Stewardesses aka Flight Attendants

Watch Pan Am, watch any period piece about the 1960s and 1970s, and you will find that the stewardesses from that period are inevitably imagined as young, attractive, flirtation, and adventurous. I have to admit, I can’t quite recall whether my own experience confirms this. I was a kid in the 1970s, and by the time I was really paying attention to such things, whatever glamour had been attached to air travel had long-since disappeared.

I do wonder though if this image of 1960s stews was accurate, and if so what happened to change it?

Did airlines make a conscious decision that hiring young, attractive, and, well, flighty flight hostesses was a bad idea from a business perspective? Why would that be?

Is it just that discrimination laws made hiring just from this pool difficult or unlawful? But how is that possible when chains like Hooters continue to flourish and are staffed exclusively with women who would fit that 1960s stewardess mold?

Is it that young attractive women, on the whole, are not interested in the job?

Because of the fact that on some foreign airlines, notably Asian ones, the 1960s model still is largely intact, I sort of assume the issue is discrimination suits, but I can’t see why airlines couldnt work around that somehow.

Or is it that as a business matter, that sort of approach makes less sense given the large number of women who fly for business and who make travel decisions for family vacations and the like. I presume that is the case. The benefits just ceased to outweigh the costs of hiring from only a narrow applicant pool, particularly a pool that has a high inherent turnover rate.

But anyway, I’m curious, does anyone know the answer for sure? Was there a major lawsuit about this? Did one airline or another lead the charge on this? Was this a conscious decision or something that just happened? Or is it just that our memory of how things were doesn’t reflect actual practice?

2 comments to Stewardesses aka Flight Attendants

  • My Dad ran a travel agency in the 1970′s and early 1980′s (remember those?).

    Basically, it’s a combination of things. In addition to what you listed I’ll add two more – first was unions, which made it difficult to fire attendants once they were no longer the young and pretty ideal. Second was deregulation which allowed airlines to compete on price. With price controls airlines competed on service and luxuries for their primarily male businessmen clients. One of those luxuries was attractive stewardesses. With price competition and a much more diverse client base, attractive flight attendants no longer provided a competitive advantage.

    Of course, that’s not everywhere. As you note, there are airlines that still operate that way and I think those are mostly state-owned monopolies. An exception (at least based on my experience) is Virgin Atlantic, but with that brand comes certain expectations. Also, if you ever get a chance, I recommend you fly Emirates for a bit of that “old school” flying experience.

  • david.ucko

    It was a phenomenon discussed on the Atlantic last October: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/10/the-declining-hotness-of-flight-attendants/246610/. The conclusions are pretty much the same as those stated by Andy.

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