The best thing about my job is the people I meet. In the 20 years I’ve been working as a flight attendant, my encounter with Muhammad Ali was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had — and I’ve had a lot of memorable experiences.
The thing I remember the most was the energy that surrounded him. I had no idea the man who stood in front of me was anyone other than just a regular passenger, and yet I knew something was different. I could feel it in the air.
My chance encounter with Ali happened at the airport in Los Angeles. At first all I saw were his shoes. They were hanging off the step in front of me. In each hand he held a large suitcase. I remember thinking this guy’s gonna fall, and when he does we’re all going down with him. Needless to say I was ready; I was ready to push him back up. When he slipped, he didn’t fall far because I was right behind him. I don’t even remember him feeling heavy. All I remember was the rush of people heading our way. Which didn’t make sense because it wasn’t that big of a deal. I wondered why so many people had dropped what they were doing. TSA agents, ticket agents, passengers!
Later I would realize these people had their eye on him the whole time. People who loved him. People who didn’t think twice about dropping their bags or leaving behind work stations to lend a hand.
This is not the norm in my world, Airline World. People don’t go running to help other people at the airport. Not even a celebrity. People are way too wrapped up in their own thoughts to notice what’s going on around them. But before he fell, as we were going up the escalator, I felt this tight stillness in the air. It was almost electric. Afterwards came the hurricane of movement. None of it made sense.
When it was all said and done people shook his hand and told him how much he meant to them. This didn’t stop outside of security. This went on all through the terminal. Nonstop love.
I see celebs all the time. People always want to say hello and take a photo with them. With Muhammad Ali it was different. With Muhammad Ali there was the instant joy of simply seeing him. So many people smiling and sharing thanks as they passed him in the terminal.
Johan Wolfgang Von Goeth once said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” I know this to be true, especially in my line of work.
My story about Ali isn’t unique. A couple of my flight attendant friends recalled similar experiences.
“I had him on a flight from London to Chicago years ago. He had to be the most delightful passenger ever. I asked if he had any special needs for the flight (thinking of his health) and he told me he required a hug from me, a request that was completely innocent and totally genuine. He was happy to sign autographs for any passenger, and that was not an easy task given his Parkinson’s. When he went out after customs and the people realized who was there, the respect and adoration he received literally lifted him up and empowered him as much as the passersby. He was truly the Champ.” — Heather McKay”
“I had him on a flight many years ago. He was sitting in the last row of first class, aisle seat, and people kept coming up from coach and shaking his hand and asking for autographs. We tried to stop them but he said, “If the people want to come, let them come.” And so we did. My admiration for him shot up IMMENSELY that day.” — Jaycey Kelsevyn
“The only celebrity I ever had on a flight that resulted in the Captain coming out of the cockpit during flight to speak to, and get an autograph. He was adored by everyone. I remember his smile. A kind, respectful, gentleman who treated everyone with dignity.” — Tami Gayikian
“He was the best passenger I ever had on my flight. In the 70’s, we were flying Newark to Los Angeles and had a lengthy ground delay. Something few people know is he was quite a magician and stood in front of first class and performed tricks while most of the plane gathered around. A little boy standing at the curtain asked for an autograph. He very sternly asked him to come up. He said you have to give me a hug first in a gruff voice!! Everyone loved him!!”- Kim Siebert