OSWEGO — For flight attendants, flying is a way of life. For an experienced attendant like Vicki Rabozzi, helping others is a critical part of that life.
Rabozzi, a Delta Airlines flight attendant who resides in Oswego, last month aided in the mammoth evacuation of Afghan refugees fleeing their homeland as the U.S. ended a two-decade occupation of the Central Asian nation. The Palladium-Times recently spoke with Rabozzi, who served as a flight attendant on a flight bringing Afghan refugees from Germany to the United States.
“(The experience) was humbling,” Rabozzi said of the three-day excursion, noting the atmosphere was like nothing she previously experienced. “I was really honored to transport them. You look at them and realize how many people in this country take for granted how privileged (Americans) are.”
The United States Department of Defense on Aug. 21 activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, calling on domestic airlines to assist in the military’s efforts to transport individuals and families leaving Afghanistan amid the turmoil of the Taliban takeover. The last time Delta was tapped for military support was in 2002 supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to Delta Airlines officials, who noted the airline’s flights are regularly used to transport military troops internationally.
Less than a week after the Civil Reserve Air Fleet was put in motion, Rabozzi answered the call, grabbing the pre-packed luggage she keeps ready at all times, and making her way to Atlanta, Georgia to meet the team she would work with for the mission.
Airborne on an Airbus A350 — one of Delta’s largest commercial aircraft currently in use — with a small team with decades-worth of experience and “loaded” with essential supplies, such as diapers, medicine, shoes and other basic necessities, the flight took off from Washington, D.C. en route to Germany.
Rabozzi, who has been a flight attendant for more than three decades, said the veteran crew assembled for the trip had ample experience.
“When we have these trips, we can bid out for them and it goes by seniority and I was the baby on the trip,” she said. “This is the first time I was awarded one, and that just shows you how senior they go in seniority.”
The rows of bins filled with basic necessities were loaded onto a colossal, vacant aircraft, Rabozzi said, noting the empty plane was a unique and unforgettable atmosphere she was not accustomed to.
Though the aircraft was largely empty, Rabozzi said the energy in the air was unrivaled. She said the team was eager to fulfill the mission during the eight-and-a-half hour flight from Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany — a stopover for some refugees.
“We were excited, we talked a lot and had a lot of meetings with a lot of information about what the people had been through, what we might encounter and how we could make them as comfortable as possible,” Rabozzi said.
When wheels touched down at the airbase, a normal routine would have included leaving the aircraft, checking into a nearby hotel in the city of Mainz for a night, getting ready in the morning, meeting with the team again and taking off around noon. This flight, however, was different.
“We had to change our clothes mid-flight because we were required to wear our uniforms in the base. Flying in was interesting — you could see the hundreds of tents set up. One of the soldiers at the base told us they were told to prepare for 11,000 evacuees, and they had 22,000 at that point,” Rabozzi said.
She said she knew the gravity of their duties on this flight — providing comfort and helping transport the Afghans forced to flee their homeland. She said she knew it would be a challenge, but her and the assembled team were ready.
The task of boarding several hundred refugees on to the plan was not like a typical flight, Rabozzi said. She said the hundreds of refugees, with the minimal belongings they were able to take with them, had to board the colossal plane from the plane’s rear hatch, rather than through a traditional loading arm at an airport terminal.
Shuffling the more than 300 refugees to their seats, she said you could see their faces filled with emotions. Some appearing joyful, others scared.
“Take off was freighting, a lot of people were really scared, you could see it in their faces — they were looking at us and gripping each other, but many of them were excited also,” she said. “Apart from the military transport, many of them may not have been on commercial flights before.”
Rabozzi, however, had her own emotions affiliated with the trip.
“I was happy and it was kind of an emotional feeling,” she said. “We were lifting off and taking these people to a new start.”
The flight went off without a hitch, she said. Throughout the eight-hour flight, the 12 flight attendants never sat down, consistently answered questions about the flight’s amenities, providing food to guests or just ensuring the passengers had an unforgettable flight, something she’d been striving for on every flight for three-decades prior.
“When someone gets on my airplane, I like to treat them as if they’re a guest in my home,” she said. “I want to make them feel welcomed, comfortable and taken care of. These people needed that and I think the crew did a great job taking care of them.”
When the plane touched down back in Washington D.C, the hundreds of passengers applauded, Rabozzi said, nothing the refugees knew they had reached what they could now call their new home.
Rabozzi said taking part in the trip, and getting the chance to impact the lives of families for generations, left her with an unforgettable teary-eyed joy.
“I would love to do another one,” she said. “I hope they remember their Delta flight.”