An American Novelist Comes of Age When Flight Attendants Came of Age: Conversations with Airline Stewardesses and Donald Bain
Ann Hood, an American novelist who is the New YorkTimes best-selling author, said she came of age when the jet age came of age.
As a child, she watched the first flight of the Boeing 707 and the construction of Dulles airport, which led to the era of passenger jet travel.
She made a decision when she read a 1964 book called “How to become an airline stewardess” when she was 11 years old.
“Although it was sexist as hell, it enticed me because it talked about having a job that allowed you to see the world and I thought, well, that might work.”
Hood started sending job applications when she graduated from college. “I think 1978 was a really interesting year, because many of the women I went to college with had one foot in old ideas and stereotypes, and the other foot in the future. It was kind of a confusing time for young women.”
“Flight attendants are a force. They’re highly unionized. They’re independent. In the cabin, they make all the decisions. They have to make sure that everything is ok. They’re there for emergencies. They are able to find their way in cities where they don’t know anything.
The stereotype of stewardesses in miniskirts flirting with male passengers is still perpetuated according to ” Coffee, tea, or me?” The memoirs of two stewardesses were published as factual in 1967, but later found to be written by Donald Bain, an American Airlines PR executive.
Age restrictions, which had been the worst requirement to be hired as a flight attendant, had been lifted, but others remained.
If you failed to fall within the height and weight limit, they wouldn’t even interview you, says Hood. “But once you got hired, at least at TWA, you couldn’t go up to that maximum weight. My hiring weight was 15 pounds less than my maximum limit because I had to remain at my hiring weight.
Strangeness and Cosmology: What Happened to Hood on a Five-Day Flight in the L-1011 TriStar, or “The Mile High Club”
“My roommate got fired over this. It is really terrible that this restriction wasn’t removed until the 1990s, instead of when it was done to women.
It was frightening because it was so large — and the spiral stairs that lead to first class, which you had to go up and down more and more often. “I would keep thinking: don’t trip. Gradually, I got used to it.
The plane she liked to work on was the L-1011 TriStar. TWA and Eastern Airlines flew it domestically. The widebody plane, with its two seating on each side and four in the middle, was very easy to get out of. Nobody was upset on that plane.
The people dressed up and remembered the food well. It is not the same as today. I can only compare it to being in a fine hotel, or maybe on a cruise ship. Hood, who wore a uniform designed by Lauren, remembers that her passengers had the choice of Russian seafood and lobster bisque to go with their Dom Perignon.
“If you went on a five-day trip, which wasn’t uncommon, you had to pack a separate whole uniform because you just would smell so much like smoke,” Hood says. I was happy when that stopped. The entire plane was filled with smoke because you couldn’t stop it from going backwards, even though the front rows were deemed non-smoking.
What about the Mile High Club? “It wasn’t uncommon on international flights to see a man go into the bathroom and a minute later his seatmate join him, or some version of that,” says Hood. “It didn’t happen on every flight, but you saw it.
The middle section of a jumbo jet’s five seats are usually occupied by a couple, so when international flights used to be full, you could see a couple put up their feet under the blanket. I can’t say what they were doing, but it looked suspicious.”
As for passengers flirting or asking flight attendants out, it was also common. “I did date passengers, but that was mostly disastrous. It was never what I had imagined. But in 1982, I met a guy on a flight from San Francisco to New York. He was sitting in 47F — and I dated him for five years.”
Hood has seen her fair share of bizarre things on board. “The weirdest would definitely be the woman in first class who appeared to be breastfeeding her cat. I mean, I can’t say that it was actually happening, but she had her cat to her breast.
The guy who flew all the way in his tighty whities and tie, because he didn’t want to ruin his pants for the job interview. Or the guy on a 747 in Frankfurt who was riding his bicycle down the aisle,” she reveals.
The job was fun and boring at the same time. There was a lot of time to get in and out of some flights. You cannot only serve food and drinks, you have to play lots of movies. I had fun working on the job. I loved talking to people. I liked the way it felt. Hood says that he is still fond of flying.
She says it was indeed possible to actually visit and experience the cities she traveled to. “Sometimes your layover was really short or you were just tired, but for the most part, the city was right out the door. I very much took advantage of that when flying internationally.”
She left the job to focus on her writing career in 1986, and by that time things had changed. The deregulation had removed federal control over everything from fares to routes.
Through the 1930s and into the 1940s, almost everyone flew first class. In the 1960’s and 1950’s, airlines introduced coach or tourist fares that were less expensive than first class, but still pricey, despite the fact that they encouraged more people to fly. In 1955, the cheapest airfare from New York to Paris was more than $3,200 in dollars. Although the advent of jets did result in lower fares, the cost was still out of reach of most Americans. The most likely frequent flier was a white, male businessman traveling on his company’s expense account, and in the 1960s, airlines – with young attractive stewardesses in short skirts – clearly catered to their most frequent fliers.
“I was 21 when I was hired, and it gave me confidence, it gave me poise, and the ability to think on my feet,” she adds. “To take charge on that airplane, and once I got off, to walk into a city and feel completely at home — or at least figure out how to feel at home in it.
I wouldn’t know if it should be someone’s life’s work, if they wanted it to be that. But I think a few years working as a flight attendant could change your life.”
Long lines at security checkpoints, tiny plastic cups of soda, small bags of pretzels, planes filled to capacity, fees attached to every amenity – all reflect the realities of 21st century commercial air travel. It’s no wonder that many travelers have become nostalgic for the so-called “golden age” of air travel in the United States.
During the 1950s, airlines promoted commercial air travel as glamorous: stewardesses served full meals on real china, airline seats were large (and frequently empty) with ample legroom, and passengers always dressed well.
Until the introduction of jets in 1958, most of the nation’s commercial planes were propeller-driven aircraft, like the DC-4. Most of these planes were unpressurized, and with a maximum cruising altitude of 10,000 to 12,000 feet, they were unable to fly over bad weather. Air sickness bags were often needed, and there were frequent delays.
Air travel was far more dangerous in the 1960s than it is today. Most of the accidents that US airlines experienced in the 50’s and 60’s were fatal. In comparison to the 1960s, the number of deaths per million miles flown has fallen since the late 1970s. Through at least the 1970s, airports even prominently featured kiosks selling flight insurance.