See the ways in which the industry has and hasn’t changed since the early days of air travel.
Michael Ochs Archives
Published July 18, 2018
Published a month ago
While the very first flight attendant was, in fact, a man (Heinrich Zubis on a 1912 Zeppelin), the airline industry quickly tailored the job to young women. And if ever there was a job that asked the world of them, this was it.
Over the years, flight attendants have been required to be everything from waitresses to firefighters, and back in the day they had to endure weigh-ins, outrageous rules governing their personal lives, and some seriously questionable fashion.
Here, a look back at the highs, lows, and turbulent moments involved in the gig.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveFIRST FEMALE FLIGHT ATTENDANT, 1930Ellen Church (seen here in 1943) is not only considered the first flight attendant, she's also credited with creating the very concept of the job. Church, who was both a licensed pilot and a registered nurse, convinced Boeing Air Transport that having an extra pair of hands on flights to handle luggage and care for passengers — jobs that previously went to the co-pilot — would be a good investment in attracting customers.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveTO THE RESCUE, 1936Initially, airlines were reluctant to let women work on planes at all, but they quickly became indispensable as flight travel increased (according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, planes went from carrying 6,000 passengers in 1930 to 1.2 million by 1938). One such intrepid attendant was Nellie Granger (pictured), who searched for four hours to find a telephone after the TWA flight she was working crashed in Pennsylvania. She returned to the plane after contacting TWA and was credited with saving the lives of two people on board.Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveMOVING PICTURES, 1945In-flight entertainment began in the 1920s and included newsreels, comedies, and, by the 1940s, feature-length Hollywood movies. Above, a Pan Am flight attendant plays a movie in 1945. Film reels had to be run and changed by the attendants until the 1960s, when automated systems were implemented.Wallace Kirkland/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesMINDING PRECIOUS CARGO, 1945Taking care of children has always been a part of the job, as seen here in 1947 when diaper changing was taught at McConnell Air Hostess School. However, until the 1960s, flight attendants were not allowed to be pregnant or have children of their own. Attendants are still tasked with minding unaccompanied minors to this day, although the minimum travel age is now 5.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveMEDICAL TRANSPORT, 1955Flight attendants are often a part of historic moments. In Philadelphia, Dora Kline helped with the first shipment of the polio vaccine, just minutes after it was declared effective after a year of trials by Dr. Jonas Salk.ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild via Getty ImagesABOVE AVERAGE, 1955As the job became alluring to more and more young women who wanted to travel, certain physical attributes became job requirements — namely being young, unmarried, slim, and white. This continued unabated for decades. As late as 1969, a job recruitment ad on the radio in L.A. announced, "Right now PSA, the airline that is famous for its stewardesses, is looking for girls. Yes...girls to fill a cute orange mini-uniform…girls who smile and mean it…girls who give other people a lift. Now if you’re single, 18 1/2 to 26 years old, 5 foot 1 to 5 foot 9, 105 to 135 pounds, have a high school diploma or better — come in for an interview...." Ironically, the ad finished with "PSA is an Equal Opportunity Employer."Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesKEEP THAT FIGURE, 1958The caption that accompanied this 1958 photo in LIFE Magazine: "[A] course in slimming is part of curriculum at American Airlines’ luxurious college for stewardesses near Dallas. Here, trainees roll away excess hippage."
New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty ImagesBREAKING BOUNDARIES, 1958Ruth Carol Taylor became the first African-American flight attendant in the United States after filing a complaint against TWA for its ban on hiring minorities. She was eventually hired by Mohawk airlines, but had to resign just six months into her tenure for another infraction: She was getting married.Jack Fletcher/National Geographic/Getty ImagesBREATHE DEEP, 1956In addition to looking good, attendants had to train in CPR and emergency-landing exercises. Here, trainees practice inflating life vests, in preparation for a water landing.Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveHEAD GEAR, 1965In the 1960s flight attendants' uniforms became less utilitarian and more "fashion statement." Part of Braniff's uniforms, these special helmets protected the stewardesses' hairstyles.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveGROOVY, 1966Legendary Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci created these uniforms for Braniff International Airlines. Many other designers have followed suit over the years, including Christian Lacroix (for Air France), Tracy Reese (for United), and Vivienne Westwood (for Virgin).Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveSTRIKE A POSE, 1965While flight attendants began challenging some of the more arcane job restrictions and advocating for better pay and benefits when they formed their first union in the 1940s, they didn't get legal leverage against discrimination until the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Still, it took years of legal battles before a federal ruling in 1970 prohibited age and marital status restrictions. Pictured: Attendants protesting TWA.Susan Wood/Getty Images/Getty ImagesFRIENDLY SKIES, 1967As competition between airlines intensified, so did the leveraging of young, single flight attendants to draw in customers. The motto among airline advertising executives was "sex sells seats." From a Vanity Fair feature detailing the history of this branding style: "What they really were was bait, corporate geishas trained to please the male passengers who formed the bulk of the airlines’ passenger rolls.... An ad for United made the pitch with a frankness that would be disarming if it weren’t also appalling: 'Every [passenger] gets warmth, friendliness and extra care. And someone may get a wife.' "
Photoshot/Getty ImagesALL IN A DAY'S WORK, 1972The marketing of flight attendants as literal on-board entertainment for businessmen became even more brazen in the 1970s. Fledgling Southwest Airlines, for example, made a name for itself by requiring flight attendants to wear hot pants and go-go boots, and implying that they were on board to serve more than drinks with the advertising slogan "mix business with pleasure."
The "girls," however, had their own motivations. The job appealed to their sense of curiosity about the world and liberation from a rote script of wifely duties. Vanity Fair describes the allure this way: "For most, flying was an adventure in and of itself at a time when the average woman got married at the age of 20 and when opportunities outside the home were limited to teaching, nursing, and the secretarial pool." "None of that appealed to me," said Sonnie Morrow Sims, who was a flight attendant in the 1960s. "I just really wanted to travel."Denver Post/Denver Post via Getty ImagesSAFETY FIRST, 1974Many in the industry advocated for decades to be recognized as safety professionals. Although their training included CPR, fire safety, and emergency landings, a federal licensing program was not mandated until 2006.Peter Bischoff/Getty ImagesFIRST CLASS ALL THE WAY, 1980Attendants were expected to know how to serve much fancier grub than peanuts, especially for high-profile customers. Here, Swiss pop star Udo Jürgens stands as a flight attendant prepares a whole lobster mid-flight.
Corbis/Corbis/VCG via Getty ImagesESCAPE THE ROOM, 1986The job continually expected attractiveness, friendliness, utility, and no small measure of crisis management skills, as seen here in a training simulator for an emergency landing.Peter CharlesworthCUTE OVERLOAD, 1990Sometimes the cargo could be delightfully unexpected and require a bit of improvisation. Here, a flight attendant helped feed a baby orangutan as it listened to music on its way to a rehab center in Borneo.Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty ImagesWITNESS TO HISTORY, 1989In May 1989, as Mikhail Gorbachev, the first Soviet leader to arrive in China since Khrushchev in 1959, deplanes in Beijing, he was accompanied by — that's right — a flight attendant.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty ImagesBE PREPARED, 2002Even as flight attendants have become trained in skills including anti-terrorism and self-defense, and even as more men have been hired, some airlines have kept their strict rules on appearance. More than 80 years after the first woman flight attendant boarded a plane, those wishing to join the industry will still find restrictions on visible tattoos, larger earrings, and skirt length. Here, a Korean Air flight crew running through an anti-terrorism drill.