The Evolution of the Flight Attendant

Tim Graham, Getty Images

From sexy stewardesses to former NYPD officers, AOL Travel charts how cabin crews have changed over the decades

When Steven Slater grabbed some beers and slid down his plane's emergency chute, he became an instant American folk hero, especially among flight attendants. Facebook groups like "The Fabolous Life of a Flight Attendant," which has 13,000 "fans," feature pages like "Team Slater," as well as overwhelmingly positive comments. Aside from the bravado of his act, Slater also brought popular attention to the beleaguered profession: flight attendants have seen job demands soar, wages plummet and public respect disappear in recent years. But as JetBlue announces it is now recruiting former NYPD and Fire Department officers as cabin crew, the post-9/11 era seems to be coming to a head: cabin crews are increasingly becoming security and medical personnel, whose job is to keep order in increasingly unruly cabins.

It's a stunning evolution for a profession that was once considered glamorous and sexy. The job has been a window on American attitudes towards women ever since 1930, when Ellen Church became the first "stewardess" on Boeing Air Transit (which later became United Airlines). Legislation finally forced airlines to hire men as flight attendants in significant numbers in the 1990s, and deregulation, economic contraction and, above all, 9/11 have changed the face of the profession.

"When I started, we had to weigh in before trips and had all sorts of grooming criteria. It was still about pleasing the passengers; the passenger was always right," says Laura Glading, who started flying in 1978 and now serves as president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

Training manuals in the 1950s ordered stewardesses to "avoid argumentation." Pre-flight "appearance rooms" and sessions with "appearance counselors" were mandatory. The average stewardess retired after just two years of active duty; marriage or having children were grounds for immediate dismissal. Flying was sold Mad Men–style, as a lifestyle perk for men, and a flight attendant's job was to please the executive passengers.

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The swinging sixties brought high fashion and a new sexual ease to the skies: the now-defunct carrier Braniff hired Emilio Pucci to design stewardess uniforms, while adverts featured the "Air Strip" with stewardesses shedding layers of clothing over the course of a flight. Paper dresses were briefly worn by TWA stewardesses, but male passengers played "jokes" by burning cigarette holes in them.

On top of the airlines' own PR efforts, the bestselling 1967 book Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses helped cement the public image of stewardesses as swingers, the cutting edge of jet-set immorality. But it wasn't until the early 1970s that sleaze hit fever pitch. National Airlines' adverts featuring a pretty stewardess looking into the camera, with the tagline, "I'm Cheryl. Fly me", set the tone for the early part of the decade, along with Eastern Airlines' gimmick of giving little black books to male passengers -- to get female flight attendants' phone numbers.

The PR- and ad-driven decadence ended with the massive push for the Equal Rights Amendment, which brought the word "sexist" into common usage. Soon, hemlines were falling again and (gasp) men joined the flight-attendant force, making the word "stewardess" a thing of the past. At the same time, airline deregulation, which started in 1978, resulted in the bankruptcy of several airlines and the rise of a new, low-cost business model that started to chip away at the perks passengers had taken for granted. During this period, flight attendants' unions were fighting to relax or eliminate height and weight restrictions, as well as the automatic pink slip for marriage or pregnancy.

Jeff Pharr, who started flying for American Airlines in 1990, was at the tail end of the height-and-weight era, which included male attendants. "I was only weighed a few times before that practice went out, but it was still a glamorous job. Everyone looked at us as we walked through the airport."

Everything changed after 9/11. In the new high-security era, pilots are no longer allowed to come out of their reinforced cockpits during the flight. This puts flight attendants at the sharp end in settling disputes, enforcing rules and, in an emergency, acting as authorities -- "9/11 means that we're the first line of defense, the first responders in any situation," says Pharr.

Plane evacuation in an emergency landing is the most rehearsed skill, but safety training goes into areas attendants aren't allowed to talk about, including self-defense and how to subdue dangerous passengers, and, in the extremity, how to deal with a hijacking. CPR and defibrillator training is mandatory -- the famous "is there a doctor on board?" query of old movies is now largely irrelevant. "We are not waitresses and bartenders," says Diane Matzke Griffith, who has been flying with Southwest since 1993. "The beverage service is a courtesy."

But perhaps most important for the beleaguered cabin crews, the airline industry's post-9/11 financial woes allowed them to wring enormous concessions from the attendants' unions -- on salary and benefits, but also on working hours and conditions. These changes have not been rescinded, even though the airlines have returned to profitability. Attendants work shifts as long as 15 hours, with 8 1/2 hours between flights -- during which they must get to a hotel, eat, sleep, and travel back to their airplane.

While conditions have worsened and responsibilities increased, public respect for flight attendants also seems to have vanished. "The frustration travelers feel with the security lines and full flights are just setting people up to vent over the smallest thing," says Griffith.

Opinion on Slater's stunt seems to be unanimous inside the profession. "Who hasn't fantasized about doing something like that?" says Griffith. "He may be a drama queen, but he has also made a very good point."

A common thread of repressed fantasy runs through many responses to the Slater phenomenon. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a flight attendant at any airline who hasn't dreamed of doing that," says Pharr. And attendant union President Laura Glading gives the official verdict: "It was a feel-good story for all of us."

UP NEXT: History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

Photo: Vintage flight attendant and pilot uniforms at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.; flyheatherfly, flickr

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