Tag Archives: American Airlines

Peggy Lehn: The View From The Transatlantic Cockpit

Normally, this would be an inspirational, upbeat story: Female Staples graduate, now in her 33rd year flying for American Airlines, surveys the skies from her captain’s cockpit.

But after 4 round trips across the Atlantic Ocean since early March, Peggy Lehn has some harrowing tales to tell.

Peggy Lehn and her brother Tom. He’s a 1985 Staples High School graduate — and also an American Airlines pilot.

On March 2, the 1979 Staples grad — whose family has been in Westport for around 11 generations (her grandmother was born on the property that is now Longshore) — flew her 777 from JFK to Barcelona.

Her crew had never seen Las Ramblas — the city’s main boulevard — so empty. Shop and restaurant owners stood on the street, urging the few customers to enter.

After flying back to the US 2 days later, Peggy quarantined herself. “Who knows?” she wondered.

Pilots are exempt from longer isolation rules, however — and none were in place then anyway — so on March 7 she left JFK for Paris. The trip from Charles de Gaulle to the downtown airport usually takes an hour. This time, it was 18 minutes.

American Airlines encouraged the crew not to eat in restaurants, but rather buy food and bring it back to the hotel.

On March 9 she flew back to New York.

The new normal in Paris.

Peggy’s third trip was March 12, again to Paris. On the 14th she flew back to JFK. As she landed, she was told the plane would be met by the CDC. She was instructed to tell passengers to remain seated. Everyone would be tested.

Her flight was the first to arrive in the US after the travel ban. Port Authority police, wearing masks, met the plane. They waited 40 minutes for CDC officials. Wearing plastic visors, they handed forms to fill out. They told everyone to self-quarantine.

One at a time, passengers exited the aircraft. Each had their temperature taken. Another official wrote down the results.

It took 70 minutes to unload the entire plane, which was not even full.

On March 15 — Sunday — Peggy made her 3rd trip to Paris this month. Normally, she says, there are many flying “tracks” — routes — over the Atlantic. This time, there were only 3.

There was none of the usual chatter among pilots, because “there was nobody out there.” When she landed at Charles de Gaulle, she saw no other planes.

In the city she found just one small spot to eat in the normally bustling hotel; it served only coffee and pre-made salads. There were long lines at grocery stores. Shelves were bare. She finally found a bit of pasta to bring back to microwave.

On Monday, Peggy watched French president Emmanuel Macron address the nation. He told his citizens they had to face the virus like a war. She was impressed with his words and actions.

By the time Peggy arrived back at JFK yesterday, the CDC and Port Authority had a better grasp of handling international flights. Passengers came off in groups of 10.

Planes are usually full this time of year, Peggy says. Her aircraft holds 272 people. Yesterday, there were 206. Many were American Airlines personnel.

American Airlines 777.

That was Peggy’s last transatlantic flight for a long time. Her March 28 trip has been canceled. She’s scheduled now domestically: Dallas, Los Angeles and the like.

Her airline will offer leaves — some paid, some unpaid. They’ve already stopped hiring.

“Everything changed in a week and half,” Peggy says.

Fortunately, no one on any of her flights appeared to be ill. She is happy too to see people in Westport taking the coronavirus seriously.

Peggy hopes our nation — and town — have learned from the experiences of other countries.

“Think of this virus as if you already have it,” Peggy says. “Live your life that way. Don’t give it to anyone else. Change the way you live.”

She already has.

Her 88-year-old mother lives in Westport too. These days when Peggy visits, she waves at her mom through a window.

(For a 2015 story on Peggy Lehn and her career, click here.)

I’m Peggy. Fly Me.

If you’re of a certain age, you know what that headline means.

Fly meIn 1971, National Airlines* rolled out a $9.5 million ad campaign. It urged air travelers to “fly” Cheryl, Jo and many other stewardesses. It painted their names on plane noses, and made them wear “Fly Me” buttons while they worked.

In 2015, sexist requirements for flight attendants are long gone. They can be any age, weight or gender.

But female pilots are still rarer than empty overhead compartments. Of American Airlines’ 12,000 pilots, fewer than 1% are women. The company has 4,000 captains; the number of females at that rank is infinitesimal.

Peggy Lehn is one of them.

Her family name is well known in Westport. They’ve been here for 11 generations or so. There was a Lehn Bakery on Main Street from 1883 to 1904. Her grandmother born on the property that is now Longshore, where the halfway house now sits. Her great-great-grandfather — a Civil War army drummer — has a memorial marker on his Willowbrook grave.

Peggy’s younger brother Tom always wanted to fly. “I don’t know where he got that idea,” she says. “My father was a stone mason. We never had money to fly anywhere.”

At Staples in the late 1970s, Peggy — inspired by her brother — took Wilson Hopkins’ Aeronautics course. The former military pilot had a flight simulator in his classroom. No one ever told her she — as a girl — could not fly for a living.

Embry Riddle logoOf course, no one ever said she could. At Embry Riddle — a highly regarded aviation university in Florida — she was the only female in her classes. For 4 years.

Still, she says, “I was naive. I thought nothing of it.”

When Peggy graduated, she had enough hours to fly charters and twin-engine planes, and teach.

She applied for a job at Sikorsky Airport in Bridgeport. They told her she could answer phones.

Determined to be a flight instructor, she headed to Danbury Airport. They said they already had a female teacher — and anyway, not many women wanted to learn to fly.

Two weeks later, that female instructor quit. Peggy was hired. Most of her students were men.

She used the same books and techniques Hopkins had, a few years earlier. One day, he brought his Staples class to Danbury. Peggy took the teenagers up in the air, one at a time. “That was very cool,” she says.

Captain Peggy Lehn.

Peggy Lehn, in a  Good Housekeeping feature on women in traditionally male jobs.

Peggy’s career followed a typical path. She flew for USAir’s commuter line, Southern Jersey Airways, based in Atlantic City. In 1987 she was hired by American Airlines. Twelve years later, she upgraded to captain.

The scarcity of female pilots stems from a lack of encouragement and role models, Peggy says. She makes an effort to talk to girls at college and high school career days.

Attitudes are changing. When she brings children into the cockpit, she says, they don’t think twice about her gender.

Her co-workers don’t care either. She recently flew with a female co-pilot — and the entire cabin crew was male.

Passengers are still occasionally surprised, though. A man once asked to see her pilot’s license.

“Are you from the FAA?” she asked.

No, he said.

“Then you don’t need to see it,” she replied. He still got on the plane.

Peggy’s brother Tom — who graduated from Staples in 1985, 6 years after her — wanted to fly too. But he wore glasses, so he went to the University of Connecticut as a pre-med student.

When the airlines changed their rules to allow pilots with glasses, he switched careers. He started out as an instructor at Sikorsky, then moved to SkyWest. When he was hired by American, Peggy pinned on his wings.

Peggy Lehn and her brother Tom, in the cockpit.

Peggy Lehn and her brother Tom, in the cockpit.

Tom is based in Los Angeles; she flies out of New York. They rarely see each other. But in the summer of 2001 American arranged for them to fly together, from JFK to San Francisco.

They told the passengers, who loved the story. Peggy also used the mic to thank her mother Kathleen — who came along, in first class.

“My dad died when I was 18, and Tom was 12,” she says. “She really helped us reach our dreams.”

Captain Peggy Lehn (far right), with her brother Tom (front left), their mother Kathleen (far right), and other American Airlines crew members.

Captain Peggy Lehn (far right), with her brother Tom (front left), their mother Kathleen (far right), and other American Airlines crew members.

The airline world has changed, of course. Passengers today want cheap fares; the airlines want cheap labor. There are lots of regulations (“it’s not a de-regulated industry,” she notes). Before 9/11, she adds, “I never thought a passenger would want to kill me.”

But she loves her work. She’ll be training soon on 787s — she’s been flying 767s and 757s since 1992 — and she’s never been furloughed. Plus, she says, “I still live in the town I grew up in.”

Of course, Peggy says, “pilots work really hard. A lot of what we do gets lost, because the image of airlines these days is not great.”

American Airlines logoDuring the almost-blizzard last month, Peggy was called at 1:30 p.m. She was told to get to JFK, for a 5 p.m. flight.

“I was driving to the airport in the snow, with all the traffic going the other way,” she says.

She and her crew got the plane ready. It was delayed and de-iced. Finally — with snow still swirling at 7 p.m. — they blasted off for Miami.

When they arrived, disembarking passengers shook her hand. The gender of the pilot was irrelevant.

All they cared about was that she had gotten them — safely — to Florida.

*May it rest in peace.