Young, single women that are 20 to 26 years old. Must weigh between 100 and 118 pounds and be at least five feet, but no taller than five feet, four inches. This was what a recruitment ad seeking potential stewardesses in the 1930s looked like.
Today, the industry welcomes a wider range of candidates and flight attendants are viewed much more than merely cocktail waitresses in the sky.
We took a stroll down memory lane and compared some major standards within the profession that have changed over the course of history.
While it may have been politically correct to call a flight attendant an air hostess or stewardess sixty years ago, doing so today is frowned upon. The proper term preferred by all flight crew is flight attendant or even better, cabin crew. Over the past six decades, men and women boldly fought to change what constitutes an acceptable attribute of an ideal cabin crew member. What came along with these accomplishments was the reintroduction of male flight attendants, which would forever usher out old-fashioned terms like air hostess and stewardess.
The terms “stewardess” and “flight attendant” describe the same basic job of tending to airplane passengers’ needs and safety. “Stewardess,” however, is an outdated term that has been replaced by “flight attendant” on all airlines. Whether fairly or unfairly, stewardesses became associated with the negative impression of being little more than models in the sky. The push in the 1960s and 1970s to remove the gender bias of job descriptions, combined with an increase in the number of men entering the field, made the term “flight attendant” the more appropriate and preferred term.
In the 1950s, stewardesses were required to be registered nurses or have attended college for two years. Appearance was very important. Stewardesses had to be female, white, between the ages of 21 and 26, between 5 feet 2 inches and 5 feet 6 inches tall and weigh no more than 135 pounds. They were also required to be single, meaning never married, divorced or widowed. Today, flight attendants must be at least 18, though 21 is preferred. Airlines increasingly prefer candidates with college degrees in hospitality, tourism, communications or public relations. For international positions, fluency in a foreign language is a plus. Flight attendants must pass a physical exam, be tall enough to reach the overhead bins, and have weight in proportion to their height.
Before WWII, airlines mainly hired qualified nurses as flight attendants. Not only were they able to care for passengers on board, but their presence gave travelers the confidence to fly in the first place. Today, however, men and women are hired for being quick learners, eager students, and valuable team players instead of their previous medical training. Recruiters are also always searching for applicants who are friendly and personable plus have a resume that highlights strong customer service skills.
Although ensuring passenger safety has always been an important part of the job, in the early decades the emphasis was on keeping passengers, who were mostly businessmen, comfortable and happy. The public perception was that the job was little more than that of a “flying waitress.” The job was glamorized as a way to see the world and find a wealthy husband. But stewardesses and flight attendants have always been trained in safety procedures and considered that to be the most vital responsibility of their jobs. This has always included explaining safety aspects of the airplane, directing passengers to fasten their seat belts, administering first aid and directing evacuation procedures in an emergency. Today, with the heightened threat of terrorism on airplanes, flight attendants must be aware of how to act in life-threatening situations, too.
Sixty years ago, flight attendants were widely regarded as nothing more than cocktail waitresses in the sky. These days, their responsibilities extend much further than serving snacks and removing trays. All flight attendants undergo rigorous training programs that take weeks to complete. Airlines also legally require all of their crew to be well versed in the standard operating procedures of their specific aircrafts. In addition, they must pass various written and physical tests. This can include everything from how to put out a fire at 35,000 feet to how to cut the umbilical cord of a baby who must be delivered on board. That being said, flight attendants are now considered the aircraft’s designated medics, fire fighters, and more.
In the 1950s, 1960s, and even early 1970s, flight attendant uniforms included short skirts, tight dresses, and impractical footwear. This was meant to appeal to business class passengers, who were mostly male. Today, women on most commercial airlines are allowed to choose the size and description of their uniform based on their own body type. They also have the option to choose between wearing a conservative skirt that stops just above the knee or trousers. Many also carry a comfortable pair of shoes to throw on once the doors close.
Flight Attendants Today
Although the public sometimes still use the term “stewardess,” airlines use the terms “flight attendant” or sometimes “in-flight crew member.” Safety equipment demonstrations and explanations, walking the aisles to assure that seat belts are fastened, reassuring nervous passengers, administering first aid and instructing passengers in case of turbulence or an emergency remain the primary focus of the job. Flight attendants participate in pre-flight briefings about weather and safety, check the safety equipment and food and beverage supplies before departure, collect payment for alcoholic beverages and meals if offered, check the condition of the cabin after landing and report to the airline any medical or other unusual issues that occurred during the flight.