AOL Original “The Evolution of the Flight Attendant”

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

(photo) Tim Graham, Getty Images

By Ralph Martin~

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 Fabulous 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……… (continued on AOL Travel)

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