Flight attendants. We don’t think about them very often unless we’re on a flight relying on them or hearing about some controversial story involving them. The Qatar Airways embroglio a few months ago brought what is largely a thankless job performed by flight attendants into stark relief for a few weeks, but like all such situations, has faded into memory. Unless, that is, you happen to be a flight attendant. This short perspective on the life of a flight attendant was uploaded to YouTube by Haley Corzo, whose mother Kim has been a flight attendant since 1988. Here is Haley’s Blog link too. She’s an excellent young writer.
The first flight attendant was a man named Heinrich Kubis who began serving passengers aboard German Zeppelins in 1914. He was aboard and survived the catastrophic mishap of the airship LZ 129 Hindenburg by jumping out a window. The title of Steward (and the female Stewardess) was first used aboard passenger-carrying ocean liners, but by the 1920s the terms were used aboard the first airliners as well.
Ellen Church, a 25 year-old registered nurse, was the first American flight attendant. She was hired by United Airlines in 1930. Other airlines hired nurses as flight attendants and the terms “stewardess” and “air hostess” soon were used interchangeably. During World War II a shortage of nurses on the ground relaxed the requirement for nurses as stewardesses in the air. It didn’t take long for “characteristics” to play an important part during the hiring process either.
By the time the “Jet Age” came around, stewardesses were entirely single women (widows and divorcees would be “considered”), minimum 20 years old and maximum 35, and in most cases at least 5’2” but no more than 5’9”. No glasses. Uniforms were tight-fitting and flattering. If a stewardess got married, she lost her job. Simple as that. But by the mid-1960s the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) removed the “characteristics” restrictions.
Today, flight attendants don’t get paid for their time when they are on the ground. They don’t get paid during layovers or ground holds, time at the airport off the airplane, or while they’re waiting along with everyone else for the departure of the flight. Their training requirements are insane and they have to be certified to do everything from rolling the beverage cart down the aisle safely to coordinating an emergency evacuation for every airplane (or equipment) on which they work. And make no mistake about it- they do work.
Flight attendants don’t usually have set schedules and they’re often not guaranteed the equivalent of a “normal” week’s pay. Schedules are flexible, which is a double-edged sword. They almost never spend Holidays at home. Any of them. Seniority helps in that regard but the junior people can go years without being home for Christmas. They’re told what color their nails nave to be and what color hose to wear. Fitness and weight standards are rigidly enforced.
Since the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which airline unions strongly opposed, fare and route regulation disappeared and fierce competition began. The inevitable results were mergers and bankruptcies, a gradual disappearance of passenger perks, and continual pressure on workers. Since then Delta swallowed up PanAm, Republic, and Northwest, United ingested Continental, and American absorbed TWA and US Airways, which had assimilated America West. Today Delta, United, and American, along with Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska, control over 80 percent of the United States passenger airline market.
Airlines which are unionized like United, American, Southwest and Alaska for example, have distinct advantages over minimally or non-unionized airlines like Delta, Jet Blue, and Virgin. The unionized airlines offer benefits such as negotiated pay increases and bonuses, but the flip side of that is that sub-standard employees are rarely held accountable for poor performance. We’ve all seen both sides of that coin!
Flight attendants do get to fly cheaply or nearly-free. Sometimes family members can accompany them for similar discounted fares as well. Flight attendants do visit and experience more of the country and the world than most regular travelers. Layovers, while not paid, can create memories that last a lifetime- especially in someplace like Hawaii or Australia. As with all relationships formed under similar experiences, friendships are quickly made but seldom last- flight attendants don’t work together as teams. Often they don’t see each other for years. So the next time you fly, thank your flight attendants. You’ll be glad you did.