Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Up for grabs

Being one of the female crew on a long-haul flight has always been seen as dazzlingly glamorous and exciting, and the new TV series Pan Am is being trailed as capturing that aura of glamour. But the reality is and was rather less rose-tinted.

Female flight attendants have had to endure sexist and abusive attitudes ever since the job was invented. That was true in the Pan Am days in the sixties and it's just as true now. Their biggest union, the ITF*, has hundreds of horror stories of cabin crew who've been molested, insulted and propositioned.

Some airlines support them and warn passengers to treat cabin crew with respect, but other airlines see the prevailing sexy image as just something passengers expect and turn a blind eye to it. Their attitude is "If you don't like it, you're in the wrong job."

Many airlines also have a strict dress code for female staff that stresses a sexy appearance. They stipulate make-up, short skirts or high heels, and sometimes even how often their hair should be trimmed or what shampoo they should use.

As they're expected to smile and simper at all times, you may not be aware of what they're having to put up with, but the behaviour of passengers is regularly outrageous. Unfortunately, unlike women workers on the ground, they don't have the option of deciding they've had enough and walking out.

I've never seen any truly appalling behaviour when I've been flying, but clearly some passengers think it's quite normal to fondle an attendant's breasts, simulate sex, or just persistently ogle her.

Airline advertising, far from discouraging such harassment, blatantly promotes it. Virgin Atlantic's parade of "red hotties" and Ryanair's pin-up calendar have been loudly complained about but the airline reaction is a wall of indifference.

And any female cabin crew approaching middle-age are liable to be nudged out of the job by the suggestion that they're too old or too plump or too stony-faced. Heaven forbid they might look too much like the life-worn travellers slumped in their planes.

So what does little Rebecca want to be when she grows up? I sincerely hope Flight Attendant is the last thing she thinks of.

* the International Transport Workers' Federation

27 comments:

nursemyra said...

I thought the days of glamourous flight attendants had long gone. When I flew with American Airlines a few months ago, I was quite taken aback at how old some of the flight attendants were. You know the neighbouring dog owner in There's Something About Mary? I swear she served me fruit juice.

Jenny Woolf said...

Smile and simper? You have never travelled on Olympic Airways, my friend.

Grannymar said...

I never saw the job of air hostess as glamorous, Just imaging serving tables while walking from California or Arizona to Heathrow.

Nick said...

Myra - American Airlines must be bucking the trend! I've seen a few middle-aged flight attendants myself so it seems the stereotype doesn't always apply.

Jenny - Olympic Airways, who they? A former Greek airline apparently? Presumably not known for their excellent customer service....

Grannymar - Exactly, they're just waiters/waitresses in the sky as far as I can see. They may be heading for exciting foreign destinations but that's the only difference.

e said...

I know someone who gave up a career to become a flight attendant AKA Sky Waitress...Made her parents wonder why she went to uni...

Nick said...

e - Indeed. I could think of a hundred better things to do with a university education than doling out tasteless food at 35,000 feet!

Baino said...

Fly QANTAS they're all ugly. When are you coming over?

Scarlet Blue said...

Oh dear, I have only flown a few times... and I was too scared witless to notice the cabin crew.
Have you watched Come Fly With Me? This is how I imagine it really is.
Sx

Rummuser said...

I have seen boorish behaviour towards the cabin crew by male travelers and always felt sick. I would not recommend any young lass of my acquaintance to take to this as a career. Apart from anything else, it is tiring and dead ended.

Los Angelista said...

Friends who've done the jobs definitely have stories...and they're not all PanAm glamourous, that's for sure. I don't think I could do it.

Nick said...

Baino - We ARE flying Qantas (lunatic chief executives permitting). We'll check out how ugly the cabin crew are....

Scarlet - Oh come now, flying is much much safer than driving a car. Do you think the airlines want to lose a multi-million pound plane in a hurry? Come Fly With Me was very funny!

Scarlet Blue said...

They lost Concord!
Sx

Nick said...

Ramana - I should think tiring and dead ended sums it up neatly. And I imagine jetting round the world could lose its attraction after you've done it 500 times.

Liz - I'm glad they're not all PanAm glamorous. Personally I feel more comfortable with a plain Jane than a flirty Gertie.

Nick said...

Scarlet - Well, you're going to lose the odd plane sometime. But the chances of you or me being on it at the time are astronomical.

Nick said...

Baino - When are we coming over? I'll send you an email.

Liz said...

I've mostly only travelled on package flights and the air crew are ... well, if you're lucky, polite but not smiling. And of all shapes and sizes. Not the stereotypical image that you had to comply with if you wanted to be 'an air hostess' when I was growing up. (And I didn't fit the mould definitely!) (Not that I wanted to be an air hostess.)

Nick said...

Welsh Liz - Quite a few airlines seem to buck the trend and employ more un-enhanced cabin crew. Which is encouraging.

kylie said...

the real reason they are there is for when something goes wrong and when it does your sky waitresses are the ones who you rely on.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I think it's a pretty thankless job except for the travel.

Nick said...

Kylie - That's very true, their knowledge of first aid and emergency procedures is what we really value if they're needed.

Heart - Even the travel must pall a bit when you've been travelling for 20 years.

Wisewebwoman said...

One of my pet peeves is denigrating a whole segment of the working population by calling out on their appearances rather than skills as evidenced by some of your commenters Nick.
Grossly unfair.
These flight attendants do a marvellous job (99% of them in my experience) and are not ogle material for the lechers among the passengers. You wouldn't believe the intensity of their training (first aid, languages, emergency procedures, etc.)
Respect please.
XO
WWW

Nick said...

www - You're quite right, any focusing on their appearance is uncalled-for, and describing flight attendants as "old" or "ugly" is no better than describing them as "sexy" or "well-stacked". I think a couple of commenters need a ticking-off!

I don't know much about their training, but I'll take your word for it that it's more thorough than we realise.

blackwatertown said...

Thank goodness I have never flown on one of those airlines with the flirty cabin crew, pouting at passengers' every whim. Terrible.
By the way, which airlines did you say they were again?

secret agent woman said...

I swear to you I commented earlier, but it's disappeared.

My stepmother is a flight attendant - she's 63 and polite and friendly but I'm sure he wouldn't put up with any male passenger's crap. But the airlines that still portray women as sex objects? There's an easy answer - boycott.

Nick said...

Blackwater - You'll find all the names in the article I linked to. I note that you only want the names strictly for research purposes.

Secret Agent - If you take after your stepmother at all, I'm sure you're right that she wouldn't tolerate any crap. And if she's 63 and nobody's trying to edge her out, that's good news.

secret agent woman said...

My stepmother didn't even get her job as a flight attendant until she was in her mid-50's!

Nick said...

Secret Agent - That's brilliant. Perhaps the airline has a strict equal ops policy, and they actually stick to it.