A PIONEERING WOMAN – CRISTINA DELA RIVA-RIVERA
In the early days of PAL, Cristina was the airline’s “face” in advertisements and was often involved in many important pioneer flights. In this photo, she promotes the airline in the CBS studio in New York.
A vibrant woman at 92, Cristina Dela Riva-Rivera remains as sharp mentally as on the day she joined Philippine Airlines in the early post-war years. When the Philippines was rebuilding from the devastation of World War II, Cristina was one of the few brave women who took on the challenge of plunging into the male-dominated aviation industry.
To become a "Stewardess"
Cristina was a young lady of 18 when she applied to join the growing Philippine flag carrier in 1951. She caught the eye of a PAL executive, not just for her looks, but also for her fluency in speaking three languages: Tagalog, English, and even Spanish. Despite her young age, she was encouraged to join the airline as PAL needed more "stewardesses" (as were called back in the day). Cristina became one of only three cabin crew members on the roster who were fluent Spanish speakers.
This pioneering batch of flight attendants endured rigorous training for three to four months, learning the basics of being a cabin crew member. Looks and social graces were not the only attributes they needed – crucially, they had to acquire life-saving skills as part of their job. On their graduation, under the watchful eyes of PAL and the Philippine Red Cross, they had to perform a simulated "rescue" of a person who “survived” the ditching of an aircraft, using an inflated raft in the open waters of Manila Bay. The new crew members also had to learn how to made good use of life-saving instruments that made seawater drinkable while on the life rafts. Cristina vividly recalls having to perform the “fireman's carry” maneuver successfully.
She joined PAL’s Interisland Division and was eventually stationed in Davao. Cristina recalls a chance encounter with another PAL executive who liked her poise and candor and felt she had great potential. She was told to report to the head office in Manila. "I thought I was getting fired," she said, since no one was telling her anything about the abrupt summons. Showing up at headquarters, she received her new mandate: A transfer to the airline's International Division. She remembered the executive saying, "Why is that girl in interisland? She is material for international."
Her charm and exceptional knowledge of Spanish worked to waive the usual wait of about two years before a crew member got to be upgraded to international flights. Now, in 1951, the world loomed before Cristina. She began to experience a life that only a few can imagine.
Going international allowed her to see more of the world’s exotic places. PAL's network extended to such fabled destinations as London, Rome, Tel Aviv, and Karachi. These European/Middle East/South Asian trips would take the “stewardesses” out of the country for as many as 15 days. In the era of propeller-driven planes, and adding mandatory layovers en route, a typical crew trip would take about seven days to arrive in Karachi, the famous “midway point” in Pakistan between the Far East and Europe. Crew members would have enough time to tour various sights and enjoy unique experiences while staying for a few days in Karachi or Rome.
Among Cristina’s extensive personal mementos is the menu used onboard President Quirino’s 1951 flight to Washington, D.C.
The “Face of PAL”
Cristina’s appealing personality and beauty were recognized by the airline. She became the face of PAL’s ad campaigns. She would often be selected to be serve on high-profile VVIP flights where she could put her linguistic skills to good use. She flew for then PAL President Andres Soriano several times, and was honored to serve Philippine President Elpidio Quirino during his state visit to the United States in 1951. On another occasion, she served Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett. She was invited to meet King Faisal II and Crown Prince Abdul Llah of Iraq on one of her Karachi layovers.
Cristina earned her fair share of admirers, including an Italian gentleman who even drew her likeness and created a poem using each letter of her name. Both the drawing and the scribbled poem still exist among her prized possessions.
Cristina, third from left, was part of the PAL team that arrived in Mexico City in 1953 before the planned opening of a new route to the Mexican capital.
Cristina would often join many publicity flights conducted by PAL in places like London and Madrid, where people were given a chance to learn more about this new and growing airline from the Orient. She was also part of a team that took a PAL DC-6B to Mexico for a weeklong tour to promote a new service to Mexico City in 1953.
She was the first PAL cabin crew member to debut on television when she was sent to promote PAL at the CBS Studios in New York. She said, “I was so scared because I did not even know what a TV was. Back then, there was no TV. All of a sudden, they put you in front of that. You get so nervous.”
Sharp as a tack, she is active and agile at 92, and can effortlessly climb stairs unassisted in her heels.
Life After PAL
Cristina would have loved to stay longer with PAL but chose love over an extended flying career. She got close to Flight Purser Enrique Rivera on various trips together and eventually fell in love with him. They married and settled down, ending Cristina’s five sparkling years of flying with Philippine Airlines. The Riveras would be gifted with two children.
She had a post-flight career as a travel consultant. Now, in 2023, she keeps herself busy dancing and attending reunions with former PAL colleagues. She effortlessly climbs three flights of stairs, even in her heels, at her age.
Cristina lovingly shares her scrapbook of photos from her active flying career.
Advice from a “Seasoned” Flyer
Cristina Dela Riva-Rivera fondly recalls the beautiful days spent flying for the flag carrier and the time spent with her colleagues. "We were personalized," she said, reminiscing.
As the interview ended, she had advice for anyone pursuing a career as a cabin crew member. "It's so simple. You just go down the aisle and give them a nice smile. If you see someone, somebody who is a little afraid, you chat a little. That is all that it takes."
And a tip for the sake of history: "It pays to keep all your pictures." It’s a way of telling your story, visually preserving memories and making it easy to revisit your personal adventures and recall cherished milestones. "Remember, start keeping."