The familiar figure of flight attendants, aka cabin crew, air hosts/hostesses or air stewards/stewardesses, is the result of Ellen Church’s backup plan. An American nurse fascinated with flying, Ellen decided to visit San Francisco airport I 1930 after seeing an exhibition by Ruth Law (one of the first female American pilots). Determined to get a job as a pilot for Boeing Air Transport (today’s United Airlines), Steve Stimpson, who was traffic manager, turned her down but was convinced by Ellen’s plan B: working in the cabin, helping passengers and calming them down if necessary, an area where her training as a nurse was useful. The board’s first response to Stimpson’s telegram was a laconic “NO”, which eventually became a request for Ellen to hire other registered nurses for this service and train them.
And so, Ellen Church and her seven colleagues became the world’s first flight attendants (in Europe, that honour would go to the Swiss woman Nelly Diener, in 1934), soon to be emulated by other airlines. The way was paved to a profession that would definitively become female in the minds of most, although one that had been done by men until then (the first flight attendant was the German Heinrich Kubis in 1912, aboard the Zeppelins).
However, the airlines’ enthusiasm had nothing to do with noble ideals of equality. Trained to handle situations where they had to deal with different people in difficult situations, whilst remaining friendly and inspiring confidence, nurses were a natural choice. The aim was also to create a warm and familiar ambience aboard, performing the role of a hostess and creating the appearance of safety on a relatively unknown form of transport. In addition to this, they also needed to gain the confidence of women: a study from the early 1930s showed that most businessmen were prevented from flying by their wives. So, one of the assistants’ jobs was to do session in ladies clubs, showing how planes were safe and how flying meant their husbands returned home much sooner.
Working conditions of these pioneers were quite tough, with demands being made on their private lives: there were requirements regarding their figure, weight and behaviour, for example, they couldn’t marry (also true of other jobs at the time, such as nursing). However, this was still one of the best professions open to women at the time. Their presence on board, in addition to making passengers more comfortable and looking after their safety (which cabin crew still do today), was an important factor in creating the public perception that flying was safe and effective, alongside technical developments. Ellen’s plan B came about in an ideal combination of circumstances, leaving us the legacy we all enjoy today.
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