A Brief History of Flight Attendants

We know that the job of a cabin crew or flight attendant is a much desired profession and the childhood dream of many. The definition of the role is that cabin crew are there for the safety and well-being of the passengers – as well as each Other. Safety is the top priority with service being the second. Cabin crew may work for an airline, on a private jet or sometimes in the military. The origins of the’flight attendant’or’air steward’ title is thought to have come from the maritime world and today is still seen in the airline career ladder in roles such as’purser’ or’chief steward’. But where did it all begin?

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Early days

The first flight attendant was reportedly Heinrich Kubis in 1912, who worked on a German Zeppelin. He was a professional waiter who had worked in luxury hotels around the world and moved on to work on the infamous Hindenburg airship that exploded in 1937. He oversaw the He helped passengers down from the dining area and assisted some in jumping to safety. He escaped the tragedy without injury.

1920 -1940

In the 1920s, Imperial Airways in the UK started to recruit cabin boys who could load luggage and reassure the passengers. In 1929, Pan Am in the USA were the first to have’stewards’ who served food. However, in the 1930s, Boeing Air Transport and registered nurse Ellen Church worked together to devise a scheme where nurses were hired for 3 months at a time to travel onboard and look after the passengers and quell their fear of flying. During World War II, many of the nurses were enlisted into the armed forces, therefore the nursing requirement for’flight attendants’ changed.


In the 60s and 70s, the’air hostess’ was used as a marketing tool for the airlines. Photo: Dean Conger / Corbis via Getty Images

1950-1970

Through the 50s and 60s, being an’air hostess’ or’air stewardess’ as it became known was seen as a very elite profession, but conditions were very strict. Only young unmarried females were accepted, and overall appearance was very important. If You wanted to get married, you had to resign, and the girls retired by the age of 30. The uniforms were form fitting and often with hats, high heels and white gloves, so a certain glamorous reputation was always perceived.

In the late 1960s the fashion started to change to move with the times and miniskirts and hot pants became uniform. The airlines used the air stewardess image to promote their airlines to mostly male passengers traveling for business, selling a provocative and promiscuous look. More mens started to join the profession as’air stewards’ which later changed to’flight attendant’ in the USA for both sexes.


1980 onwards

The airlines adapted to a professional business style look for their flight attendant uniforms and the dress code became slightly more functional. The role of the flight attendant had slightly changed in that they were being regarded in terms of safety not just service and appearance. The then president of the USA, George HW Bush, in July 1990 acknowledged the profession and made July 19th’Flight Attendant Safety Professionals Day’.

Image and uniform are still very important to airlines. Photo: British Airways

Challenges

Appearance and image is still a very important factor for many airlines, although things have become fairer in terms of discrimination, with weight regulations dropped in the late 1990s. By the early 2000s female cabin crew could stave off retirement until age 55. Uniforms are still important, but are tested for functionality and some are adopting a gender-neutral approach. Some airlines are also allowing visible tattoos and make up for both males and females. However, in the Middle East and Asia, there are still many restrictions and there is still an abundance of young female cabin crew.


Since 9/11 and tougher safety regulations, it is a more difficult job than it used to be. The modern name for the profession of’cabin crew’reflects that the first priority is safety. The global pandemic in 2020 has created a lot more challenges with many cabin crew losing their jobs as the world ground to a halt and some never returning to the industry.

Disruptive passenger incidents have risen remarkably, and the recent travel chaos following a surge of people wanting to travel while airlines still struggle with limited capacity adds further to the challenges for cabin crew. Sad to say, for many currently working, the hours are longer and the salary lower than ever before. No doubt, there are difficult times ahead, but the role will surely continue to evolve.

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