Grandmother, granddaughter flight attendant duo hits the skies with Southwest

ByFrancesca Street, CNNWire
Monday, October 16, 2023
Cynthia Heck, left, and her granddaughter Hannah Heck are both Southwestern Airlines flight attendants.
Hannah and Cynthia Heck / CNN-CNNWire

Flight attendant Cynthia Heck finished up the safety demonstration and walked through the cabin, confirming passengers were ready for takeoff.

She took a moment to smile and greet each traveler individually. Fellow flight attendant Hannah Heck watched on, admiringly. Then, Hannah made a spontaneous announcement over the speaker.

"Does everyone see this sweet little lady wearing the life vest? That's my grandma. So everyone better be extra nice to her," she said.

The passengers laughed, some clapped. Many looked at Cynthia disbelieving, struggling to imagine she had an adult granddaughter.

A few minutes later, Hannah was doing her safety compliance checks, and Cynthia took the opportunity to grab the microphone and cheekily retaliate.

"Everyone, ask Hannah who did her laundry last night," Cynthia said, over the loudspeaker.

This announcement got an even bigger reaction than the first, and confirmed to the passengers that this duo were - for sure - related.

"Everyone's laughing," Hannah tells CNN Travel today. "She gave the energy right back to me."

Cynthia, 72, has worked as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines for almost 20 years. Her granddaughter Hannah, 24, decided to follow in her footsteps following a year of feeling unfulfilled at college.

Cynthia always remembers the moment 19-year-old Hannah called her up and said she was quitting college and interested in flying. The two have always been close. Cynthia was encouraging, and Hannah felt seen - as always - by her grandmother.

"After I had graduated from high school, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. But I thought, 'I think I want to go travel, I think I want to do what my grandma does.'"

Not long after, Hannah started working for Mesa, a regional US airline. After a few years, she applied to Southwest.

When Hannah got her acceptance notice, she was overjoyed. Cynthia was equally delighted. No one else in the Heck family works in aviation, but the rest of Hannah's family were all pleased she would be following in her grandmother's footsteps.

Around this time, Hannah moved in with her grandparents. This meant Cynthia and Hannah would both be operating out of the same airport: Harry Reid Las Vegas Airport.

"I was just so excited," recalls Hannah. "And hoping that we would be able to fly together."

Cynthia was present at Hannah's flight attendant graduation in 2022 and pinned on her granddaughter's wings.

And unbeknown to Hannah, behind the scenes, Cynthia was also plotting to make sure she'd be on her granddaughter's first Southwest flight.

"I wasn't going to tell," recalls Cynthia. "And then she saw it two or three days before."

"I saw it. And so I was just overwhelmed with happiness that she was able to pick it up," says Hannah.

Working together for the first time was surreal and exciting for Hannah and Cynthia.

"I couldn't believe it. I looked at the back and she's standing there making the announcements or we're serving our drinks together. It was incredible that we got to work together," recalls Hannah. "We were laughing. We had a great time. It was super special to share that with her and to have her there with me for my first flight."

It was a long, multi-leg trip - the type Cynthia, with her years of seniority at the airline, usually avoids nowadays. She made an exception for Hannah.

"I told her, I said, 'Your grandma doesn't commute anymore.' I had to commute to Oakland to work that trip. It was five legs up and down California. I said, 'I don't do five legs up and down California,'" recalls Cynthia. "And then it was a short Hawaii overnight. I said, 'I don't do short Hawaii overnights. But I'm doing it for you.'"

Cynthia started flying in the early 2000s, after she and her husband relocated from the midwest to Las Vegas. She spotted a Southwest ad in the newspaper and spent three years working as ground staff before moving inflight.

While Cynthia worked other jobs in the past, and spent years bringing up her kids, Hannah only ever knew her grandmother as a flight attendant, traveling the world.

"Since I was little, all I've ever known is her to be flying," says Hannah.

She loved hearing her grandmother's stories about her job, and has fond memories of flying with her during her summer vacations.

"I always loved to go fly with her and come visit her in Vegas," says Hannah. "I was very impressed with her. I was in awe that she was flying all around and traveling for work."

When Hannah was in second grade, she invited Cynthia to come and speak at her school.

"She wore her Southwest uniform and sang a song. I was so proud to have her there. Everyone in my class was in awe of my flight attendant grandmother," says Hannah.

But while Hannah always thought Cynthia's job was glamorous and exciting, she also saw the tougher sides to flight attendant life.

Often her grandmother would have to work holidays and skip the family Christmas gatherings. It was clear the role was equal parts hard work and equal parts fulfilling.

Hannah was grateful to have these insights when she eventually followed in her grandmother's footsteps and started flying too. Cynthia was also keen to pass on wisdom to her granddaughter.

"I keep telling Hannah, 'We fly all the time. So everything's pretty simple and easy for us. These passengers, sometimes they just fly once a year,'" says Cynthia. "And so you have to take that into consideration - you've got to help these people. You've got to show them the way, they have questions, you've got to show some compassion."

Hannah says Cynthia brings this empathy to every aspect of her life, and it's always inspired her.

"That's one thing that she has taught me - she's just so compassionate, and so quick to help anyone. I see it when we're working or outside of work. She really has the best heart," says Hannah.

Cynthia and Hannah worked together a handful of times in 2022. It was on their second flight together that they made the tongue-in-cheek inflight announcements about one another - and they soon learned that whenever travelers discovered they were related, it sparked a reaction.

One passenger gave them a Starbucks gift card. Another passenger told Cynthia she'd spotted their story - posted on the Southwest Airlines social media accounts - and it moved her to tears.

Many people spoke about how they hadn't been able to spend any time with their grandparents as an adult. For them, seeing Cynthia and Hannah together was moving and bittersweet.

Hannah's now relocated to Houston, Texas, so she's likely to fly with Cynthia nowadays. But she visits her grandmother in Las Vegas frequently, and when the two women speak with CNN Travel via Zoom, they're sitting together in Cynthia's living room, making plans to pick up a flight together the following day.

Beyond traveling and flying, the two women share a love of sewing and cooking - both skills Cynthia taught Hannah when she was young. They love talking to one another and sharing stories.

"It's just a really special relationship that we have. We've always been close. So now we're doing the same thing, I think we're even closer," says Hannah.

Hannah credits Cynthia not only with inspiring her to pursue an aviation career, but also with supporting her throughout her childhood. Hannah's parents divorced when she was young, and Cynthia says she always tried to be "the flexible one, that could take her to gymnastics or dance."

"She made me feel like everything was going to be fine, because I had her," says Hannah. "Without her, I wouldn't be where I am at all. She's just supported me since I was little."

Hannah's still at the beginning of her flight attendant journey, and looking forward to all the travels and adventures she's got ahead of her. By her own admission, Cynthia's nearing the end of her career - although because she loves working so much, she's reluctant to retire.

"You get addicted to the job and it's going to be hard, I think, for me to quit," she says.

Whenever Cynthia does retire, Hannah hopes to be on her grandmother's final flight - and hopes her father, brother and grandfather will join them too.

"That will be special," says Hannah. "But I don't want to think about it. Because in my head, she's going to be flying forever."

"They think I'm going to be around forever. And I keep telling them I'm not going to be around forever," says Cynthia.

For now, Hannah and Cynthia are just focusing on the present and the time they get to spend with one another.

"I know a lot of people don't get this experience. And I know that she's not going to be flying forever. So just having gratitude and just lots of love for this - happiness, gratitude, because I know it's so special that we got to fly together," says Hannah.

"Just appreciate your family, appreciate your grandparents, tell them that you love them. And thank them for everything that they have done for you. Because nothing is forever."