By Michele E. Buttelman
When Janet Basmajian-Yessayan was a little girl she remembers vividly the few times her parents took her on an airplane trip.
“We went to Hawaii and Detroit. We didn’t really travel much, but when we did, I remembered it,” she said.
Yessayan said she was captivated by watching the flight attendants walking down the aisles of the plane and asking everyone “Chicken or beef?”
“That was in the days when the airlines served everyone onboard a meal,” she said.
The memories of those flights stuck with Yessayan as she grew up in Reseda with her parents and younger brother and sister. She was born in the San Fernando Valley and is a graduate of St. Genevieve High School in Panorama City.
“I know it sounds silly, but I remember seeing the flight attendants pull out the drawers of their carts and pop open the soda cans. I still think of those memories now, when I’m serving drinks on the plane,” she said.
After she graduated high school she applied to several airlines, but never heard back.
“I wasn’t tall enough, I didn’t meet the height requirements,” she said. Yessayan is a petite 5’2”.
“Back at that time the airlines had very strict height and weight requirements,” she said.
Yessayan said today airlines have loosened many of those requirements. However, as part of her interview process she did have to remove her shoes and be able to reach up to a tape on the wall that was 6-and-a-half feet high.
California State University, Northridge
Yessayan attended California State University, Northridge where she earned her teaching credential.
It was at Cal State Northridge that Yessayan met her future husband, Apo Yessayan, owner of Classic Designs Jewelry in Valencia.
“I was very active during my college years at Cal State Northridge,” she said. “There was an Armenian student association and we were always having events.”
At one event, held at a disco on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley, she was introduced to her future husband by a “friend of a friend.”
Apo asked her out and five years later the couple were married.
“We will have been married 35 years on Aug. 13,” Yessayan said.
The couple have two daughters, Sabrina and Deanna. As a former teacher Yessayan is proud of her two accomplished daughters, Sabrina graduated with an MBA from Harvard University and now works for General Mills in Minneapolis. Deanna graduated from the University of Las Vegas with a hospitality degree.
After she graduated college in January, the middle of the school year, Yessayan didn’t think she would be able to find a full-time teaching job.
Of Armenian heritage Yessayan applied at a private Armenian school in Encino.
“I wanted to start work right away and I thought they might have a substitute teaching job,” she said.
As luck would have it, Yessayan was in the right place at the right time.
“The principal looked at me and said, ‘Our 4th grade teacher is leaving next week. How would you like to teach 4th grade?’ I just walked into that,” she said. “I was there for three-and-a-half years, 1981 to 1984.”
Yessayan knew her career path should include a move from a private school to a public school.
“I spent a year being a substitute teacher in the Burbank school system and working at Nordstrom,” she said.
Moving to the SCV
In 1986 her friend Tommye Warner, a school psychologist with the Sulphur Springs School District in Canyon Country, contacted Yessayan about openings in the district.
“She knew I wanted to get into a public-school system. One day she called me up at Nordstrom and said, ‘Janet you need to come out here for an interview, they are hiring.’ I didn’t even know where the Sulphur Springs School District was,” she said. “I’ve always said that Tommye was my angel on my shoulder.”
Sulphur Springs School District hired Yessayan and she began her Santa Clarita Valley teaching career
“I started teaching 2nd grade at Valley View Elementary School. I was there 14 or 15 years then I transferred to Sulphur Springs Elementary School in Sand Canyon where I taught 1st grade until I retired in 2015,” she said.
The Yessayans moved to Valencia in 1986 to be closer to her teaching job.
“We also decided to move the jewelry store from Panorama City to Santa Clarita,” she said. “That area was beginning to change in the San Fernando Valley, so Apo decided to relocate the store closer to our new home.”
A passion for children
“I loved working with children,” Yessayan said. “I’ve always had that passion, even when I was in grammar school I would volunteer in the classrooms.”
Yessayan said teaching 1st grade was a particular challenge because of how much children change during the school year.
“Teaching 1st grade was always fun,” she said. “You would see children come in on the first day of school and hardly know their alphabet and not be able to write a word, or sentence, and by the end of 1st grade they would be writing descriptive paragraphs.”
Yessayan said to watch her students grow in academics “made me feel good inside.”
One of the most memorable experiences during her 34-year teaching career, from 1981 to 2015, was her annual production of “The Wizard of Oz,” she produced at Sulphur Springs Elementary, Yessayan said
“I did the ‘Wizard of Oz’ production for 17 years,” she said. “I looked forward to it every year. It was a great teaching tool, they learned vocabulary, we did art projects and they worked on the script and the memorization.”
Making a change
As much as Yessayan enjoyed teaching she always thought about flying.
“It has always been in the back of my mind,” she said. “In the last few years of teaching I still loved the children, but I wanted a change. I had been teaching for more than 30 years and I wanted to do something different.”
She put together a resume with the help from one her daughters and sent it to a few airlines.
“Then a friend asked if I had considered Alaska Airlines,” Yessayan said. She earned a phone interview and was invited to an open interview held in San Diego on Veteran’s Day, 2014.
Out of more than 100 applicants Yessayan was one of 10 hired to start training the following January.
“I remember going to school the next day and looking at the kids and the staff and thinking, ‘Oh gosh, what have I done?’ I didn’t tell anybody,” she said.
She taught until the Christmas break in December, 2014, then took leave to begin her flight attendant training in January.
On Jan. 7, 2015 she began her training at Alaska headquarters in Seattle.
“For the first time, and at my age, I was away from home, in another state and living with someone I did not know,” she said.
Yessayan said the rigorous training lasted six weeks.
“That, in and of itself was an adventure and a learning experience. Especially being in a classroom setting and being the student instead of the teacher,” she said. “I never saw my family during that six weeks, until my graduation day, and that was hard.”
Yessayan said most of her training involved passenger safety.
“It was stressed every day in class. We took lots of tests, learned first aid, took a swimming test, learned all about the different airplanes in the Alaskan fleet and we were tested on that knowledge,” she said. “There was only one day of service training. I think people sometimes think, ‘Oh, you learn how to pour drinks,’ but that’s not it. It’s all about safety and learning about the aircraft.”
Being a flight attendant is a job, but it is a job with perks.
She had traveled to Alaska, Hawaii, Costa Rica, the East Coast and many other destinations.
“I’ve been to the beautiful state of Alaska, it is gorgeous,” she said. “The views of the mountains are lovely when you’re flying and the Alaska Airlines pilots are amazing. They are experts at getting into and out of the smaller Alaskan airports.”
Many of Yessayan’s flights are short turnarounds where she leaves home in the morning and then returns home the same day.
If a flight requires she stay overnight she said the layovers are often very quick.
“Sometimes the layovers are so short all you can do is go to the hotel, go to sleep and wake up the next morning and head right back to the airport,” she said. “Mostly I see the inside of airports. Sometimes we have what is called ‘sits’ where we sit for an hour or two.”
Yessayan said her favorite airport for “sits” is in Portland.
“They have lots of little shops and restaurants,” she said.
One of Yessayan’s favorite memories is a trip to Albuquerque, N.M.
“It used to be just a flight where you’d flight in and then fly immediately out,” she said. “But our group was the first group to have a layover in Albuquerque. That was fun, we went down to the famous Route 66 and saw the historic neon signs that still glow along the route and the old gas station with the pumps. We sat outside at a restaurant. It was fun and different.”
Another layover on the East Coast saw the crew heading into New York City and seeing the Broadway production of “Hello Dolly”.
“Then we had dinner at Carmine’s Italian Restaurant in Times Square,” she said. “There are some nice perks being a flight attendant when you have a long enough layover.”
Yessayan said the flight crews look forwarding to having barbecue when they head to Kansas City and when in Boston they often visit Little Italy.
“It’s fun to visit different cities and take in the local atmosphere. I always try to sample food or see an attraction the city is known for,” she said.
There are still places Yessayan wants to visit. “My biggest regret is not going to Cuba when it was open,” she said. “Everyone said it was a wonderful experience. People describe it as a once in a lifetime experience and I regret that I never had that chance. If we do end up flying back to Cuba I will take an opportunity to make one of those flights.”
Since Alaska purchased Virgin American airlines in 2016 Yessayan said many flight attendants have said they are looking forward to the new destinations the acquisition brought to the airline.
Yessayan will soon be training on Virgin’s fleet of Airbus aircraft so she will be able to work on those routes.
“All the Boeing trained flight attendants have to do a training in Long Beach to learn the Airbus and all the Airbus flight attendants will have to learn the Boeing planes,” she said.
Her new Alaska family
“Working for Alaska Airlines is like having a new family,” she said. “I feel it was very fortunate to become employed by Alaska. It has a family feeling. It has the same kind of atmosphere that I liked at Sulpher Springs School District.”
Yessayan said she enjoys getting off a plane and seeing who she knows from the new crew boarding the plane.
“It fun to stop, say ‘Hi’ and exchange hugs,” she said. “It takes me back to when I was teaching and we’d be in the teachers’ lounge before school and we would talk as we got our coffee and prepare for our teaching day. It’s a nice feeling to see your flight attendant friends, or to see someone who you haven’t flown with for a couple of months, I enjoy that. It’s a family feeling and we take care of each other. We look out for each other.”
Yessayan frequently works flights out of the Burbank airport. She travels to Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Jose, Seattle and Portland.
“Burbank airport has kind of a family feeling,” she said. “We see a lot of the same business passengers. We call them by name and tell them we are happy to see them again.”
Yessayan said a passenger recently told her he was happy to see her on his flight.
“He told me he had asked the other crew about me, where I was,” she said. “That’s such a nice feeling. We really have very caring passengers out of Burbank. It’ a small airport and usually it’s the same people that will travel in and out for work. They leave on Monday and come back on a Thursday night or come back Friday. You feel like a family.”
It’s never too late
“My family was very supportive when I decided to change careers,” Yessayan said. “It’s been a great experience, it’s new, it’s exciting and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to change careers. However, Yessayan cautions that being a flight attendant is a not a nine to five Monday to Friday job.
“That’s been a big adjustment for me,” she said. “However, you meet new people every day and every day is a new day. Every day is a new adventure.”
Yessayan said no one should ever think they are “too old.”
“It’s never too late. Alaska Airlines is very inclusive, if you have what they’re looking for in personality and the ability to pass all the requirements you should go for it,” she said.
A passion for people
Those who meet Yessayan for the first time often mention her smile. She puts everyone at ease with her warm and friendly demeanor.
“I had someone mention my smile the other day on a flight,” she said. “They said you’re always smiling.”
Yessayan said patience was a virtue in her teaching job and in her current job, too.
“I’m always worried about people, I want to make sure they are okay. I think it is important to have that sense of caring, to have that passion for people,” she said.
Her concern for others shows up in her community life in the SCV.
Yessayan and her husband, Apo, have been longtime supporters of many nonprofits in the SCV. They often are seen at charity events and for more years than anyone remembers Classic Designs Jewelry, owned by the Yessayans, has donated a hand selected diamond from Belgium in the Champagne Diamond Drop at Taste of the Town to benefit the Santa Clarita Child & Family Center.
Over the Rainbow
When Yessayan thinks about her new career in the sky she is brought back to the years she used “The Wizard of Oz” to motivate her students.
“The song, ‘Over the Rainbow’ now has a special meaning for me,” she said. “I followed my dream to the other side of the rainbow and became a flight attendant.”
Yessayan said despite her love for her new job she still misses her classroom.
“I miss the kids, I had a special bond with them,’ she said “I tend to gravitate to kids when I’m on the plane. I’ll go up to them and if I have a few spare moments I’ll ask if they would like to draw a picture. I still miss the children and all the morning hugs I would get. There were a lot of special parents and families that I had over the years at Sulphur Springs.”