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The history of the flight attendant - an evolving role in aviation

Images in graphic from the National Air and Space MuseumThe profession of the flight attendant has always been a coveted role but has had its challenges. While it was once all about looks and reassurance for the passengers, now, the safety of the aircraft, passengers and crew is paramount. The history of the flight attendant is a fascinating journey that reflects not only aviation advancements but also societal changes. Early Days (1910s-1920s) The origins of the role come from the maritime industry where stewards looked after the ship's passengers, so when airplanes came to be, it was natural for aviation to follow. Indeed, many terms used in aviation today have their roots in maritime. The first recorded flight attendant was Heinrich Kubis in 1912, working on German airships. He was a highly trained waiter in famous European restaurants and eventually moved to airships, including the famous Hindenburg that exploded in 1937. It was said that he was supervising in the restaurant at the time and helped passengers to safety, before escaping uninjured. In the UK in the 1920s, Imperial Airways had 'cabin boys' who loaded baggage and reassured passengers. In the U.S., airlines initially used young male couriers from wealthy families, but this practice ended with the 1929 stock market crash. The copilot often doubled as a steward, assisting with basic passenger needs. The Rise of the "Stewardess" (1930s-1960s) Ellen Church, a registered nurse, became the first female flight attendant in the U.S. in 1930, arguing her presence would calm passengers' nerves. She wanted to be a pilot, but this was forbidden, so she asked Boeing Air Transport to employ her. From then on, nurses were employed on airplanes to look after passengers. Airlines, particularly Pan Am, started hiring registered nurses as stewardesses and emphasizing their medical skills. The role quickly became gendered, with strict hiring requirements based on appearance and marital status. Stewardesses had to be young, single and would retire by age 30. It was seen as a glamorous job for the elite few. Uniforms were stylish and emphasized femininity, often including heels, gloves and hats. Conditions on weight and appearance were very strict. In the 1960s, stewardesses played a crucial role in marketing, portraying a sense of luxury and safety for the mostly male passengers. As uniforms started becoming more fashion-forward and changing with society, smart suits were replaced by short skirts and hot pants. The role had become more provocative and the marketing was sexualized towards young, available women being there to tease male passengers. Shifting Priorities and Modernization (1970s-2000) The 1960s and 70s saw changes in societal norms and discrimination laws. It was a time of equal rights and unions being formed. The term stewardess evolved to the more gender-neutral flight attendant as we know it today. Diversity in the workforce increased, with men also becoming flight attendants. The world was changing and with civil wars and the threat of hijacking very real, the role was once again evolving. In the 1980s, the focus shifted more towards safety and professionalism, with rigorous training replacing emphasis on appearance. The term 'cabin crew' came into use in the UK and emphasized that the role of cabin crew was not just to be a server. Uniforms became more practical and functional and business-like. Again, the ratio of male to female crew was increasing, with more males entering the profession. In the 1990s, rules regarding maximum weight were removed and focused more on being able to sit comfortably in a crew harness and being able to get out of an emergency exit without hindrance. In the UK, female cabin crew were allowed to fly until the age of 50 and then that was increased to age 55, This was changed again to the normal retirement age in the 2000s after the rule was found to be discriminatory. Crew resource management became an important part of pilot and flight attendant training emphasizing that communication between the two teams should be improved to help prevent accidents from occurring. By this time, there had been many deadly accidents where good communication between the flight crew in the cockpit and the flight attendants in the cabin might have changed the outcome. Post 2000 Today, flight attendants are highly trained safety professionals playing a critical role in ensuring a smooth and safe flight experience. Flights should be efficient and uneventful and safety is the number one priority. Flight attendants take training in things such as advanced first aid, firefighting, security and aircraft equipment. They know and extensively practice how to evacuate an aircraft on land and water. Flight attendants are tested every year to ensure that they are always proficient and can immediately react to any emergency. They also have a safety briefing prior to every flight to discuss the flight and check the crew's aircraft, safety and emergency procedures and first aid knowledge. Although uniforms are still an important factor for airlines in their branding and image, some airlines are offering a more relaxed uniform and more gender-neutral. Uniforms are stringently tested for comfort, safety and wearability. Some airlines have dropped the 'no visible tattoos' rule and now allow tattoos. Makeup and nail polish can be worn by any gender at some airlines. On duty!??A day in a life; cabin crew edition ?#QatarAirways #GoingPlacesTogether pic.twitter.com/5BpIQg2Q0E— Qatar Airways (@qatarairways) February 15, 2024 The history of flight attendants isn't without its controversies, including discriminatory practices and challenging working conditions. Certainly, in the Middle East and Asia, the cabin crew are still predominantly female and under 30. In those regions and Europe, age discrimination especially for females is still rife. Males are still preferred for any senior or management positions. In the U.S., there are no restrictions on the age of flight attendants. During the pandemic, many flight attendants/cabin crews were laid off and never returned or were not able to. The rise of disruptive passengers since the pandemic has been considerable, making the role more challenging and somewhat dangerous. The hours have increased for many crews while the salary decreased, which is another reason the industry is suffering. However, the role will always be a popular one. The profession of flight attendant has evolved significantly over the years, often reflecting the changing societal values. In some ways, the role has gone back 70 years, in terms of discrimination. The most important things are that training has improved and flying is safer than ever. The emphasis on safety and professionalism is key to the flight attendant role and there is no doubt it will continue to evolve.
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