Cabin boy, steward, stewardess, fly girl, flight attendant, and cabin crew are just some of the titles that have been designated to this vital sky-profession over the decades. The image that airlines have portrayed to the public regarding the role of this animated career has changed drastically through time, as much as its label has. From RN of the skies to mid-air show girls, the following timeline highlights key points of the flight attendant‚Äôs ever changing obligations.
Prior to the 30’s, air travel was considered risky and a means of transport that only the affluent could afford. There may have been a cabin boy or steward assigned to assist passengers during this period, but this wasn‚Äôt a consistent service that was provided by all airlines. Ellen Church, both a pilot and nurse, became the first female air hostess in 1930. Originally, she had applied for a pilot position with Boeing Air Transit (now United Airlines), and although she wasn’t so much as considered for the task (the workforce was not seen as an appropriate place for women to enter then), she did convince the carrier to take her on as a stewardess. This marked the arrival of women to the flight attendant career and set forth the strict criteria that these ladies would have to possess in order to assume the globe trotting role. They were nurses, had to weigh between 100 to 118 lbs, stand 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches tall, and be 20 to 26 years of age.
RNs were needed to care for wounded military men during WWII, and the women of this time were proud to carryout the patriotic call of duty. This caused a shortage of nurses in the 40’s, and the medical background required for the stewardess position was dropped. As a result many more women were suddenly qualified for the highly sought after job.
During the 50‚Äôs, the allure of becoming a sky girl appealed to the female population as a glamorous and adventurous career. Stewardesses were not permitted to marry, and she was considered to have reached retirement age at 32. Uniforms, which once resembled a nurse’s attire, shifted towards a more feminine and stylish couture. These ladies attended “charm” classes and catered to the passenger’s (mainly business men) every need.
The signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was only the beginning of the battle to rid airline discrimination against a flight attendant’s gender, race, age, and weight. A loophole by the name of Title VII still existed in the industry, which allowed air carriers to continue hiring and firing their workers based on the same prejudicial grounds the Civil Rights Act sought to abolish.
Unionized airline employees fought for equal rights in the 70‚Äôs, tackling discriminatory issues one by one. It was during this era that the politically correct term “flight attendant” replaced the title of “stewardess.” Flashy polyester uniforms made their debut, and some airlines featured trendy styles like mini skirts, go-go boots, and vibrantly colored fabric. Then, in 1978 airlines were deregulated and initiated the corporatization of the industry we see today. (The government retained its authority of the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA).
There are now male flight attendants on board the aircraft, and women can’t be terminated for being married. Once again the uniform is modified to reflect a more professional appearance, and neutral tone suits replace the loud, polyester fashion of the 70’s.
Female flight attendant weight restrictions are finally removed from airline regulations.
The horrific events that occurred on September 11, 2001, not only shook up the country but also pushed the flight attendant’s primary responsibility to that of focusing on passenger safety. The title “cabin crew” is beginning to replace that of “flight attendant”, and some people say that the glamour of flying has disappeared. A recent article on Forbes.com comically sums up present day air travel:
a flight attendant responds to the author’s complaints about not having enough salads to serve everyone in first class by exclaiming
‚”We are not here to kiss your ass, but to save it!”
To try and compete with a market that is continually changing, Virgin America has updated their cabin crew’s uniforms with chic designs by Banana Republic. Perhaps the future function of the next era’s flight attendants is a bit unclear right now, but making passenger safety the occupation’s primary concern certainly puts my mind at ease when I stand in line to board flights to Europe.