From Stewardess to Flight Attendant: 80 Years of Sophistication and Sexism
March 16, 2021
By Katherine LaGrave (Conde Nast Traveler - March 8, 2017)
Although flight attendants today are predominantly female, the world's first flight attendant was actually a German man, Heinrich Kubis, who is credited with assisting passengers on the DELAG Zeppelin LZ 10 Schwaben. (Kubis was also aboard the LZ 129 Hindenburg, and survived by jumping out of a window.) In fact, men were the only stewards initially hired on planes: U.K. airline Imperial Airways had "cabin boys" in the 1920s, and U.S. carriers like Stout Airways, Western Airlines, and Pan Am followed suit in 1926, 1928, and 1929, respectively. That all changed, though, as war efforts ramped up. Here, a history of females as flight attendants—and a look at where we are today.
The world’s first female flight attendant was registered nurse Ellen Church, who began flying at age 25. Church originally wanted to be a pilot, but the manager of Boeing Air Transport in San Francisco, Steve Simpson, suggested she and her fellow nurses become flight attendants. (Initially, only registered nurses were hired.) In a letter to his boss, Simpson wrote, "Imagine the psychology of having young women as regular members of the crew. Imagine the tremendous effect it would have on the traveling public. Also imagine the value they would be to us in the neater and nicer method of serving food and looking out for passengers' welfare."
A 1989 article in the Los Angeles Times said the early responsibilities of flight attendants included keeping the clock wound, keeping an eye on the passengers to make sure they didn't go through the emergency exit, and carrying a railroad timetable in case the plane was grounded. (Yes, really.) By the mid-1930s, there were between 200 and 300 flight attendants in airline service, and the average tenure was two to three years, largely due to age and marriage restrictions.
At the end of the 1930s and into the 1940s, the responsibility of female flight attendants grew...marginally: They cleaned the cabin, dusted, bolted down seats, restrained passengers from tossing garbage out of windows, and even helped fuel the planes. The functionality of uniforms improved as "restrained elegance" in the sky took hold: Take the 1944 TWA suit imagined by Hollywood fashion designer Howard Greer, which introduced the “blou-slip,” an undergarment in rayon and satin that didn't need constant tucking in. Noting uniforms as the industry progresses is important, says John Hill, assistant director of Aviation at San Francisco International Airport's SFO Museum, because they trace "quite vividly" the development of commercial aviation.
In 1945, flight attendants founded the present-day Association of Flight Attendants union, originally known as the Airline Stewardess Association, or "ALSA."
According to Kathleen Berry's Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, more and more airlines added age clauses to contracts for flight attendants as the profession grew into a symbol of sophistication and glamour. Women were typically grounded between ages 32 and 35, while airlines that employed male flight attendants required they also be no older than 32-35—at the time of hire, that is. Berry specifically cites Northwest and TWA as examples. In 1956, flight attendants were grounded at age 32; and in 1957, the age was raised slightly, to 35. (Male flight attendants were allowed to fly until they reached their sixties.)
Other newsworthy events of the decade: TWA dropped its no-marriage rule in 1957, but other airlines largely continue to require that female flight attendants be single ladies. Seasonal uniforms rise in popularity. In the late 1950s, Aloha's flight attendants debuted the concept of in-flight entertainment...with singing, hula dancing, and ukulele playing. Out of 300 women, 22-year-old Braniff hostess Muffett Webb wins the first Miss Skyway contest, a beauty pageant for flight attendants, in 1956.
As Bruce Handy wrote in Vanity Fair, "It would be only a slight overstatement to say that stewardesses in the 1960s were to glamour what firefighters and cops have more recently been to heroism." By the mid-60s, 15 of the 38 federally certified airlines had adopted the "early retirement" policies, and airlines played into the modern-woman concept for females (“Marriage is fine! But shouldn’t you see the world first?” posited a 1967 United Airlines ad) and the mile-high fantasy for males. Given that airlines were still not allowed to set their own fares, flight attendants became a valuable marketing tool to one-up the competition. Braniff asked, “Does your wife know you’re flying with us?” Pan Am: "How do you like your stewardesses?" Uniforms became sexier, too, and in 1965, high fashion came to the skies with designer Emilio Pucci's uniforms for Braniff—think reversible overcoats in absinthe and apricot, and bubble space helmets.
"For this brief, fleeting moment, airline fashion actually leapt to the forefront of fashion itself," says Hill. "It was kind of a miraculous thing, because they really sort of created this dramatic break between two periods, which is to say, pre-65 and post-65. When that happened, it freed everyone else up to more imaginative directions. So really that's sort of the biggest shift [in terms of uniforms], mid-1960s. Then everything kind of went over-the-top, and all kinds of social behaviors were swirling around and a lot of them were directly reflected in these uniforms."
In 1967, TWA accepted fewer than three percent of its applicants—a lower acceptance rate than Harvard.
In 1968, federal courts struck down the rules forbidding marriage and age requirements, and the momentum continued into the 1970s. Under pressure, rules against flight attendants being pregnant were withdrawn by most airlines. Most notably, in a landmark 1971 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that airlines could not discriminate against men after Celio Diaz Jr. of Miami claimed his two applications for Pan Am were rejected on the basis of gender. Southwest Airline hostesses, however, were still in hotpants, and National Airlines spent $9.5 million on a 1971 campaign that read “I’m Cheryl. Fly Me." (National later expanded the ads to include “I’m going to fly you as you’ve never been flown before.”) Some were outraged, but National claimed that it saw a 23 percent bump in passenger traffic as a result.
Flight attendants were still younger than the average overall U.S. workforce in 1980, but this began to shift. It was still a predominantly female industry, with 19.3 males per 100 females, but this, too, was changing. The word "stewardess" fell out of favor and was replaced by the more gender neutral "flight attendant." Perhaps most importantly? The deregulation of the airline industry in 1978, and the resulting rise in lower fares and more frequent flights meant that flying became less of a luxury and more of a popular means of travel—it also offered airlines another way to "compete," rather than on who had the most attractive flight attendants. Uniforms, as a result, grew more functional.
Since the 1990s, becoming a flight attendant only requires a high school degree. On July 13, 1990, recognizing the contributions that flight attendants have made to the airline industry over the years, then-President George H.W. Bush designated July 19 as Flight Attendant Safety Professionals' Day. "I urge the people of the United States to observe that day with appropriate ceremonies and activities designed to recognize the important role flight attendants play in enhancing the safety and convenience of our Nation's air transportation system," wrote Bush.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, attendants typically fly 75 to 100 hours a month in the air and spend another 50 hours a month on the ground preparing flights, writing reports, and waiting for planes to arrive—a far cry from the days of dusting and fueling planes. In 2015, the median pay of a U.S. flight attendant was $44,860 per year; the median age of flight attendants is 46.8, and male employees are generally 1.9 years younger than than their female counterparts, reports Data USA. As of 2015, nearly 75 percent of flight attendants in the U.S. were white, followed by black (nearly 12 percent), and Asian (nearly six percent). In 2012, there were 25,268 American male flight attendants, or 24.2 percent overall, according to FiveThirtyEight.
As for the future? The flight attendant industry is expected to grow by two percent between 2014 and 2024—slower than average, given the fact that airlines are expected to slow the addition of new flights and new routes in order to keep their planes full.
(Images courtesy of SFO Museum/ TWA Clipped Wings International, Inc., United Airlines Archives, Courtesy SFO Museum/Terry J. Rice, Courtesy Braniff International Public Relations Archives, History of Aviation Collection, UT-Dallas, Courtesy American Airlines)