Joan pulls a long drag from a cigarette as she prepares canapes with caviar in the lower galley of a Douglas DC-8 somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. She twists her cigarette in an ashtray, as she was trained to do, with poise and precision so as not to flick ashes. Her smoke billows against the plane’s ceiling as she applies the airline-required Estée Lauder lipstick. Her size-two Emilio Pucci dress accentuates her curves. She’s hemmed the skirt, a trick she learned from a tenured stewardess to earn more tips. She received her first tip — 25 cents — on her last flight.
Half a century later, Ashley wears a generic polyester dress and nylons. Her safety checks require attention, but time is tight. People board in a hurry. One customer walks in after he exclaims, “I’m only stepping into this plane if you smile!” Her eyes roll back in her head. She monitors for suspicious behavior: hand wringing, sweating faces, excessive complaining or questioning. She watches out of habit and a little out of fear. The gate agents need to get the flight out on time and hover in the jetway. She ducks into the cramped lavatory to text her friends: “I land at 10.”
The days of decorum are over. The proof is in the narrow airplane aisles and within the hearts of the flight attendants who breeze down them. Cathy Steffens, who is nearing her 50th anniversary of flying, reminisces about the old days like one misses a distant lover: “We’re not those poised, beautiful women anymore. It’s just not the expectation.” And she’s right. Gone are the days of pillbox hats and weight restrictions, replaced with cockpit codes and seat-belt extenders. The golden age of travel has officially been kicked to the baggage belt.
In the sixties and seventies, grace was of the utmost importance. As the face of airlines, stewardesses focused on appearance and service. The 1973 Braniff manual emphasized these expectations: “Your weight must be kept within the proper ratio to your height in order to look and feel your best. Legs must be smooth and free from hair while in uniform. Makeup is as much a part of the uniform as the dress or suit. These are the rules [that will] make you leaders in fashion among the flight attendants of all airlines.”
Leaders in fashion and idealistic perfection. To that end, dozens of pages in the manual paid homage to uniform care, jewelry regulations, grooming standards, weight restrictions and the like. Stewardesses were required to be at least 5 feet, 2 inches tall and 130 pounds or less; to ensure they were fitting the bill, they had to step on a scale before each flight. They were not to eat in front of travelers while on the job. After the service was finished, they could pull a curtain over the galley and eat in a small corner.
The contemporary manual is less specific but still focuses on a business-like appearance: “It is unacceptable for a flight attendant to have wet hair on duty. Messy bun or top-knot style is not permitted. Makeup is not to be applied in public view of the passengers. Uncolored roots must be avoided.” The fashion, meanwhile, is practical: drab, double-breasted polyester dresses with brass buttons and skirts that fall below the knee.
Moreover, modern-day flight attendants are expected to maintain order, not entertain guests. Social exchanges with customers are squashed in favor of keeping flights on time and keeping a pulse on suspicious activity. Plus these days passengers need to be glued to their seats, unlike in the past, when they could float through the cabin like partygoers. “They got up and walked around,” Steffens recalls fondly. “They stood up in the cockpit and admired the view, chatting with the pilots.” If someone wanted the cockpit’s attention, they’d just knock — an inconceivable notion today, when the door is barricaded and passengers are strictly forbidden from entering.
Customer service has changed, too. Extensive, detailed rules once governed how stewardesses were to conduct themselves. For example, they were never to write a drink order on a bar card as that was in bad taste. And their in-flight duties had precise time spans. Hot towel service: 7 minutes. Linens, cocktails and almonds: 20 minutes. The entire service: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Travelers snacked on caviar, sipped on $1.50 cocktails and smoked cigarettes alongside stewardesses in the aisles. Drug tests weren’t regularly conducted on the job, so munching on vodka-soaked olives in between meals was totally acceptable.
“In this day and age, flying is the expected mode of transportation,” explains longtime flight attendant Maggie Hill. “But back then, it was quite an elite thing to fly. Seats were always open; there was lots of room. The service has gone so far downhill. Now, you’re just getting people from point A to point B. There’s not as much fanfare anymore.”
A lack of fanfare is an understatement. Today, the crew breezes down the aisle with plastic gloves, garbage bags and the occasional pot of coffee. “There are so many people on planes now, and everything is always so hurried,” Hill adds. “You just don’t have time to be gracious.” In fact, the current-day manual covers service in just a single page, focusing on food handling and storage.
During in-flight training of the past, women learned how to properly walk up a set of air stairs with a suitcase, among many lessons in poise. They were to walk sideways, never straight, because the graceful motion appeared professional yet feminine. During turbulence, they were to maintain a poker face and never look frightened. Training was intense, lasting three months and placing equal emphasis on appearance, service and safety.
Nowadays, training focuses on security, in large part due to 9/11. Grueling days are spent studying how to identify hijackers and sex traffickers. Trainees learn how to use Tuff Kuffs to restrain an unruly passenger as well as how to communicate a terrorist attack to the rest of the cabin. Service is only emphasized during the “initial operating experience” flight, during which newbies shadow more tenured attendants for their first official run-through. The bottom line: Flight attendants have transformed from flirty caretakers to fierce regulators.
Another big change? “People don’t want to be bothered — that’s what’s different,” Hill says. “Their heads are down watching movies on their phones. The window shades are closed. We used to be goddesses, sort of. It was a coveted job, something not just anyone could do.” So what’s in it for flight attendants? Is the job still worth the work?
For Maggie Hill, who is nearing the end of her career, the timing feels right: “I miss the old days. I hate to say it, but things have changed too much — and not for the better.” She pauses. “But despite it all, my curiosity still motivates me. Every time a plane is going somewhere different, I want to be on it.”
For Cathy Steffens, the job calms her restless soul: “I like people watching and knowing what makes them tick. I love the thrill of the engine noise on takeoff. I still love to look out the window. If I’m not on the move, I’m just not happy. It’s hard for me to stay in one place; I guess I’m a gypsy that way.”