When Margrét Halldórsdóttir was a girl in the sixties, career paths were more strictly prescribed than they are today. That was the case even in Iceland, one of the world’s most feminist countries – the first nation to elect a woman president and the first openly gay prime minister.
Limited choices made no difference to young Margrét who knew from an early age she wanted to be a flight attendant, a nurse and a mother. Achieving all three, Margret, now 67, went further; she wove these separate jobs together creating a notable tapestry of work/family/community.
On Monday, April 29th on a flight from Copenhagen to Reykjavik, Margrét Halldorsdottir will work as a flight attendant for the last time, capping a 36-year career with Icelandair.
“I’m thankful and grateful for the time I had,” Margrét told me. “It’s not an easy job. It’s a hard job working with full plane and flying during the night. Flights to the USA always mean a night flight back to Iceland and with the time difference it’s tough sometimes.”
The day after Easter Sunday, Margrét took that red-eye from Newark, this time as a passenger with three of her four daughters, four grandchildren and one son-in-law as her travel companions having worked the inbound flight the day before.
Her flight home with family in tow was bound to evoke memories of 2014 when she and three of her four daughters who were flight attendants at the time made up the entire cabin crew on Icelandair Flight 623 to Newark. No announcement was made and passengers were likely unaware of the mother/3-daughter team.
Even with her years of seniority, Margrét wasn’t bossy with the girls, Elisabet, Rebekka and Margrét. They didn’t tell mom what to do either.
“We just respected each other,” she told me.
In 2016, I featured Margrét in a story for The New York Times about Icelandair’s “Buddy” program which pairs airline employees with passengers who want an insider’s view of the country. From the moment she and her husband Gunnar Magnússon picked me up in the morning, I felt I was with old friends.
But Margrét had many news-making adventures. She worked the Icelandair charter flight that brought Pope John Paul II from Norway to Iceland in 1989. In January 2005, she packed her nursing cap along with her flight attendant hat and joined other medical personnel on a humanitarian relief flight to Thailand after the December tsunami. Still, many experiences were private – like the time she held the hand and comforted a passenger flying to a parent’s funeral.
On her off-days, Margrét worked at the local hospital. And for five years she taught first aid to flight attendants during their recurrent training. She is always ready to tip either hat (Icelandair pillbox or nurse’s cap) to Ellen Church, the registered nurse who in 1930 became the world’s first stewardess. Read more about her in Skygirls by Bruce McAllister and Stephan Wilkinson.
Margrét’s 1972 nursing school class portrait and the 1981 photo of her on the cover of the inflight magazine of Eagle Air, where she held her first flight attendant job, show a smiling spirited young woman, ready to share her sunny disposition with the world. Decades later both the smile and the good intentions remain. Her retirement calendar includes part-time shifts as a hospital nurse more golf with Gunnar and more time with her children and six grandchildren.
As we wrapped up our conversation the other night, I couldn’t help but note how a woman faced with the limited career choices of her time, had been able to accomplish so much; pursuing multiple paths while bringing them together in her own unique way. All the while she was a role model for her four daughters and who knows how many others. It doesn’t get more feminist than that.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.