Just like Mom: Daughters share passion for adventure
Mother inspires daughters to aim sky high
Every day when Jackie Leandri and her daughters step out the door to go to work, they’re stepping into adventure as flight attendants with Southwest Airlines.
It’s not a career choice for everyone, but Jessica Rowe and April Leandri said watching their mom go off to work and taking flights with her when they were young reinforced their desire to work 35,000 feet above the ground.
“I remember flying (April) and her friend to Minneapolis for her 16th birthday to go shopping at the Mall of America,” Leandri said.
Being a flight attendant didn’t stop her from being involved with the girls while growing up because, in addition to the travel aspect, the job offers a lot of flexibility, she said.
“She was never not at a school event,” April said. “She was home for the important stuff.”
It was this flexibility and the prospect of adventure that Leandri’s mother, Judy Berryman, thinks inspired Jessica and April to follow in their mother’s footsteps.
Both of them wanted to be flight attendants from a young age, Jackie said.
“(Jessica) told people she wanted to be a flight attendant like her mom,” Jackie said.
She even worked at Mike’s Court and volunteered at the Central PA Humane Society, just like Jackie.
After Jessica became a flight attendant eight years ago, she and her mom have flown multiple times together.
Now that April has joined Southwest, too, there could be times when all three of them serve on the same flight — that’s happened once so far. More common, though, is that two of them are on the same flight, something they said makes the trip much more fun.
Once, Jackie and Jessica were stranded in Costa Rica for three days with three other Baltimore crews because of a bad snowstorm back home.
That first night, the crews sat in a hotel bar and organized an all-day trip for the next day. They pooled their money, rented a driver with a van and explored the country.
“We had a blast,” Jessica said. “It was awesome, I was stuck with her because I was pretty new at the time. I’m glad I was with someone I knew.”
Jessica and April have also flown several times together, without their mother.
“We had a long overnight stay in Midland Odessa, Texas,” Jessica said. “Not anywhere too exciting, but we made it fun.”
The last trip they took together, the sisters’ connection was announced at every stop.
“People find it so interesting, and it does make it a lot easier flying with someone you know,” Jessica said.
The one flight that all three of them have been able to fly together was actually April’s very first trip.
“It was a lot of fun,” April said. “It makes it easier. It was the first trip I had and that made it a lot less nerve-wracking.”
Once on board the flight, Jackie made a formal announcement to the passengers explaining who they were, with one man not believing them. Some passengers asked them questions while others even took their picture.
“Even my co-workers think it’s amazing,” Jackie said. “It’s great now, we get along great now that they’re adults.”
“They were horrible teenagers,” she laughed.
Since then, their schedules haven’t synced. If her daughters are on reserve, she can still try to get on a trip with one of them, Jackie said.
“To work with two people you know so well and trust and love, it’s a unique situation,” Jackie said. “It’s a job where you work with really different people all the time. When you get on a plane with people you know and trust, you gel better.”
It was Jessica who took the leap to become a flight attendant first, after she graduated from Altoona Area High School and spent a few semesters at Penn State University. She had originally intended to go into the medical field as a nurse and join Southwest later.
“I didn’t know if I was ready; I wanted to figure out for sure that’s what I wanted,” Jessica said.
But when applications to become a flight attendant opened up as she was working in an assisted living facility, Jackie told Jessica to go for it.
Jackie called it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and Jessica herself couldn’t believe they had opened up when they did. She was hired at 22 after going through phone and in-person interviews.
April followed after, becoming a flight attendant about two months ago.
“It’s mainly because it runs in the family,” April said. “We always flew with her.”
Both sisters were surprised they were even picked — especially on their first time applying — because Jackie told them to expect to get shut down.
“It’s difficult to get in, they only open it for eight hours at a time,” Jackie said of the application process. “I told them it was a long shot.”
With a large airline like Southwest, as many as 10,000 applications could be submitted during that small timeframe, Jackie said. From there, it’s up to the recruitment team to whittle down the pool of candidates.
“It’s a job where once you get in, you realize how flexible it is,” Jackie said. “I have a ton of vacation, you don’t work that much … I make $63 an hour and get five weeks’ vacation a year. You’re not going to get that anywhere else. People get hooked.”
Unlike her daughters, Jackie didn’t always know what career path she wanted to take. Once she graduated high school — also from Altoona — she didn’t think she was ready for college.
“I got kind of scared and didn’t know what to do,” Jackie said.
So, she joined the Army. Stationed in Hawaii, she worked in intelligence intercepting Morse code.
“That was rough,” said Berryman — who is not a flight attendant. “I remember the day before she left, she sent flowers to the house for me and needless to say, I spent the day on the couch crying.”
It was in Hawaii where Jackie met her future husband, who was also in the military, got married and had Jessica.
Then, after spending 11 years on active duty, Jackie left the military in 2000. Then living in the Baltimore area, she and her husband agreed it would be too much for them to handle after having had April.
“I stayed home for about two months, and I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a stay at home mom,” Jackie said.
It was when she went to a job fair with a bunch of military wives that she was hired to work a ticket counter for Southwest.
“I became a supervisor after six months, and it wasn’t until 2004 I became a flight attendant,” Jackie said. “In that time period, I was a customer service representative on 9/11.”
As far as hours went, she said it was worse than the military initially because the Transportation Security Administration was not in place. Therefore, the customer service people were the ones responsible for conducting bag searches.
“You get out of the military and get an airline job and then 9/11 happens,” she said. “It was a few months that was total chaos at the airports. We literally went in and never got out.”
Fortunately, her military experience prepared her for the stress of that situation and later when she went to flight attendant training.
The training takes place in Dallas and lasts for three to five weeks, Jackie said, with a whole week dedicated to just aircraft emergencies.
“You’re in Dallas for a month, you don’t go anywhere,” Jackie said. “We have to know every single aircraft inside and out, emergency equipment, CPR, first aid, be prepared for emergencies, evacuations, planned and unplanned landings, fires.”
Jackie said that while the military prepared her for the stress, she still got eight hours of sleep a night in a hotel.
“Military people call it Barbie Doll bootcamp,” she said.
Once they’re out of training, flight attendants are only scheduled three days a week but are still full time. The more junior you are, the more time you spend on call or “in reserve,” Jackie said, and regardless if you’re called in or not, you still get paid a minimum of six hours a day.
Now, 22 years later, Jackie isn’t planning on hanging up her wings anytime soon, and neither are her daughters.
“They knew the life that she led and I think they went after it because of her,” Berryman said.
Mirror Staff Writer Rachel Foor is at 814-946-7458.