Flight Attendant Reconnects with Childhood Inspiration - United Hub

Blast from the past: Flight Attendant reconnects with childhood inspiration

By Matt Adams

Chicago-based Flight Attendant Tristan Schnabel tried not to stare, but he couldn't help himself. Though it was the first time the two of them had ever worked a flight together, Schnabel was sure he had seen Los Angeles-based Captain Rafael Gutierrez before; he just couldn't place where. Then, suddenly, it hit him.

The week prior, while visiting his mom, Schnabel had loaded his cell phone with old family pictures, including one that was taken when he was 10 years old, of him posing with a United captain. After scrolling through his phone and finding it, Schnabel couldn't believe what he was seeing — he was nearly certain the man sitting next to him in that 15-year-old photo was Gutierrez.

Schnabel showed the picture to a couple of his flight crew colleagues to see what they thought, and their reactions convinced him that his eyes weren't playing tricks on him. It was the same guy, no doubt about it. After finishing the preflight checklist, he approached Gutierrez and tapped him on the shoulder.

"I said, 'Hey, is this you in this photo?'" Schnabel says. "When he saw it, he just started laughing and said, 'Yeah, that's me!' He couldn't believe it, either."

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs with a mom and stepdad who both worked at United headquarters, Schnabel was a frequent flier, taking full advantage of the family's flight privileges any chance he got. As a precocious youth with an inquiring mind, he also never missed a chance to talk with the pilots and flight attendants he met. He remembers a lot of those conversations fondly, but the one with Gutierrez, who invited him up to the flight deck and let him sit in the right seat, had always stood out.

Since becoming a United pilot in 1989, Gutierrez has done his best to get kids interested in aviation, and he's given a lot of tours of his workspace at the front of the aircraft. To him, bumping into Schnabel wasn't just astonishing, it was further confirmation that those extra efforts over the years have indeed made an impact.

"If young people want to come up to the flight deck and take pictures, I have always welcomed that," Gutierrez says. "It's a great profession, and I encourage them to consider any flying-related careers. I was surprised when Tristan showed me the photo, but more than that, I was touched when he said I was one of the inspirations behind him getting into aviation."

To his credit, Schnabel makes a point of following Gutierrez's example in that regard, too, handing out plastic wings to youngsters on his flights and answering their questions about the work he does.

"I tell them it's a great life," he says. "You get to travel the world and meet new people every day. When I have those conversations, I think back to meeting Captain Gutierrez. I love what I do, and getting to talk with the kids is one of the best parts of the job."

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