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History of the Stewardess

And yet…. There’s a slightly schizophrenic message from the industry these days, as if it’s taking the temperature of public nostalgia for the era of “coffee, tea, or me,” at the same time that technology is replacing the “me” factor. Continental is experimenting with subway-style “self-boarding” that bypasses an agent at the gate. The most overt sign that airlines no longer view flight attendants as personal service providers is Virgin America’s touch screen for ordering food on board; the intimate exchange with the person who brings your meal down the aisle approximates the bond with a delivery guy who brings kung pao chicken to your house. No tipping.

On the completely opposite hand, Virgin Atlantic has a new commercial featuring stunning young women in lipstick-red uniforms and spike heels pointing out the exit rows with vampy choreography and ripping open their bodices to serve ice cream. A commercial for the Russian airline Avianova shows a bevy of young women who strip down from skimpy uniforms into string bikinis to give the plane an orgiastic sponge bath. U.S. carriers seem more puritanical—or more respectful, depending on your point of view—but Southwest Airlines recently plastered an image of the cover girl for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, full length, on the Boeing 737 it flies from New York City to Las Vegas.

So what’s it to be? Androids handing out peanuts, with a hologram showing how to inflate a life vest? Or stewardesses in stilettos and Spanx? Perhaps a return to teenage boys, recruited out of the Scouts? “The way people now view air travel, it’s public transportation,” said Patricia A. Friend, former president of the Association of Flight Attendants, who started flying with United in 1966. “When my friends complain about no food on board or paying to check a bag, I tell them: Talk to me when you stop going searching for the cheapest ticket on the Internet. As long as we show up based on the price of the seat, we have settled for a particular level of service.”

Until the industry decides on a paradigm for the 21st century, better pack a sandwich and fasten your seatbelt. It could be a bumpy ride.

A T+L Time Line: The Glamorous Lives of Stewardesses

1937: Women’s Home Companion describes a stewardess as an amalgam of “nurse, ticket-puncher, baggage-master, guide (the Grand Canyon and Boulder Dam must be pointed out to all passengers), waitress, and little mother of all the world.”

1940’s: Training takes place at facilities fittingly called “charm farms,” which churn out clones with identical collar-length haircuts and teeth ground into even smiles.

1956: More than 300 “girls” compete to be Miss Skyway, marking the 25th anniversary of the stewardess. The surprised winner, Muffett Webb of Braniff, says that her job is good training to be a wife.

1965: The Braniff uniforms designed by Pucci include “space bubble” headgear and the “airstrip,” which calls for the stewardess to remove layers of clothing during a flight.

1967: The alleged memoirs of two “uninhibited” (but fictitious) stewardesses, Coffee, Tea or Me? launches three sequels, a TV movie, and the fantasies of thousands of men.

1972: Stewardesses for Pacific Southwest Airlines, still wearing miniskirts and “pettipants,” return to Miami after their plane was hijacked to Cuba. The uniforms engender a protest from the National Organization for Women.

1980’s: After years of lawsuits, flight attendants now have the right to gain a few pounds, let their hair go gray, get pregnant, be men, and wear polyester uniforms.

2006: Delta introduces uniforms designed by Richard Tyler—and, a few years later, a sexy safety video featuring a finger-wagging flight attendant, nicknamed Deltalina for her resemblance to the pillow-lipped actress.

Current: Chinese airlines take up the “charm school” approach to hiring. China Southern Airlines even creates a reality show competition to search for new flight attendants. Applicants race against one another lugging heavy suitcases and serving drinks to the judges.

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