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The Flight Attendant Labor Union in Women’s History Month

Date: March 28, 2023

As Women's History Month draws to a close, it is important to reflect on the significant contributions of women to various fields and industries. One such industry that has seen a notable impact from women is ours, the airline industry, and specifically the role of Flight Attendants.  Labor Unions for Flight Attendants, in particular, have been instrumental in advocating for the rights and working conditions for not just Flight Attendants, but of all employees.

The first Flight Attendants were men, but in the 1930s, airlines began to hire women for the role. At that time, this decision was largely based on society’s expectations that women were better suited to provide customer service and were more “visually appealing” to passengers. The women, known as stewardesses, and were primarily hired for their youth, attractiveness, and willingness to work long hours for low pay. They were subjected to strict regulations, including strict height and weight requirements, and were required to quit their jobs if they got married or reached a certain age. In the early days of aviation, Flight Attendants were not unionized and had no legal protections.

This all changed in the 1940s and 1950s, when Flight Attendants began organizing to form labor Unions. The first major Flight Attendant Union was the Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Association (ALSSA), founded in 1945. The ALSSA fought for better wages, working conditions, and job security for Flight Attendants. They also pushed for an end to discriminatory practices, such as the requirement that Flight Attendants quit their jobs if they got married.

Over the years, other Flight Attendant Unions formed and merged with ALSSA to create larger, more powerful organizations known today as the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) representing more than 50,000 Flight Attendants continuing the scope in fighting for a variety of labor protections, including minimum rest periods, limits on the number of hours worked, and improved benefits.  

One of the most important of AFA's advocacy also played a vital role in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned employment discrimination based on gender, race, religion, and national origin. This legislation marked a significant milestone in the fight for gender equality and provided legal protections for women in the workforce.

In addition, AFA has always been at the forefront of efforts to promote gender equity and diversity in the aviation industry.  For example, in the 1970s, AFA successfully lobbied for the introduction of maternity leave for Flight Attendants. Before this, Flight Attendants who became pregnant were often forced to quit their jobs. Today, Flight Attendants can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

In recent years, Flight Attendants have also been outspoken advocates for the #MeToo movement, calling attention to sexual harassment and assault in the aviation industry.  AFA has developed policies and training programs to help Flight Attendants identify and respond to incidents of harassment or assault.

As we celebrate Women's History Month, we must recognize the significant contributions of Flight Attendants and their Unions in advancing gender equality in the workplace. The work of these women has paved the way for future generations of Flight Attendants, and their advocacy continues to make a positive impact on the airline industry and beyond.

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