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History of the 'Fly Me' era
July 24, 2011 10:46 AM   Subscribe

"Fly me" : I'm looking for more information on the early restrictions on flight attendants- that they be single, slim, attractive, etc. Who pioneered these policies? How much did they vary across the globe? Did other industries at the time have formalized policies with similar biases?

A French acquaintance of mine mentioned that she began working in the US as a flight attendant back in the day because in France you couldn't work past 30. So I began to wonder about the beginnings of these policies and their variations by location. Are similar policies still in place in other countries?

Why were these policies made? I'm sure there were/are a lot of industries with similar biases that just do not formalize them. Were there others at the time with similarly biased policies?

How strictly were they enforced? My French friend said many attendants pretended to be single to stay employed, which seems like something easily discovered by the airline.

I couldn't find much online, other than general information. Any links, anecdotal info or book recommendations welcome!
posted by abirdinthehand to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I googled "history flight attendants weight" and the second link was this story from earlier this year. See also: the history section of the Wikipedia article on flight attendants.

The policies were and are made because youth, beauty and physical fitness are attractive, and the airlines want passengers to like their flight experience.
posted by Specklet at 11:10 AM on July 24, 2011


I read a book that touched upon a lot of the old rules and regulations for flight attendants - What it's like to be a flight attendant by Elizabeth Rich. It was published in 1982 and she talks about how those rules had changed over her career. It was more interesting than I expected.
posted by kendrak at 11:14 AM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


According to this, the very fist stewardesses could be no older than 25 and also had to be a registered nurse. Take a look at some of these old airline TV commercials - the flight attendants were overwhelmingly female and obviously hired with the intent of being eye candy for the overwhelmingly male business passengers. I don't have any sort of link for it, but I do remember reading an op/ed piece in Time magazine back in the mid-1980s wherein the writer actually lamented the airlines' current practice of hiring older women and even (gasp!) males to work as flight attendants. He wondered what had happened to the "good old days" when there were rules in place that once a hostess got frumpy, she got fired. The whole article was filled with that sort of sentiment. Of course, the "letters" page in next few issues was filled with vitriol from readers. Well, female readers anyway.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:15 AM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


I vaguely recall reading -- but cannot find a reference -- that the earliest flight attendants had to be slim and lightweight not just to be decorative, but because the planes themselves were small and it was hard to move around them if one was normal-sized, and every pound of weight mattered.

Wikipedia notes that some regional carriers still have height restrictions and weight can be restricted to be "proportionate to height." (It's unclear if that's for health reasons or what.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:21 AM on July 24, 2011


What you describe as "history" is alive and well in many Asian airlines right now.

I would recommend dropping by your closest Int'l airport to take a look at the 'FA parade' prior to a Singapore or Korean Air flight boarding. There will come a time when these requirements re-surface again in U.S. airlines.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:49 AM on July 24, 2011


Further to Kruger5's point, check out this recent advertisement for Singapore Airlines and the Wikipedia article on the Singapore Girl.
posted by sid at 12:00 PM on July 24, 2011


Just as a note, yesterday I flew from Madison to Denver and all three flight attendants were men. I've flown quite a bit, and this is the first time I've ever seen that. The times sure are changing (at least in some places, I guess).
posted by Fister Roboto at 12:29 PM on July 24, 2011


A site called Femininity in Flight offers a timeline.

Here's an article from the 1980s talking about the historical restrictions: a woman was rejected for having a facial birthmark. A key legal turning point was Diaz v. Pan Am, a lawsuit under the Title VII non-discrimination in employment law, which ruled that "mere customer satisfaction" was not a sufficient bona fide employment qualification under the law.

I'm sure that looking at the briefs for Diaz will give you some concrete research paths.
posted by dhartung at 12:50 PM on July 24, 2011


My grandmother was a flight attendant in the US in the 1940s and was fired once her boss noticed her wedding ring. Apparently the stewardesses needed to appear "available" to the passengers, and since she was married she no longer had the appearance of "availability". I could potentially find out the airline and a more specific time if you'd like.
posted by sacrifix at 12:56 PM on July 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


This episode of Stuff Mom Never Told You ("Skygirls, Steawards, and Flight Attendants") talks about the historical restrictions on flight attendants. (Also available on iTunes, but for some reason it's not showing up on the How Stuff Works website.)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:28 PM on July 24, 2011


Inspired by Oriole Adams's comment, I decided to take a quick look at the Time archives, knowing that they go back quite a ways. I simply plugged in the word "stewardesses," which I figured was dated enough to almost serve as its own date filter. Sure enough, the second link was this brief squib, from 1958:
Stewardesses at Pacific Northern Airlines, which flies from Portland, Ore. to the chief cities in Alaska, last week protested a plan to retire them at 32. Said Marilyn Batey, 32, chairman of the local stewardesses' union: ''They say you get frumpy and frowzy. Humph! You haven't lost the romance of life when you get to be 32." The stewardesses also protested a management ban on ski pants. Complained Noni Myers: "They want us to have just this thin veil of nylon between us and the elements at 40 to 60 below zero.''
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 2:54 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sacrifix, it wasn't just an appearance of being available. According to my mom, it was unseemly for a married woman to be working. She needed to be home taking care of her husband and children. My grandmother was forced to stop teaching at her little Kansas schoolhouse when she got married. Her employer said, "soon you'll be pregnant and we can't have that."
posted by amanda at 3:43 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the early early days, you also had to be a nurse to be a flight attendant because it was so dangerous. I'm pretty sure I read that at one point stewardesses had a 30% of dying on the job.
posted by Jess the Mess at 4:54 PM on July 24, 2011


In case you're interested, I'm fairly sure that many countries still allow policies like this. In China, for example, you will hardly see older or male flight attendants.
posted by mjklin at 7:35 PM on July 24, 2011


Discrimination on the basis of weight my be socially and legally unacceptable nowadays, but it's not irrational on the part of the airlines. American Airlines expects to save $1 million each year by switching from paper charts to iPads, a saving of 35 pounds on each flight which they don't have to use fuel to drag about the sky. If they could save a similar amount of weight per flight aggregated across all their crew they would see equal savings. I suspect the fact that women are on average smaller and up to about 50 pounds lighter was always a huge incentive to use them as cabin staff right from the beginning. Prettiness and marriageability on the other hand have no such simple justification, though they were probably a marketing advantage.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:44 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I know several Singapore Airline flight attendants, and their stories about selection and training for appearance are hilarious. It is perfectly legal here to have specific physical requirements for job advertisements, and although technically wrong to include race, I've never ever heard of any punishment for an employer. You get ads for "Attractive Chinese Female, under 27, must be slim" quite often.

It's all marketing. On SIA, they control the shades of your make-up, your perfume/deodorant and fingernail color. You must fit exactly your uniform, and if you gain weight, you can be grounded. The stewardesses have to wear a certain kind of shoe for take-off and landing, and they can switch to safer shoes (or the reverse, I can't remember which) because appearence is so vital.

The automatic age-grounding is a problem, because they lose a lot of skilled air staff. Getting pregnant kills your career because you get grounded, then usually switched to short haul, and they have high turnover, with lots of extra training needed for new green staff. All the older stewardesses I know have exit plans before the mandatory age, usually to run a small business, customer service, hotels etc. Some marry rich of course!
posted by viggorlijah at 3:44 AM on July 25, 2011


In the book Coffee, Tea or Me they cover the requirements and training to be a stewardess in the early 60s, with pretty detailed descriptions of appearance requirements.
posted by Melsky at 6:39 AM on July 25, 2011


Discrimination on the basis of weight my be socially and legally unacceptable nowadays, but it's not irrational on the part of the airlines. American Airlines expects to save $1 million each year by switching from paper charts to iPads, a saving of 35 pounds on each flight which they don't have to use fuel to drag about the sky. If they could save a similar amount of weight per flight aggregated across all their crew they would see equal savings.

If this weight concern were really such a big deal then there would be a huge push to have airline pilots (not to mention the pilots and crew of space flights, where fuel costs are huge) be women. Isn't it funny how that hasn't happened?
posted by medusa at 9:17 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


If this weight concern were really such a big deal then there would be a huge push to have airline pilots (not to mention the pilots and crew of space flights, where fuel costs are huge) be women. Isn't it funny how that hasn't happened?

If you can point me to an obese astronaut I'll believe that weight and size are not among the criteria for crew selection for space flight. And note that when hauling the "dead weight" teacher into space both the selected candidate (Christa McAuliffe) and her backup were female. Many mission specialists have been women. The pilots have been (almost?) exclusively military, which means that until very recently the pool they were selected from was more than somewhat skewed...

I understand structural sexism well enough, but that doesn't negate the practicalities. On all but the smallest regional planes the number of cabin staff outnumbers the crew on the flight deck by a considerable margin, so while having the captain drop 10 pounds would be good, having six flight attendants drop 5 each is a much better deal. Weight is certainly not the only concern and the 30 pound reduction per plane only saves American a million bucks a year, but small savings add up.

Also airlines have happily pursued policies that negatively affected their historically male flight crews -- for example they didn't just ask their flight engineers to wear a different shade of nail polish, they essentially eliminated the job. At a stroke they saved both 170 pounds and a salary -- it was a win-win (for the airlines).

I fear we're drifting away from the original question at this point though.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 1:10 AM on July 26, 2011


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