The turbulence of being a flight attendant in 2022
Few jobs on the planet have changed as radically over the years as the job of a flight attendant.
At the turn of the last century when wealthy wanderers started paying top dollar to travel, the planes were much smaller and it was the co-pilot who doubled as flight attendant, serving up meals and drinks. As the planes got bigger, men wearing military-type suits were first hired as flight attendants in the 1920s, as it was believed they would inspire confidence in the exciting new business of air travel.
The female flight attendants first arrived in big numbers in the 1930s and Ellen Church was the first woman to be hired as a hostess, as they were then called, by United Airlines in 1930. At that time, this was a dream job that very few young ladies were able to land. The girls were all white and they were the daughters of aristocrats, travelling across the world to faraway destinations and leading a glamorous lifestyle. They worked for Pan Am, Braniff, TWA, BOAC and United.
As the planes grew bigger in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the airlines demanded more of the flight attendants. Sex always sells. And the men in the corporate boardrooms wanted to use sexiness to attract wealthy male passengers. The definition of what a flight attendant should look like changed, too. Stunning girls with that Coco-Cola-bottle shape were encouraged to apply but they had to be white, at least 20 years old, 5 feet 2 inches to 5 feet 9 inches, single, unmarried, childless, and not an ounce over 135 pounds. They had to sign an agreement that they weren’t planning a pregnancy nor a marriage anytime soon.
Top-tier designers were brought in to spice up the flight attendant uniforms and before long, the matronly hats and gloves were replaced by eye-popping hot pants and mini skirts that sizzled.
In the 1950s, some unexpected turbulence nearly turned the serving trays upside down. In 1957, Ruth Taylor, a gorgeous black woman applied for a job as a flight attendant with TWA and she was turned down. Taylor filed a discrimination complaint with the New York State Commission for discrimination against the airline. The blatant racism was clear for all to see and the landmark complaint shattered barriers and opened up jobs for a new generation of black flight attendants, including Taylor.
Air Jamaica arrived on the scene in the late ‘60s to ‘tun up di ting’. The airline introduced a nearly all black crew of beauties. The colours on the planes were as loud as the flight attendant uniforms and the airline defined and cemented its Jamaican identity with the introduction of electrifying fashion shows and rum bamboozle cocktails on board, plus duty-free on-board shopping for fragrances, tobacco and alcohol. Our little island had arrived on the world stage, boasting DC 8 and DC 9 jets zooming into the big gateways of New York, Toronto, London and Frankfurt. At one point in the early 1980s, a collaboration with British Airways offered a high-speed Concorde service between New York’s JFK and Montego Bay. The 90-minute service departed New York at 9 a.m. and arrived in Montego Bay at 9:30 a.m. local time. The tickets weren’t cheap but the service was mind-blowing, and Captain John Cook who often manned the flight, was always quick to show off the display of multi-coloured lights and switches in the cockpit to anyone who was interested, reminding onlookers that his contraption could cruise at 1,200 miles per hour.
Life was good for the Jamaican flight attendants. They were trained by finishing-school professionals like Marguerite Kirkpatrick in the art of walking, smiling, pouring wine and champagne and standing with the left heel perpendicular to the right in-step, turned at a geometric angle. A former Miss Jamaica and BOAC flight attendant, Betty Ann Lindo, epitomised the picture-perfect stance that apparently came from rigorous training. The girls basked in the splendour of big city neon lights, luxury hotels, shopping sprees and continuously meeting stars, celebrities, government officials and global luminaries.
By the early ‘70s air travel was exploding and it was no longer an exclusive luxury for the wealthy and famous. Pan American was operating a Boeing 747 from Montego Bay to New York’s JFK and Kingston had direct flights to unlikely destinations like Merida, Port-au-Prince and San Juan.
The decades that followed revolutionised air travel. Everyone was travelling, a hot meal and two pieces of checked luggage included. But then it slowly changed and the travel experience became more like a packed minibus ride from May Pen to Parade. Hot meals were mostly eliminated, free checked bags were reduced to one bag and flight changes started to attract a hefty fee. Making a reservation with the airline or through a travel agent weeks or months before travel became a thing of the past and passengers were expected to pay in full when they booked. The first-class dress code went through the cabin door as shorts and sandals replaced designer suits, hats and gloves.
Fast-forward to 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, when the dream job of a flight attendant turned into a frightening nightmare. Air Jamaica has been gone for years, but the Association of Flight Attendants report that an alarming 85 per cent of flight attendants have had recent run-ins with what the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) now describes as ‘unruly passengers’. Horror travellers curse and abuse flight attendants daily for being forced to wear masks. Some flight attendants have been spat upon by passengers and not infrequently, altercations lead to bad delays, cancellations, mid-air turnarounds back to the gate, resulting in physical violence and arrests.
My point is that the flight attendant job has changed so much that airlines are no longer interested in pretty, smiling faces as a priority. On the contrary, a grizzly, tough, mean, muscled look backed up by some martial arts training with a readiness to throw some kicks, a few punches and strategic karate strikes may be a huge asset, even if the folks in human resources would never admit to this. These jungle skills may get a flight attendant hired much faster in this day and age than simply being a helpless pageant queen!