Plane truth behind trolley-dolly brand
Laura PowellOctober 31, 2011
Retro US drama Pan Am shows what life was like for a flight attendant in 1963.
While not a practice common to other airlines, the incident is by no means unique in an industry that has long relied on female beauty and, in some cases, availability, to keep itself airborne.
Now the impending arrival of US drama Pan Am, the latest retro offering to follow in the wake of Mad Men (landing first in Britain, then next year in Australia), might raise questions about how much - or little - conditions have changed in the past 50 years for flight attendants, particularly those with breasts.
It is not hard to find evidence of what life was like for female flight attendants at the time. Two, Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones, even co-wrote a memoir at the close of the decade - charmingly entitled Coffee, Tea or Me? - in which Baker recalled being sexually molested by a passenger during an emergency landing. After complaining to her supervisor she was told: ''You know, Trudy, we can't have an unhappy, unsmiling stewardess serving our valued travellers, can we?''
This response might seem as archaic as the uniforms, but scrape the surface and the trolley-dolly caricature is still prevalent, thanks in no small part to the aggressively sexualised marketing and recruitment methods used by a broad range of airlines.
In July this year, Thai airline Nok Air posted a recruitment advert for ''beautiful girls with nice personalities'' to fill its cabin crew positions; those over 25 were deemed too old. Last month, a report in The Times of India accused Air India of following a similar recruitment policy. And new airline Thai Smile (operated by Thai Airways) is recruiting a 100-strong cabin crew of women under 24, ready for its launch in 2012.
''The reason for this is simply competition,'' explains Bev Skeggs, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths in London and author of Formations of Class and Gender. ''Airlines want to appear more high-end than their competitors to add value to their service,'' she says. ''To do this, they market their product as luxurious and desirable,'' with youth and beauty effectively transmitting that message.
Witness the Air New Zealand TV advertising campaign of 2009 in which cabin crew were photographed wearing nothing but body paint; or the Southwest Airlines planes emblazoned with murals of bikini-clad supermodel Bar Rafaeli. Virgin Atlantic has famously run £6 million ($9.09 million) advertising campaigns featuring its ''red hotties'' and there is a yearly ''Girls of Ryanair'' pin-up calendar.
Indeed, when the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), which represents 600,000 aviation industry workers, complained to Ryanair three years ago about the calendar, the airline's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, promised: ''We note ITF's objection to the calendar. Rest assured this has encouraged us to produce an even bigger and better charity calendar for next year.''
Aesthetic labour - when employees' feelings and appearance are turned into commodities - isn't a new phenomenon, and is familiar in retail too. For flight attendants, though, who need to provide emotional support - making travellers feel safe and looked after - there is a ''combination of sexuality and emotionality [that] takes place in a contained and often stressful environment'', says Skegg. ''That combination is explosive.''
Indeed, according to Gabriel Mocho Rodriguez, civil aviation secretary at the ITF in London, the most commonly reported complaints made by cabin crew ''relate to physical contact and inappropriate approaches''.
While a handful of complaints receive wider coverage - such as the allegations that Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexually harassed Air France attendants, or that 25-year-old passenger Katherine Goldberg last month grabbed a male crew member's genitalia and demanded sex during a Virgin Atlantic flight to Heathrow - the majority are made anonymously, and often do not name the airline. ''They are afraid of losing their jobs, which are often payable hourly and on short-term contracts,'' explains Rodriguez.
The ITF has a campaign called Tales of Harassment, which logs all such complaints. They do not make comfortable reading. In one, ''A passenger pinched the flight attendant's bottom when she was passing his seat, touched her breasts while she was serving his meal and, later, stood up behind her, grasped her hips and simulated sexual intercourse.'' In another: ''A male passenger touched my behind. I told him, 'You do that again and I'll slap you.' I asked other passengers to witness the behaviour … you get afraid that you might lose your job.''
For those in the industry, fearful of their job security and entrenched in these sorts of behaviour, it is only on finding a new career that the scale of the harassment becomes clear. Ruth Walford was a flight attendant for Thomson Airways in 2007 and now works as a speech therapist. ''One time I was giving a pilot a lift home and he made it clear he expected us to sleep together.'' She is adamant that this is commonplace. ''Back then, I thought little of it, but if someone treated me like that in my job as a speech therapist, I'd be deeply offended.''
The pressure on appearance continues long after the recruitment process, too. ''Putting on weight is a huge deal,'' Walford says. ''When my friend from another airline went from a size 10 to 12 and requested a new uniform, someone from the administration office left a Slimming World leaflet in her pigeonhole.''
Additionally, most airlines stipulate minimum make-up requirements. Walford says that Thomson demands female crew wear lipstick, blusher and mascara. For Aviation Australia, the minimum requirement is foundation, eye-shadow, mascara, blusher and lipstick. Its handbook even stipulates specific rules for women: ''Have a trim every four to five weeks … Use a good quality shampoo … Use eye-shadow to emphasise your eyes.'' Even specific footwear is prescribed.
''Thomson Airways made us wear flat shoes on the flight but at the end of duty, we had to put on specially issued shoes with heels to walk out of the airport,'' says Walford. Proof indeed that not enough has changed since 1963: in the publicity shots for Pan Am, Christina Ricci and her co-stars, including Australia's Margot Robbie, are all wearing similar standard-issue heeled court shoes.