countries she’s never visited in Africa and Canada, Australia, and South America. She’d also like to learn new languages to keep herself busy and hopefully get into consulting.

She says anyone looking to get into the cabin crew industry should be prepared to work hard and do lots of reading. It involves more than just dressing in a dashing uniform and pulling bags behind when walking into airports. There are refresher courses done annually on advanced first aid, dangerous goods handling, aviation safety and more.