Ask the pilot

Flight attendant, stewardess, trolley dolly. Whatever you call her, she was once a high-fashion sex symbol. At some airlines, the image lives on.

Published February 9, 2007 12:13PM (EST)

Let's start with a letter, courtesy of reader Joanne Miller:

"Dear Mr. Smith," Miller begins. So far, so good. "I'm not sure what planet you've been living on for the past 30-odd years ..." Here we go. "... but you may want to take note of the following, in reference to your use of the word 'stewardess': By the end of the 1970s, the term 'stewardess' was generally replaced by the gender-neutral alternative, 'flight attendant.' Welcome to the next century."

Guilty as charged, and I readily confess to premeditation. Twice in the past month, actually, and on numerous occasions over the past few years, stewardesses have appeared in my columns. Sorry to irritate you further, but short of Salon's editors requesting otherwise, the tradition will continue. I am fully aware of the term's anachronistic bent and its rarity in present-day vernacular. My reasons for using it are practical and aesthetic. The words "flight attendant" and "cabin crew" not only are gender neutral but are artistically anemic and clunky, and they become repetitive over the course of a long article. Why not, from time to time, provided such occasions are judiciously selected and within the boundaries of good taste, reach for something more colorful? "Stewardess" is quaint and admittedly unsuitable in certain contexts. However, it is neither totally obsolete nor, I should think, offensive. Not any more than "actress" or "waitress." It's a useful option, and I like its throwbacky flavor.

Over the years, two large-scale changes in the airline business turned stewardesses into flight attendants. First and most obvious was the growing number of applicants who, through the dictates of biology, simply couldn't be stewardesses, no matter how hard they tried. At first, these employees were called "stewards." Thus, the airplane cabin wasn't terribly different from a restaurant, where stewards and stewardesses, like waiters and waitresses, stewed.

(Er, that is to say, served their customers. As is wont to happen in the lexicon of industry, some atrocious variations were spawned from an otherwise innocent root. Fortunately "stew," as both a verb -- "I stewed at Braniff for 14 years" -- and a slang noun -- "What hicks those stews are at Piedmont" -- was seldom heard beyond the airport crew lounge.)

Generally, people don't get wound up over labels like "waiter" and "waitress" -- gender-specific terms for workers of opposite sexes whose tasks are basically identical. "Actor" and "actress" are another example. In the airplane it was similar, except that as time went on, these workers and their employers wanted us to take them more seriously. As aviation itself evolved, from a realm of the elite to a form of mass transportation, this was perfectly good reasoning. Airplanes became bigger and faster, carrying many more people; the job of attending to those people grew less concerned with extravagance and more concerned with efficiency and safety. Passengers -- hundreds at a time -- don't need or expect to be doted on or pampered. They need to be served, overseen and, if need be, kept alive. The "real job" of the cabin staff isn't serving pretzels and cocktails, it's reacting to emergencies. How do you evacuate 420 people from a burning 747 in 90 seconds or less? How do you prepare a plane for a crash landing? Ask a flight attendant. Now that's got a bit more gravity. Per regulation, the maximum number of seats an airline is allowed to install on a given aircraft depends partly on how many flight attendants it carries along.

I can't say for sure if Joanne Miller's issue had more to do with gender association or some perceived professional insult. In other words, was she offended as a woman, or as a worker? (I'd be anxious to know, but she never replied to my letter.) If it's the former, I'd recommend she relax a little, maybe take a walk and do some reevaluating. If it's the latter, my sympathies are much stronger, though I'll remind her -- along with anybody else who may have been bothered -- that I employ "stewardess" sparingly and, more often than not, colloquially in tone. It's a break. It's for color.

And it could be worse. "Trolley dolly," for instance. I'm told that expression is popular in Britain, and elicits great compassion for the crews flying loads of inebriated soccer fans home from losing matches.

Or, instead of directing your protests at me, you might wish to address them to Singapore Airlines. I personally don't mind, but the world's 13th largest carrier still proudly refers to its female cabin crew as the "Singapore Girls." Boasts the airline's Web site: "We have one of the world's youngest fleet in the air, a network spanning five continents, and the Singapore Girl as our symbol of quality customer care and service." It's a branding that dates to 1972 and is the brainchild of Ian Batey, founder of the Singapore advertising giant Batey Ads, with whom the hometown airline has shared a decades-long relationship.

In many countries, the requirements to become a Singapore Girl are the stuff of discrimination lawsuits or are banned outright: Candidates can be no older than 25, and are forced to "retire" by 35. They must be of Asian extraction (most are Singaporean or Malay, but many are Chinese, Indian, Korean, Indonesian or Japanese) and must be "slim and attractive, with a good complexion and warm personality."

"The Singapore Girl strategy turned out to be a very powerful idea," writes Venture Republic magazine. "A successful brand icon with an almost mythical status and aura around her." Madame Tussauds wax museum in London installed a Singapore Girl in 1994. It was the museum's first commercial figure. In 1992, the Mattel toy company released a Singapore Girl edition of its famous Barbie doll.

"The Singapore Girl encapsulates Asian values and hospitality," adds Venture Republic, "and could be described as caring, warm, gentle, elegant and serene."

Or, put another way in a story from Reuters, "Despite her success, critics complain the Singapore Girl concept is sexist, outmoded and largely intended to serve male passengers' fantasies of desirable, subservient Oriental women."

I don't know how many male passengers truly fantasize about subservient Oriental women, but plenty of fliers, male and female alike, fantasize about good on-board service. Obviously the Girls excel in that regard, helping Singapore Airlines rack up more customer service awards and accolades than virtually all other carriers combined.

The Singapore Girl's distinctive in-flight uniform, the "sarong kebaya," is a customized adaptation of the traditional Malay kebaya blouse. It dates to the carrier's predecessor, Malaysia-Singapore Airlines, and was later updated by French designer Pierre Balmain. (In 1972, MSA split to become Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines. To this day the uniforms of both carriers are strikingly similar.) The Singapore Girl and her figure-hugging, floral-pattern batik are featured heavily in the airline's advertising. Company rules: no visible blemishes, scars or tattoos that cannot be hidden by the dress.

Singapore Airlines flight attendants endure five months of schooling, about four times the average. The training regimen is no less comprehensive in its approach to safety than that of Western carriers, but has plenty of extra courses -- literally. The airline's first-class, two-hour dinner "presentation" has its own multiday syllabus.

We in the United States might have a hard time grasping it, but in many parts of the world, flying for a living still has glamorous overtones. That vestige of glamour lingers -- not subtly in the concept of the Singapore Girl -- and carries with it, like it or not, a certain high-fashion sex-symbol status.

They're not the only ones. To relive a memory first shared with readers in a column four years ago: On a hot, drenching night in 1993, I was at the Bangkok, Thailand, airport trying to catch a standby seat to Narita, Japan. It was 4 in the morning and the terminal was elbow to elbow with sweaty and exhausted travelers. Suddenly the crowd parted, and there before me was a vision I could hardly believe. It was the cabin crew from Gulf Air -- a dozen flight attendants -- making their way to the gate for their pre-dawn departure to Bahrain. Never in my life had I seen stewardesses like these. Each was stunningly attractive and looked about 6 feet tall. They walked single file, as if down a fashion show runway. Behind them, like servants, came a pair of porters towing the crew's luggage on a metal cart. Central to the effect was the standard Gulf Air uniform. Created by Balenciaga, it featured a long beige coat and a chic redesign of a Muslim headdress -- a hat with a luxurious purple veil swirling across the neck and shoulders. People dropped their luggage and stared.

So, it's still out there. You just need to know where to find it. And it won't be at the airport in Denver or Tucson or Baltimore. Not anymore.

In America in the '60s and '70s, the "hostesses" at Braniff Airways, arguably history's most style-conscious airline, were dressed by Emilio Pucci, in a wardrobe that included a purple leotard tunic and, at one point, a transparent plastic head bubble. The proper wearing of Pucci's layered ensemble required the women to doff various components during flight, a changing routine dubbed the "air-strip" by Braniff. At Southwest, it was miniskirts and hot pants, and who can forget (or forgive) National Airlines for its infamous "Fly me" campaign? "I'm Lorraine," a seductively posed stewardess would say at the camera. "Fly me to Orlando." (Not to divert your attention from the remainder of this fine column, but YouTube is a gold mine of vintage airline ads.)

My mother signed on as a flight attendant for American Airlines in 1965. Correction, she signed on as a stewardess for American Airlines in 1965. (That's her on the left, in the photograph that accompanies this article.) I have her acceptance letter, with its invitation to train at American's "Stewardess College" in Dallas. I also have her copy of the airline's grooming and behavior handbook, a 200-page volume of tips and instructions titled "Look of the Leader." Among the 12 chapters are "Streamlining the Figure," "Complexion Care" and no fewer than 40 pages devoted to hair, including a subsection on "setting patterns." And this, from the guidelines under "Mouth Hygiene" (Page 10-1):

"Squibb's bicarbonate of soda, followed with a strong, hot, salt-water rinse. Especially good for gum condition -- pink toothbrush."

My mother is retired now (from Northwest, where she worked in the ticket office and in cargo sales, not stewing); Braniff went bust many years ago; National merged with Pan Am in 1980; and Southwest's long-legged vixens have been replaced by soccer moms.

The loss of a certain mystique is just one of the many parallels in the working lives of flight attendants and pilots. Both fly similar schedules and lay over in the same hotels. In recent years, both have seen their ranks thinned through thousands of layoffs, and have suffered substantial pay and benefits cuts. Both are beholden to the vagaries of seniority lists, where nearly all quality-of-life issues, from pay to promotions to vacations, are determined by date of hire.

Flight attendants have more flexibility with respect to routes and aircraft assignments (especially if they speak multiple languages), while pilots benefit from more protective rest and duty limitations. Pilots also make more money, though salaries aren't what they used to be and aren't close to what many people assume. If the first officer on a regional jet is earning, say, $19,000, just imagine what that guy or gal giving out the Cokes makes. On the other hand, long-tenured cabin staff at the largest carriers do fairly well. It's not uncommon for senior flight attendants to earn more than junior first officers.

For what it's worth, I've worked with four people over the years who made the difficult and unusual vocational shift from flight attendant to pilot. Kathy, Tom, Greg and George. The last name on that list belongs to George Land, a young guy who had some funny stories from his days working the aisles at TWA. Sadly, Land was killed in the crash of a DC-8 freighter in California seven years ago.

The reverse route, from pilot to flight attendant, is less hotly pursued, but not unheard of, depending on circumstances. Occasionally in the past, during periods when airlines were fat on pilots but short on flight attendants, pilots have been offered temporary cabin crew positions to avoid company furlough. Somehow, it's more pleasant picturing a stewardess in a white shirt with epaulets than the average pilot in a sarong kebaya.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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