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Bette Nash, Longest-Serving Flight Attendant in the World, Dies at 88

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Bette Nash, whose nearly seven decades of serving airline passengers aboard the Washington-to-Boston shuttle earned the route the nickname the Nash Dash and won her a spot in Guinness World Records as the longest-serving flight attendant in history, died on May 17. She was 88.

Ms. Nash never officially retired, and her death, from breast cancer, was announced on Saturday by her employer, American Airlines. It did not say where she died. She lived in Manassas, Va.

Ms. Nash entered service with Eastern Air Lines in November 1957, at the dawn of the jet age. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, “I Love Lucy” was on TV and even short domestic flights were still a glamorous adventure.

Wearing white gloves, heels and a pillbox hat, Ms. Nash served lobster and champagne, carved roast beef by request and passed out after-dinner cigarettes.

Things have changed a lot since then — the smoking is gone, and so is the carved meat — but Ms. Nash remained largely the same.

After a brief stint in Miami, she began flying out of Washington in 1961, usually shuttle hops to New York and Boston — an assignment she preferred, even when seniority gave her the choice of routes, because she could return to her home in Northern Virginia every evening to care for her son, who had Down syndrome.

To do so, she set her alarm for 2:10 every morning to make the first flight, at 6 a.m., cheerily greeting passengers, many of them regulars. Every year she passed a safety and performance exam mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

She first entered the Guinness records in 2021, as the flight attendant with the longest career; she ultimately served for 67 years. A year later she entered the records again as the oldest active attendant.

By then she was something of a celebrity among those who regularly fly the friendly skies, and who gave her route its nickname. Passengers and passers-by in airport terminals would exclaim, “Are you the Bette Nash!?!” and insist on an autograph or a selfie.

At a 2017 ceremony at Reagan National Airport to mark her 60th anniversary, in 2017, American Airlines presented her with a pair of diamond earrings and a $10,000 donation to the food bank where she volunteered.

Then she went to work, loading passengers for the next shuttle to Boston. As the plane taxied to the runway, a pair of fire trucks doused the plane with a water-cannon salute, an honor usually reserved for retiring pilots.

Mary Elizabeth Burke was born on Dec. 31, 1935, to Frances (Eilers) and Martin Burke, an engineer with the military. She grew up in Pleasantville, N.J., a suburb of Atlantic City.

She had dreamed of being a flight attendant since her first time in the air, a trip with her mother from New Jersey to Dayton, Ohio, with a stop in Washington. She recalled watching flight crews marching through the terminal, their heads high and uniforms perfectly pressed.

“In a way at that time, it was like you were on the stage to a degree,” she told The Boston Globe in 2007. “It just looked so elegant. And romantic. It was the romance of the skies. You could take off and be in another world almost.”

She studied business at Sacred Heart College in Belmont, N.C., then returned to New Jersey. While preparing for her flight attendant exam, she worked as a legal secretary.

When the time came for her interview with Eastern, she took a bus from Atlantic City to Midtown Manhattan, in a dress borrowed from one of her sisters.

She got the job, but still had to attend what she called charm school — airline-mandated lessons in etiquette and dress, as well as in safety and flight protocols.

At the time, airlines — Eastern included — had very specific ideas about their all-female flight attendant corps.

“You put on a few pounds, and then you had to keep weighing yourself,” she said in an interview with the Washington radio station WJLA in 2017. “And then if you stayed that way, they would take you off the payroll.”

Eastern eventually sold off its East Coast routes to Donald J. Trump’s short-lived airline, the Trump Shuttle; after it closed in 1992, the routes went to US Airways, which was bought by American in 2015. Ms. Nash remained in place the whole time.

She married James Nash in 1973. She is survived by their son, Christian.

Ms. Nash continued to fly, she said, because of the people — though she did miss the glamour of her early career.

“In the old days, we saw a lot of mink coats,” she said at her 2017 reception. “Today, we see a lot of flip-flops.”