Since the commencement of scheduled commercial flights in the early 1910s, flight attendants have played a significant role in airline operations. However, crew members had been constantly seeking equal work opportunities for both male and female staff members in a struggle that spanned decades. A number of flight attendants made history through their efforts to change antiquated, stringent, and discriminatory airline standards.
A male-dominated profession
The flight attendant profession began in the early 1910s, appearing alongside the rise of the German airline DELAG, which was the world’s first air carrier to operate a fleet of zeppelin airships and provide commercial air travel services on transatlantic routes from Europe to North America.
Prior to the development of the air steward role, the German company required its co-pilots to serve passengers food and drink as well as controlling the airships. Following an improvement in passenger air travel, the carrier reassessed the importance of catering to passenger needs and separated flight operation and customer service duties. So, the first male steward was hired and was solely responsible for servicing passengers.
At the time, air travel was a lavish affair and was only affordable for wealthier customers such as businessmen. But, due to engine noise and turbulence, passenger comfort was often disturbed. Subsequently, air carriers sought new ways to provide a more comfortable experience during long operations.
DELAG highlighted a real need for in-flight service and assistance. Soon, other airlines began to follow suit and recruited additional crew members whose main task was to support travelers. For instance, in 1929 the American air carrier Pan Am started employing male stewards to serve food. Meanwhile, British Airways’ predecessor, the commercial long-range airline Imperial Airways, began recruiting so-called cabin boys to load passenger luggage onboard the aircraft, reassure passengers, and enforce fire safety regulations by extinguishing cigars and cigarettes during the flight.
World’s first male flight attendant survives Hindenburg disaster
The first cabin crew member to be mentioned in aviation history was Heinrich Kubis, a German waiter who worked for DELAG on its zeppelin airships.
Initially, Kubis was serving passengers on an early fleet where he was the only cabin crew member. But he was later promoted to Chief Steward and was responsible for a team of up to 15 male crew members. The experienced waiter, who had previously worked for several luxurious European hotels, including the Carlton in London and the Ritz in Paris, was accountable for meal preparation and servicing processes. His role also included the observation of airship passengers to ensure that none of them brought cigarette lighters, matches, or any other fire source onboard.
In the early 1920s, DELAG was offering round trips between Europe and North America on its LZ-129 Hindenburg airliner, which was considered the fastest and the most comfortable airship for transatlantic operations.
In May 1937, Kubis was working on the zeppelin Hindenburg, which was supposed to fly the route between Frankfurt, Germany, and Lakehurst in the United States. The airship was expected to reach its final destination in the US about three days after the takeoff. But the flight ended tragically, resulting in 13 deaths out of 36 passengers on board the zeppelin.
On May 6, 1937, the airship was approaching the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst but due to poor weather, the flight crew decided to delay the landing until things improved. After an hour of waiting, the Hindenburg approached Lakehurst and started preparations for landing.
At 7:25 p.m. local time, just minutes before landing, the Hindenburg caught fire and exploded into flames. The fire spread quickly onboard, consuming the zeppelin in less than a minute. Passengers who were inside the cabins were trapped by the crumbling airship and tragically died in the fire.
At the moment of the accident, Kubis was performing his duties in the airship’s dining room and was lucky to escape death. As soon as the Hindenburg sank close enough to the ground, Kubis encouraged evacuation and assisted passengers and crew who were jumping out of the windows of the burning airship. Having landed without injuries, the world’s first flight attendant continued living in Germany until he died in the 1970s.
Maintaining passenger confidence
In the late 1930s, attitudes towards the role of air steward dramatically altered. While the aviation industry was dominated by male crew members, the American air carrier, United Airlines, became the first company to hire women.
The idea evolved when airlines started to express concern about the health of travelers. The move to employ women was strongly encouraged by a trained nurse, Ellen Church. Church, whose career in aviation began in the 1930s, became the first world’s female flight attendant. She helped to secure prospects for thousands of women to join the aviation industry.
Church had a successful career working as a trained nurse at a San Francisco hospital, but she had always wanted to pilot a commercial aircraft. However, at the time such career options were not open for women. After a few failed attempts, Church successfully convinced Boeing Air Transport (BAT), the predecessor company of United Airlines, that using nurses as flight-stewardesses would increase safety and utilizing trained medical professionals would help to convince passengers that flying was safe. Church was hired as Head Stewardess and was the first female to attend to passengers, serving them food and drink as well as helping them with hauling luggage. Her duties also included fueling and assisting pilots to push the aircraft into hangars. She was also the first female to work on the Boeing 80A three-engine biplane during a 20-hour-long flight from San Francisco to Chicago with 13 stops and 14 passengers on board.
After the success of her historical debut, Church persuaded her employer to hire seven more female cabin crew members for a three-month-long trial period. She proved that a female cabin crew was able to handle all the tasks as qualitatively as men did. Her idea encouraged the other air carriers to follow BTA’s example and hire more female nurses for work in the cabin.
The air carriers also believed that the onboard service provided by physically attractive women would significantly improve customer satisfaction. And so, BTA became the first airline that started recruiting nurses for service duties. The female stewardess was required to provide meal service and attend to those who became airsick.
Double standards and rising dissent
During World War II, the demand for medical workers had risen and the majority of nurses left aviation for duties in military units. Due to the lack of female stewardesses with medical education, airlines changed the requirements for service staff and began hiring young women without nursing experience.
Over the next 20 years, air carriers continued to hire women for stewardess positions. But the role came with extremely strict standards, including physical appearance and age. A stewardess had to follow stringent conditions and was forced to leave the profession by an average age of 32. Marriage, pregnancy, or even weight gain meant that a stewardess could lose her job.
Companies also insisted that their female staff should follow impeccable grooming standards to keep up with their glamourous image. On duty, they were required to wear hats, high heels, and white gloves. While the requirement of nursing experience was withdrawn, stewardess uniforms were designed to mimic the original nurse’s uniforms from the 1930s as a way to instill confidence in their abilities.
These strict standards were met with rising dissatisfaction among female cabin crew. The bravest members began to oppose the rules and speak out against the inequality. Flight attendant Edith Lauterbach was among the first to fight for gender equality in the aviation industry.
In 1944, Lauterbach joined United Airlines. But noticing the blatant discrimination, she united with another three female crew members, Frances Hall, Sally Thometz, and Sally Watt, to set up the first trade union dedicated to the in-flight aviation workers. By 1945, the quintet founded the Air Line Stewardesses Association, representing the rights of aircraft cabin service personnel, which, nowadays, is also known as the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. During the decades that followed, many air carries began to drop employment restrictions based on age, weight and marital status
Although changes in airline policy were being made, some carriers continued to discriminate against female flight attendants of color. Journalist and nurse Ruth Carol Taylor became the first African American airline flight attendant in the United States when she joined Mohawk Airlines in 1958.
Born in Boston, into a family of black, white, and Cherokee heritage, Taylor graduated as a nurse from the Bellevue School of Nursing in New York City. She had always dreamed about working as a cabin crew member and, in early 1957, Taylor applied for a job with US major, Trans World Airlines (TWA). Her application was immediately rejected, simply because of her skin color. She subsequently filed a complaint against the company with the New York State Commission on Discrimination. While no action was brought against the airline, other companies began to re-think their policies on hiring minority crew members.
Meanwhile, Mohawk Airlines, a regional passenger airline operating in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US, expressed interest in hiring minority flight attendants and Taylor took a chance to apply for a position. Taylor was selected from 800 black applicants. On February 11, 1958, history was made as Taylor became the first-ever African American flight attendant, operating her flight from Ithaca Tompkins, Regional Airport to New York, JFK.
But Taylor’s joy was short-lived and, just six months later, another discriminatory regulation caused her to lose her job in aviation. Before applying to the airlines, Taylor had been engaged. However, the marriage ban operated by all carriers in the 50s and 60s meant that Taylor was forced to resign.
She was later significantly involved in covering the 1963 March on Washington and became an activist for consumer affairs and women’s rights. She also wrote The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival in America (1985), in view of the endemic racism in the United States towards African Americans.
In 1977, Taylor returned to work as a nurse and became a co-founder of the Institute for Inter-Racial Harmony, which developed a test to measure racist attitudes known as the Racism Quotient. At the time, Taylor attended several demonstrations to end police brutality against the Black community. In 2008, 50 years after she joined the airline industry, Taylor’s efforts to fight for equality were memorialized by the New York State Assembly. In a media interview, she admitted that she had no-long term career aspirations as a stewardess, but her goal had always been to break the color barrier in the air carriers’ policy.
In the early 1970s, trade unions gained more traction, and the role of the stewardess began to alter in line with the fight for gender equality.
Following the Civil Rights Act, which came into action in 1964, the federal courts of the United States began intervening to stop air carriers forbidding their employees from getting married as well as firing stewardesses once they reached a certain age. Air carriers could no longer discriminate against their staff based on race, sex, age, or marital status.
This legislation transformed air stewardesses from a short-term role for young, single women into a long-term career opportunity. Most notably, in a landmark 1971 decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that airlines could not discriminate against men after Celio Diaz Jr. of Miami claimed his two applications for Pan Am were rejected on the basis of gender.
Following the non-discrimination policy, air carriers began to hire more men for passenger care duties and the need for a non-gender specific term to describe the profession arose. In the next decade, the term ‘stewardess’, defining an onboard assistant job, was replaced with ‘flight attendant’, which reflected both genders.
True devotion to duty
Women in aviation have proved time and again that they are just as courageous and devoted to their duties in the aviation industry as their male counterparts.
One such woman was British flight attendant Barbara Jane Harrison, known as Jane Harrison, who sacrificed her life to save passengers during a catastrophic incident in the late-1960s.
Harrison joined British Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1966 and started her career onboard the fleet of Boeing 707 aircraft. On April 8, 1968, after two years of work for the air carrier, she died in a fatal accident.
Harrison was rostered to fly the long-haul BOAC Flight 712 to Sydney, Australia, via Zurich, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Bombay, Singapore, and Perth with the Boeing 707 jet. However, immediately after takeoff from London Heathrow Airport, the second engine of the plane caught fire and detached from the aircraft body, leaving a fierce fire burning at the engine’s position. The flight crew immediately reacted to the emergency right and landed the jet at the airport of departure.
Following company requirements for emergency procedures, Harrison opened the rear galley door and inflated the slide for evacuation. But unfortunately, it twisted while being automatically inflated, making the exit unusable. Her colleague decided to climb down the slide to straighten it, so it could be used for passenger evacuation, but once out of the plane, he was unable to return on board, leaving Harisson alone with a duty to evacuate people. Reportedly, the slide caught on fire, but Harrison continued to encourage passengers to exit the aircraft.
Witnesses later recalled that Harrison was so devoted to her duty that she continued pushing passengers to safety even as “flames and smoke [were] licking around her face”. Once all the passengers were out, she was supposed to evacuate. But the flight attendant appeared to turn back inside. There was another explosion, and she was not seen alive again. Her body was found with four others near the rear door, and all had died from asphyxia.
In August 1969 Harrison became the only woman to receive the George Cross, which is the highest award bestowed by the British government for non-operational gallantry or gallantry not in the presence of an enemy, during peacetime, and its youngest female recipient.