Cruising with the Stewardess on a 35,000-Ft High Joy Ride

By Holiday Dmitri



I found my place in the world at Terminal 3 of O’Hare International Airport. Back in 2000, I was a fresh-faced 22-year-old, straight out of school, and looking for some kicks. Sparked by post-collegiate wanderlust and a nearly obsessive fixation with flight, I followed my bliss through the glass-enclosed modern gangway of the airport terminal and into my new workstation: an Airbus 320. Spellbound, I gazed upon my very first aircraft with a schoolgirl-sort of glee. It was then and there that I joined the ranks of the flight attendant.

I became a flight attendant for the thrill of flying, the thrill that for many had ended long before September 11, 2001 ever arrived, the thrill that for me began before I ever boarded a plane and continues -- even now -- more than a hundred flights later. I have always relished speed and action, the action of going somewhere, anywhere, the magic of motion, and the freedom of being airborne. 

That was more than two years ago, two years ago before I was laid-off from my job. Today, those days of flying, feel more like a dream of a time from the past when beefcake captains and swooning stewardesses captivated the screenplays. 

In my dream of that lost era, romance was in the air. Captains and first officers married stewardesses and wealthy men plucked trophy wives from the hostesses in the sky. For a whole generation of young women who found work only as secretaries and shop assistants, flying meant autonomy. This era is revisited in Bruno Barreto’s latest movie, A View from the Top, in which a small town girl (Gwyneth Paltrow) yearns to become a first-class international stewardess in order to see the world. In those days, becoming the public face of an airline was like winning the local beauty pageant. It garnered respect and envy from the girls, and yearning and adulation from the boys. 

That was in the 1960s and 1970s, when the airplane was still the space-age voyager. The myth of that age came to us in books and movies. In 1967, the first of the four Coffee, Tea or Me? bestseller books hit store shelves. The series chronicled the crazy amatory adventures of two sexpot stewardesses (they were “stewardesses” then) who were made infamous by illustrator Bill Wenzell in his cartoon impression of the dynamic duo -- butt like a pair of beach balls, breasts like twin missiles, and Barbie doll feet. To publicize the books, two attractive women were hired to play the roles of authors Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones (neither of whom really existed). Meanwhile, the real writer, Donald Bain, who later went on to write the Murder, She Wrote mystery novels, shadowed from the sideline and reaped the financial rewards. It was a brilliant marketing ploy: Put the good-looking girls to work by positioning them in the public’s eye.

Image was everything. Good looks got you flying and kept you there. The emphasis back then was on youth and form. Stewardesses had to “weigh in” each week to keep their jobs (scales were presented before boarding the plane), and some companies had compulsory resignation policies -- or transfer to ground work -- for those over the age of 30, or earlier if they chose to marry. Wedded women were not flying women. Wedded women had their wings “clipped.” 

The stewardess and her sex appeal were unabashedly used to sell seats. Just before the heated days of competition resulting from deregulation, sexuality was bursting from the seams of the stewardess’ snugly fitted blouse. In the ‘70s, the now defunct National Airlines ran TV ads featuring a pretty actress as a stewardess exclaiming, “Hi! I’m Debbie. Fly me.”

Throughout that decade, Southwest Airlines refused to hire male flight attendants. One of their earliest recruitment ads carried the headline, “Attention, Raquel Welch: You can have a job if you measure up.” The ad attracted 1,200 applications from young women across America. As one Southwest Airlines representative noted in 1973, when he interviewed girls for the job, he started with their legs and worked up to their faces. Those who were hired were put into their new uniforms: bright orange, thigh-exposing hot pants, knee high “kinky” go-go boots, and body-emphasizing wide belts -- the Southwest Airline uniform until 1982. “Before Southwest Airlines you didn't have hostesses in hot pants ... remember,” asserted an old Southwest television commercial. 

Yet the sky goddess image was being marketed some time before the age of the Daisy Duke-trotting Southwest girl. And while it seems logical to attribute the crafting and selling of the stewardess to the philandering members of the Mile High Boy’s Club (the male hegemony that dominated the air industry), it was in fact, a pretty young blonde from Youngstown, Ohio, Mary Wells Lawrence, who was the brains behind the seduction of the skies.



"When a tired businessman gets on an airplane, we think he ought to be allowed to look at a pretty girl," stated Mary Wells Lawrence in a 1967 interview with Business Week

A marketing genius and advertising’s first international superstar, Wells had coined some of the industry's most enduring slogans like “Quality is Job One” (Ford), “I Love New York” and “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz” (Alka-Seltzer). In 1965, Braniff Airways’ President and CEO Harding L. Lawrence -- later her husband -- hired her to update the airline’s image. “I want to turn the airline inside out and make it the best in the industry,” he told her. “What do you think? Can you help me do that?" 

She agreed. Wells began visiting airports in New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver, Dallas and other cities on Braniff's system to look for ideas. One morning, standing by a check-in gate in Chicago, Wells turned around to see “a jail, the army, a prison camp, a ghastly desert and a lot of grey people.” She thought she was having a nightmare, but it was only the terminal. “There were no interesting ideas, no place for your eyes to rest, nothing smart anywhere,” she recalled in an interview. “There was no color. This was the sixties, mind you, when color was a hot marketing tool.” 

Wells embarked on a mission to make over the plane, calling her campaign “The End of the Plain Plane.” In an era famous for its subliminal advertising, she put the Braniff message right out in the open: this was air travel that was fun, sexy and modern. Under the direction of designer Alexander Girard, Braniff painted their plane’s entire fuselages -- what had once looked like a long aluminum cigars -- in psychedelic purples, oranges and yellows. Braniff’s airport building was restyled to fit Love Field, their flying field in Dallas, with round mirrors on the ceilings, huge hanging incandescent globe lights and a terrazzo floor. 

In his book Airline: Identity, Design and Culture, author Keith Lovegrove describes how Italian couturier Emilio Pucci turned Braniff aircraft’s aisles into catwalks and launched “jet-set” culture. In the sixties, Pucci’s dresses were status symbols among the rich and mobile. Braniff babes, nicknamed “Puccis Galore,” were decked in his multilayered uniforms: diamond-patterned mini-length tunics with matching tights; matching derby hats; empire dresses in swirling geometrics with matching umbrellas. (The outfits were so hip that Mattel created a Braniff-attired Barbie.) In shedding layers, the stewardesses changed clothes as often as six times a flight; an act Braniff’s president teasingly called the “air strip.” 

Puccis Galore were the crème de la crème, depicted as “sanctioned birds of paradise” who baited men with their “colorful Pucci plumage.” Many of the stewardesses became the second wives of high-powered businessmen. The Braniff girl’s popularity soared so high, that in order to bar the large number of men trying to climb the dormitory balconies to visit stewardesses-in-training, Braniff had to raise their wrought-iron railings from floor to ceiling. 

“Braniff stewardesses were the original trophy wives,” remembered a Dallas socialite. “It didn't start in the 1980s, it started with Braniff. That's when I stopped wearing Pucci.”

Feeding the image of stewardess as seductress, a Braniff's print ad asked: “Does your wife know you're flying with us?”


Appropriately enough, when change came to the airlines, it came from within. It was a former stewardess who won her sisters in the sky better work benefits. From 1967 through 1975, Patricia Ireland, future feminist leader and president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), was working as a flight attendant for Pan American World Airlines. When her husband, a student, needed expensive dental work, she turned to her airline’s health plan to help with the cost, but found that it wouldn’t be covered. She also found that male employees and their wives were covered, but female employees and their husbands were not. Angry over this double standard, Ireland sought counsel from her local NOW chapter, and with their aid, her complaint made its way to the U.S. Labor Department. She won her female co-workers equal health benefits. For Ireland, it was the first of her many triumphs as a feminist activist. 

The courage of 1970s “second wave” feminists like Ireland greatly advanced the women movement’s fight for equity. In the airline world, tight regulations forced companies to hire older employees and allowed them to stay airborne. Feminists got government to take women and their work seriously. Sadly, they nearly took all the fun out of flying as well. Flying was no longer about excitement; the sell was now sleep. Stewardess turned to sedating the passengers to make working easier. They were no longer the sexy stars of the friendly skies, but lowly victims of the ubiquitous patriarchy, poor girls forced into girdles to earn their pay. Southwest Airlines retired their hot pants and glam boots. Their new attire for the crew -- khaki shorts and oversized polo shirts. “When we started, the majority of people traveling with us were men on expense accounts. We made no secret about playing into that,” said Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin. “Today, there are more people able to travel because of the low fares, and our uniforms have been modified.”

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to PC times. Yesterday’s sexy outfits became today’s sexist artifacts. Uniforms shifted to “unisex” attire, and instead of “enjoy us” the focus shifted to “trust us.” The ‘70s sexy stewardess had died. The ‘80s neutered flight attendant was the new foot solider in the sky.


So what changed it all? Mass transport. The advent of the Boeing 747 jumbo jets in the late 1960s, followed by airline deregulation in 1978, altered the face of commercial aviation. As a result of deregulation, annual passenger trips in America soared from 275-million to 660-million annually. And as aviation headed into the 1980s, the myth of the sexy skies lost altitude. With the increase in crew and passengers, the flight attendant became a gloried waitress in the sky, a poor exhausted trolley dolly who threw airtight packs of peanuts at ungrateful passengers. The flight attendant was now a blue-collar union employee, loading passengers in droves -- like a cowboy riding herd -- into the crowded shuttle bus. Glamour vanished. Cheaper fares opened the commercial airline industry’s Pandora’s box: Lousy meals. Cramped seats. Wedged legs. Poor cabin service. Ever-increasing delays. Cancellations. Overcrowding. Air rage. And what was the flight attendant to do? Grin and bear it.

Today, many women (and admittedly, some men) applaud the freedom fighters of the ‘70s whose valiant actions led to the de-emphasis of sexuality on board the aircraft. Then, there are others like me -- immensely grateful for equal pay, equal benefits and equal opportunity, but extremely dismayed by the state of the stewardess. It’s indisputable that stewardesses of yesterday were commodified as sex objects. But let’s face it: they were one hell of a commodity. For a woman in those days, it was more a privilege than a persecution to be a Pucci Galore.

When I got into flying, it was already unglamorous. My airline’s uniform consisted of a dumpy oversized three-piece suit and a bland button-down white top. What happened to “dress to impress”? At least back then, they tried. What I would like to see is an effort made to bring sexiness back to the skies. The recent news of the Hooters restaurant chain taking to the skies (that’s right, Hooters Air) is a step in the right direction. Airborne “Hooters Girls” decked in low-cut tank tops and orange short-shorts just might take the fledgling company off the ground (and get the male passengers to pay attention to those preflight demos!). In such PC-times, however, I’m not so sure if Hooters’ concept will fly. But even if their scantily clad women do sell seats, I am not necessarily proposing a return to short skirts and three-inch heels. (On the contrary, I hardly envy the young women who had to work under such physically agonizing conditions.) What I am saying is bring back the glamour, let the pleasure of looking good and feeling sexy be their own forms of empowerment. A pretty face can help a business too. Companies need to build a competitive edge, and the answer lies in building a powerful identity. And for the airlines, one of their most important products is that pretty face, their walking, talking advertisement -- the stewardess.