Molly Choma

A lot of emotions were felt on April 24, 2018, the day of the last ticketed Virgin America flight from SFO to EWR. Images: Molly Choma

It takes a flight attendant with a passion for photography to capture what it’s like to work behind the curtain of the airline passenger experience.

Photography was a way for former Virgin America flight attendant Molly Choma to pass some time while sitting on reserve. She enjoyed taking pictures of travelers at the airport, but wanted to get closer to her subjects – and then she realized her subjects could be her colleagues. “I just brought the camera to work and we had fun. It was never meant to be anything more than pictures of my coworkers for my coworkers,” Choma says.

But two years after she began working as a flight attendant, Choma, who is trained in graphic design, wanted to test her creative side. She joined the airline’s training department as a graphic designer and was tasked with taking headshots of all Virgin America employees.

“The crowning achievement was if someone made their portrait their Facebook profile photo.” – Molly Choma

Over the four-month span of the project, Choma refined her eye for understanding people, a skill she first picked up as a flight attendant. By reading the faces of passengers, she could determine what they needed before they even told her. She applied this thinking to portrait sessions: Details such as a person’s attitude, an immaculately ironed shirt or a tightly cinched belt served as “micro-social cues” that whispered to her how the individual wanted to be photographed. “The crowning achievement was if someone made their portrait their Facebook profile photo,” Choma says.

Eventually, Choma felt the itch to travel again and went back to being a flight attendant. She splurged on a better camera that could handle the low, pink and purple lighting of the cabin. And with more photography experience, she learned to manipulate the “natural light” in the aircraft using reading lamps and the tinfoil used to cover hot meal trays.

When Virgin America, which was acquired by Alaska Airlines in 2016, flew its last flight under the “Redwood” call sign in April this year, Choma, who had been with the airline for nine years – almost as long as its existence – turned to photography to reflect on how special her colleagues were to her and how she had met some of her best friends on the job. “My mom has very few pictures of herself when she was a flight attendant,” Choma says. “I think I always knew this experience [with Virgin America] wasn’t going to last forever. Part of it was just trying to preserve what I could.”

See more photographs from Molly Choma’s original photo series, “The Secret Lives of Virgins.

Virgin America’s Curtain Call” was originally published in the 8.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Caroline is managing editor at APEX Media.