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Pan Am Invented It All: Flight Attendants

Lately I've been reading a lot of Pan Am memoirs. Most of the more in-depth accounts are from the later years - about Pan Am's decline. One of these days I'm going to get around to a post about Pan Am's slide into obscurity. As I've read more and more, I've started to get a feeling for what happened. The details are many and complex, but they can be condensed down to a couple of things: the world changed, and there was no replacement for Juan Trippe.

But many of the memoirs I've been reading were written by stewardesses. I titled this post "Flight Attendants" to cover the whole history of Pan Am, but most of the good history has been written by stews.

Originally Pan Am's flight attendants were all male stewards. Although I regularly say "Pan Am Invented It All", that isn't true about female flight attendants. I believe United was the first to fly with female cabin crew in the
1930s.

Specifically, Boeing Air Transport, one of the predecessors of United Airlines, first hired a Registered Nurse named Ellen Church to fly on domestic flights in 1930. Miss Church had wanted to be a pilot, but Steve Stimpson, the chief pilot at Boeing's fledgling airline, saw a need for a well-qualified cabin attendant to ensure passenger safety and comfort, back in the days when airline passengers were a superfluous addition, often sitting on sacks of mail (except at Pan Am, of course, where exceptional passenger luxury was already standard).

Following Boeing's (soon to be United's) lead, the other domestic airlines began hiring nurses to see to passenger comfort in the main cabin.

The job of flight attendant was always an elite, competitive position. In the 1930s, newly-termed "stewardesses" had to be Registered Nurses, very attractive, personable, quick-thinking, physically fit, and adventurous.

The training at all the major domestic airlines was rigorous, and the stresses of flying the primitive aircraft of the time were considerable. The stewardesses of the 1930s, however, were legendary for their poise, charm, and
professionalism, and had a huge impact in making flying - dangerous at the best of times in those days - comfortable and safe for the general public.

But not at Pan Am.

In the flying boat era, Pan Am considered aircrew duties to be too important and demanding for women, and did not allow female aircrew at all.

Pan Am stewards in the 1930s had generally  been the top of their profession in the Merchant Marine. When other airlines were strapping passengers on top of sacks of mail, Pan Am was flying Consolidated Commodores and Sikorsky S-40s, which were more opulent, although rather less spacious, than the most luxurious
ocean liners of the day.

Becoming a steward with Pan Am meant having years of experience with a major shipping line, then completing Andre Priester's exhaustive training programme in operation of the big flying boats. Originally the stewards were responsible for service only to the rest of the crew - there were no passengers, only mail. Once airborne, the whole crew would change into pajamas to be comfortable on the long overwater flights, then shower, shave, and change back into their Navy-style dress blue uniforms to deplane at their exotic destinations looking like magazine cover models, which, in those days, they often were. (In a charming bit of tradition preserved, I understand the long-haul freight pilots - Fed Ex, DHL, Atlas, etc. - do the same thing today - except for the cover model part, of course.)

Pan Am's stewards were preparing elaborate inflight service on multi-day international flights when the domestic airlines were hiring nurses to help passengers cope with the rigors of flying on aircraft that didn't even have heated cabins. In many ways, the roles of the domestic stewardesses vs. Pan Am's cabin stewards were apples and oranges - and the stewardesses had the much tougher, although far less glamourous, jobs.

This was the status quo until the end of World War II. I believe the term "flight attendant" came about during the war, when the luxuries disappeared from most airline flights, including especially Pan Am, where most of the crews were commissioned into the Navy, but the military needed an appropriate term for the people who were responsible for safety and order in the cabin.

At the end of the war, it was clear things were changing in many ways. The flying boats were gone, replaced by much faster and more efficient land planes that took advantage of all those nice big runways built by the military during the war.

Pan Am changed with the times, buying large numbers of DC-4s (later DC-6's and -7s), Lockheed Constellations, and Boeing 377s Stratocruisers. At the same time they began to hire their first female flight attendants, beginning a wonderfully exciting tradition.

Most of my observations about Pan Am's stewardesses come from Aimee Bratt, who wrote a wonderful memoir called "Glamour and Turbulence: I remember Pan Am, 1966-1991".  Her book covers the end of the era, as do most of the more in-depth accounts. Most of the accounts from the early period are much more brief - just snapshots or anecdotes. But Ms. Bratt's book is a classic.


Aimee Bratt was (is) basically a Swedish supermodel, who speaks half a dozen languages, grew up as the globe-trotting daughter of a diplomat, and didn't really have to do anything if she didn't want to. But because she could do anything, she wanted to be a Pan Am stewardess.

And she is about representative of the girls who got to fly with Pan Am.

Pan Am's cabin crew went from being all male in 1945 to all female by the early 1950s. But while international air travel had become more routine and less a matter of exploration, it had also greatly increased in magnitude, becoming a significant part of the world economy and society, as opposed to mainly a way to move mail.

Pan Am's stewardesses were the public face of the institution - the part of the "World's Most Experienced Airline" that passengers actually interacted with.


And the standards were incredibly high. I don't think much of anyone today can conceive of how high those standards were. Most of the major airlines had pretty strict standards for aircrew, but Pan Am's, of course, were by far the most intense.

Just to get in the door, in addition to advanced education, worldliness, language skills, and social connections, aspiring Pan Am stews had to meet strict height-weight standards, and be very obviously attractive. They were
literally the most desirable women anywhere.

Once hired, Pan Am stews were subjected to random inspections - down to their underwear, and including "weigh-ins". A pound overweight and you could be on probation. Miss another weigh-in and you could be fired. Can you imagine an airline in 2005 trying to impose those kind of standards? (Or any kind of standards, as far as I can tell.) The uniforms were ultra-stylish, but not ultra-comfortable or practical, and Pan Am set standards for everything - hairstyles, makeup, fingernails, even girdles.

Aimee Bratt talks about how she was kept in suspense about whether she would be hired by Pan Am for months, only to suddenly be given 24 hours to report for training in Miami - and she was in Teheran. Pan Am was more demanding than the military - and they could afford to be, because the competition to be a part of the legendary "service" was intense. If Aimee didn't show up on time, she would be summarily dropped - because there were 10 more girls like her competing for the slot.

Once through training, the pressure only became more intense, but the rewards were equally as great. Aimee talks about making multi-course meals from scratch  in the tiny galleys on the 707. 707s had nearly 200 passengers and were substantially smaller on the inside than the Boeing 314, which normally had
about 40. Pan Am stewardesses routinely wheeled a freshly-prepared prime rib down the aisle, and carved it to order at the passenger's seat. Unlike air travel today, almost all the food (in first and clipper classes, at least) was made (almost) from scratch onboard. Just as the stewardesses of the 1930s at United and American had tougher jobs than Pan Am's stewards, the stewardesses of the 1950s and 1960s had almost superhumanly difficult responsibilities.

But the opportunities were extraordinary as well. Pan Am aircrews were treated like royalty in most parts of the world, and the glamour of flying for Pan Am has probably never been equaled. Pan Am crews regularly circled the globe, with layovers at places that don't even have usable runways in 2005. A little bit of this mystique was captured in the recent Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks movie "Catch Me If You Can", where real-life con man Frank Abignale posed as a Pan Am pilot. But the movie didn't begin to capture what it was really like for Pan Am
crews flying to remote corners of the globe.

Now it's all gone. Aimee Bratt, when she wrote her memoir about Pan Am in 1996, was still flying with Delta, but the changes in the world and the airlines come through loud and clear in her writing. She herself reflects how things have changed and how the fun and romance has gone out of air travel, and seems to have become far less tolerant of any of it - the airlines, the passengers, the stress of travel - after 30 years than she was in the heyday of Pan Am. If you have been on an airline recently, you know extremely exemplary she is of the
flight attendants in 2005. I'm not sure when I last encountered a flight attendant who wouldn't have been fired on the spot at Pan Am.

Sometimes I look at old Pan Am route maps and schedules and reflect on what so many of those old Pan Am destinations are like now. Beirut, Teheran, Monrovia, Leopoldville, Baghdad, Saigon, Havana, Wake Island - places you simply can't go to, or don't want to - but Pan Am flew there every day for decades.  There's nothing like it, and almost certainly there never will be again.

posted Sunday, 15 May 2005

A visitor made this comment,
"I'm not sure when I last encountered a flight attendant who wouldn't have been fired on the spot at Pan Am."

ANA or JAL attendants come close.

John

comment added :: 16th May 2005, 11:49 GMT-05
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