History of Flight Attendants

A brief history of Flight Attendants - Flight attendants as they are mostly referred to today have been around would you believe since 1912. In fact the first reported known flight attendant was in Germany named Heinrich Kubis.

Of course there are many names for flight attendants such as:

Cabin Crew 


Stewardess or Steward 

Trolley Dolly 

Cart Tart 

Glorified Waitress and the like

None from my perspective are taken offensively. Personally my attitude has been, ”Call me anything you want but late for lunch”, however in these days of political correctness and over sensitivity one has to be far more exacting of occupation terminology used.

A Flight Attendants primary role for being on board of course is for that of safety.

 (In aircraft design, they must be able to evacuate a full aircraft of unrehearsed people in 90 seconds of less.

This position applies in the commercial aviation world, on select business aircraft and of course some military aircraft.

The history of flight attendants job role reveals that it extends from that in other customer service environments such trains, ships and to a certain extent coaches. However, the safety aspect is much more involving due the mode of transport being an aeroplane and the environment that it operates in. The relative speeds are massively higher than other forms of transport and the consequences of any safety situation is far more dire than land based transport and therefore the concentration on and the application of safety in the work environment is much higher.

Incidentally, according to Wikipedia (opens in a new window) which for your interest reveals much more about the history of flight attendants states that...

“The origins of the word "steward" in transportation are reflected in the term "steward" as used in maritime transport terminology. The term purser and chief steward are often used interchangeably describing personnel with similar duties among seafaring occupations. This lingual derivation results from the international British maritime tradition dating back to the 14th century and the civilian United States Merchant Marine which US aviation is somewhat modelled”. 

As the position and functionality of flight attendants roared into the 1920’s and being originally ‘male’ dominated, the history of flight attendants reveals that Imperial Airways, an airline of the time based in the United Kingdom had what they called “Cabin Boys” or “Stewards”.

The sexual gender domination was starkly different during the 70’s where it became a female dominated industry and while stewardess and for that matter steward is a name or description often used, flight attendant or cabin crew is much more common now.

It wasn’t until 1926 that stewards were first employed in the USA by Stout Airways. Western Airlines and Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) in (1928) and (1929) respectively were the first US carriers to employ stewards to serve food.

It wasn’t until 1930 that United Airlines hired the first female flight attendant by the name of Ellen Church. Airlines of the time sought to place nurse qualified hostesses on all flights back then and Ellen happened to be a most suitable 25-year-old registered nurse.

How the war affected the history of flight attendants: - Due to the high enlistment of nurses into the efforts of World War II, the requirement to be a registered nurse was relaxed and focus was placed on other ideal characteristics and skill sets for the flight attendant position.

The flight attendant look

The focus on the attractiveness and friendliness or more aptly, the presentation of flight attendants, became an increasing issue in part due to advertising in the 1960s and 1970s.

For those of us old enough we can remember many slogans that would not see the light of day today all designed around the premise that – ‘Sex Sells’! From all reports it did because many airlines followed suit. There was also a broad reach policy among the airlines that only unmarried women could be flight attendants and as soon as they became engaged they would have to resign from the company or take a desk job.

The focus, particularly since 911 has to shy away from the ‘Sex Sell’ campaigns to the ‘Safety Sells better’ type advertising. 

September 11, 2001 or as we all refer to it, September 11, heightened the prominence of the role that flight attendants played in actively trying to protect passengers from assault and passing on vital information to air traffic controllers about what was happening on-board during the hijackings.

As a result all flight attendants are now trained in physical protection in the events of emergencies and to be offensive during attacks, rather than obeying hijackers commands.

No history of flight attendants page would be complete in brevity without mention of the Unions

United Airlines was the birth place of the Flight attendant unions beginning in the 1940s. At first they focused on negotiating improvements in pay, benefits and working conditions they later gave challenge to what they perceived as sexist stereotypes and unfair work practises such as age limits, size limits, limitations on marriage, and prohibition of pregnancy.

Today thanks to them from the likes of me and you if you decide to go on and make application to become a flight attendant, many of these limitations have now been lifted by judicial mandates.

It should be noted that the largest flight attendants union is the Association of Flight Attendants, representing over 42,000 flight attendants at 21 airlines within the US.

In the UK, there are two organisations registered to represent the flight attendants being either Cabin Crew '89, or the much larger and more powerful Transport and General Workers' Union.

In Australia, it’s the flight Flight Attendants' Association of Australia (FAAA) which is divided into two divisions, one for international crews (long-haul) and one for domestic crews (short-haul). 

In New Zealand there is also two organisations available for the representation of Flight Attendants, namely the Flight Attendants and Related Services Association (FARSA) or the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU).

As a side note to the ‘Sex Sells’ MO that many airlines used to operate under here’s some history of flight attendants that reveals some interesting info for those of you born in or around the start of the G-Y era.

During that time female flight attendants were required to be single upon hiring. Unfortunately they were fired (Some airlines re-positioned them to a desk job) if they got married. It gets worse..., they also were weighed on a regular basis and many times it was every time they went to work to ensure they did not exceed what in some circumstances were nothing short of fanciful weight regulations. Age or max age to be more precise was a limiting factor also. Once you reached the age 32 and with some airlines 35 years of age you were also out the door!

It wasn’t until the early 1970s that a group of ‘Stewardesses for Women's Rights’ protested sexist advertising and company discrimination, and brought many cases to court. This action saw the age restriction eliminated in 1970 with the no-marriage rule going the same way in US airline industry and subsequently other countries by the 1980s.

The abolition of weight restriction finally came through (primarily) litigation in the 1990s. This incidentally, was and still is rephrased and referred to as, ‘weight in proportion to height’.

And finally... Due the increasing numbers of males joining the ranks the gender specific term, ‘Stewardess’ was replace by the ‘gender-neutral’ alternative of ‘Flight Attendant’. As I stated above, I and many others in the industry now refer to ourselves as Flight Attendants, Cabin Crew or Cabin Staff.

The history of flight attendants at depth is extremely interesting and much more could be said here, however I hope that this 'brief in-sight to the history of flight attendants' has given you a broad insight as to the beginnings of this fantastic career.

More information on  Flight Attendant jobs and career availability with every other airline on this web site (plus others) can be viewed via our facebook page from post to post as news becomes available.

You're also invited to view our Be a Flight Attendant today program for more information.

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