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History of the Stewardess

Video: Vintage Southwest Airlines Ad


An anonymous flight attendant recently posted an open letter (read: bitch slap) “to the flying public” on the Internet: “We’re sorry we have no pillows. We’re sorry we’re out of blankets. We’re sorry the airplane is too cold. We’re sorry the airplane is too hot. We’re sorry the overhead bins are full.... We’re sorry that’s not the seat you wanted. We’re sorry there’s a restless toddler/overweight/offensive-smelling passenger seated next to you.... We’re sorry that guy makes you uncomfortable because he ‘looks like a terrorist….’” This sorry state of affairs ends with an admonition: “The glory days of pillows, blankets, magazines, and a hot meal for everyone are long gone. Our job is to get you from point A to point B safely and at the cheapest possible cost to you and the company.”

We shall now observe a moment of silence for the golden age of travel, those madcap, Mad Men days when airplanes had piano bars and carved-at-your-seat chateaubriand, when the cabin crew was dressed by Emilio Pucci and the passengers dressed up too, when men were men and flight attendants were stewardesses. A recruiting ad from that time seems quaintly antediluvian: “To most passengers, their stewardess is National Airlines. So we are looking for young ladies who have a flair for making people happy, young ladies with just the right blend of friendliness, competence and poise.” Quite a departure from Steven Slater, the irate JetBlue attendant who famously announced “I’m done” and fled down his plane’s emergency chute last year, or the Slater manqué I encountered on a flight I took shortly after having rotator cuff surgery: I asked him to help put my carry-on in the overhead compartment and was told, “That’s not part of my job.”

The changing dynamic of airline service seems to parallel the shifting role of airline personnel, whatever they’re called. In the earliest days of commercial flight, there were teenage “cabin boys,” and the first female stewardesses had to be registered nurses. (Such know-how would have been most welcome several years ago when, en route to Rome, I cleverly gave myself food poisoning from a homemade doggie bag. It’s bad, very bad, when you hear “Is there a doctor on board?” over the loudspeaker and realize it’s for you.) Dressed in hospital whites or military-style uniforms, a “sky girl” of the 1930’s not only served meals and soothed nerves but also sometimes helped refuel the plane or bolt the seats to the floor, according to the 2009 book Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience by Daniel L. Rust.

When World War II mobilized nurses, the airlines expanded their hiring parameters, but the requirements were draconian: Barbie-doll height and weight standards, girdles and heels worn at all times, and mandatory retirement by the decrepit age of…32.

Shedding their white gloves and raising their hemlines, stewardesses imparted a mixed message of flirtation and personal indenture. Advertising for National Airlines had Debbie/Cheryl/Karen cooing “Fly Me” (or, even less ambiguously, “I’m going to fly you like you’ve never been flown before”), and Continental claimed “We Really Move Our Tails for You.” Braniff coyly asked “Does your wife know you’re flying with us?” and Pacific Southwest Airlines stressed the advantage of an aisle seat, the better to see its miniskirted workforce. Male passengers were assumed to be overgrown frat boys: Eastern Airlines actually provided them with little black books to collect stewardesses’ phone numbers.

From a feminist perspective, it was progress when flight attendants won the right to gain a few pounds, to let their hair go gray, to be pregnant, or to have a Y chromosome: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 insisted that men could do the job too, thus making a little full circle back to those early cabin boys. Fishnet stockings and hot pants were replaced by androgynous pantsuits. But as the dress code changed, so did the up-in-the-air experience. Air travel became democratic and accessible. The 800 million of us who pass through U.S. airports every year now comprise a remote and motley crew. We book our flights online, check in at kiosks, board in T-shirts and flip-flops, and withdraw under headsets and earbuds.

“We have no connection with passengers any more,” a flight attendant for a major American airline confided to me, sotto voce. “Everybody has an iPod or an e-book. They don’t want any conversation beyond, ‘Would you like vinaigrette or creamy dressing?’ And that’s in business class, where we still serve meals. People don’t think about the face of a flight attendant. They want a nonstop flight for the cheapest price.” We trust that these faceless, nameless people asking us to turn off our cell phones or raise our seatbacks will know what to do in an emergency (10 percent of JetBlue’s cabin crew has been recruited from police and fire departments) but their mandate is no longer the care and feeding of passengers, nor conveying the personality of the airline.

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