Love at First Flight

Love at First Flight

In 2014, Alyssa Chesnut had just settled into her reassigned (and more forgiving) seat – 10D – and was awaiting the departure of her 9 a.m. flight from Newark to Denver, where she would be leading training classes for fellow flight attendants.

Jay Dougherty, an off-duty commercial copilot returning home to Boulder, had lucked out and gotten the last seat on the flight—10E. The industry practice of wearing his pilot uniform – which expedited clearing security and upped his odds of getting a seat while anxiously on standby – had worked.

One fateful flight brought together two Rutgers alumni who attended the university at the same time and worked in the same industry but never met.

As he settled into his seat, Dougherty said hello to Chesnut. Noticing his uniform, she asked him: “Are you going to TK?” – a term for the training center that she would be at for the week.

He was somewhat startled by the inquiry; it could only have been posed by someone in the aviation industry. Chesnut, registering the surprise in his eyes, explained that she was a flight attendant for a major airline. Within minutes, they were deep in conversation about flying.

And before long, it was revealed that they had both graduated from Rutgers eight years earlier. Chesnut had graduated from Rutgers College, majoring in geography; Dougherty had studied meteorology and graduated from Cook College. How could it be, they mused, that they had both gone to Rutgers, had such an overlap in experiences, yet had never seen or met each other? It had been four years of near misses.

An hour into the four-hour flight, Dougherty asked Chesnut: “Would you like to go to the movies?” She gladly accepted. Staring at the entertainment monitors mounted on the seats before them, they pressed the play button at the same time and watched American Hustle together.

“It was quite the moment,” says Chesnut. “That’s when I knew I was definitely interested.”

Dougherty’s intrigue with Chesnut was growing, too. He was certainly attracted to her self-confidence, but Dougherty, who has a well-defined geek streak, knew he was a goner when Chesnut declared: “I really like maps.”

Three-and-a-half years later, they were married, in December 2017.

Today, the couple, who live in Mahwah, New Jersey, continue to fly and now work for the same airline, which has its main hub at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. Just last December, they worked the same flight together for the first time – romantic in its own way. As the first officer, or copilot, Dougherty helps operate Boeing 737s, flying to destinations throughout North America, Central America and the Caribbean. While at Rutgers, he had earned his instrument rating, commercial pilot and flight instructor certificates – the typical civilian (nonmilitary) progression for someone seeking a career in aviation.

Chesnut is a flight attendant on international flights, flying to destinations throughout the United Kingdom and the Far East. After graduating from Rutgers, she worked briefly as a bank teller before being hired on the spot after acing a job interview for flight attendant candidates, beating out 44 applicants in the process (a job as a flight attendant is extremely competitive). After one year of flying on domestic flights, Chestnut began serving on international routes. She has also filled the role as a flight attendant instructor, even helping to design training curricula.

“The best part about our vocations is our common language and lifestyle,” says Chesnut, pointing out that, with accrued seniority, they can now coordinate their vacation schedules more easily. They have been to places like Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam and Hong Kong. (It was while they were in Paris that Dougherty proposed to Chesnut.) And when they can’t coordinate time off together, that’s OK, too: “I like our time apart,” says Chesnut, “because it makes our time together valuable.”

“We both understand the nature and demands of our professions, so we are better able to accept the constraints work can place on our relationship,” says Dougherty. “Just like when we’re at work, cruising at 600 m.p.h. and seven miles above the earth, we control what we can control and roll with the occasional turbulence as best as we can.”