In a few days, my wife Marge and I will head to DFW airport, climb aboard a waiting plane and will be welcomed aboard by a smiling (well, usually anyway) flight attendant to our flight to Philadelphia. This routine will repeat itself in Philadelphia when we board a commuter flight to White Plains, New York, the last leg of our journey to New York’s Hudson River Valley to spend a week with our son and daughter-in-law.
By now, you no doubt are wondering what’s the big deal about getting on an airplane?
Well, it is a big deal in its own way because 84 years ago, on May 15, 1930 to be exact, registered nurse Ellen Church, the first airline stewardess, went on duty aboard an Oakland-to-Chicago flight operated by Boeing Air Transport, a forerunner of United Airlines. And a few days ago I read an article about an unremarkable, today totally meaningless five-story vacant building in downtown Dallas. However, back in 1968 the building’s residents were talk of the town – it was the home of Braniff Airlines Hostess College, a training school and dormitory where the Dallas-based airline would, as one tabloid put it, “turn the girl next door into a truly cosmopolitan beauty.”
While the first flight attendants were nurses due to physically testing air travel the requirements changed as air travel popularity grew and became a glamorous experience both for the traveler and the flight attendant.
At the Braniff College hostesses were required to be of “good character, pleasant disposition and easy temperament,” as the recruiting brochure read, with at least two years of college education. The physical requirements were stringent: height between 5 feet 2 inches and 5 feet 9 inches and a maximum weight of 135 pounds. At the college cafeteria, a special table with a ceramic pig was a not too subtle reminder for hostesses who had become a bit too indulgent for the company’s tastes. And hostesses had to quit when they got married or turned 32.
“We just assumed we turned too ugly or too dumb,” quipped a long-retired flight attendant.
But that was then, and this is now. Today thousands of flight attendants are in the air daily. Men have joined the ranks of flights attendants (job equality in reverse, no doubt), age is irrelevant with the young joining the middle-aged and quite old attendants and height and weight no longer matter – as long as they all can meet the rigorous physical fitness requirements.
The glamour of flying, both for the traveler and the flight attendant, has long passed. About the only thing that hasn’t changed, the warm smile and the cheery “Welcome Aboard.”