International Flight Attendant Day: A Look Back at the History of Flight Attendants

Credit: San Diego Air and Space Museum

Since the beginning of air travel, flight attendants have played an integral role in shaping the travel experience. International Flight Attendant Appreciation Day is soon approaching on May 31st, honoring the work flight attendants do every day for the aviation industry. Follow along as we take a look back at the history of this role over the last century.

From Courier to Stewardess

In the 1920s, sons of businessmen worked as old-fashion flight attendants called couriers. They oversaw the needs of passengers onboard the airlines their families ran. If there were no couriers working a flight, which was a frequent occurrence after the stock market crash, the copilot would oversee the responsibilities.

While official male workers were eventually hired as stewards in the 1930s, the first female stewardess, Ellen Church, wasn’t hired until the late 1930s by United Airlines. These employees typically worked 100 hours per month for around $1/hour. When more airlines came into the playing field in the 50s and 60s, their stewardesses became an exploited marketing tool — from airlines mandating more revealing uniforms, to launching ads with innuendos.

Credit: AP Photo | Virginia Schroeder and Ellen Church, the first female flight attendant

The first responsibilities of flight attendants involved keeping an eye on the time and making sure passengers behaved on board. The workload then evolved to everything from cleaning the cabin to even fueling the plane. In the 1950s, some airlines even began asking their stewardesses to sing, dance and play instruments as forms of in-flight entertainment for passengers. Because of the occasional strenuous activities and the glamorization of the role, women were often let go by 35 and had to sign agreements that they would remain single and not become pregnant during their career. A few airlines started dropping this rule in the late 50s and early 60s, until it was finally struck down in 1968.

Credit: Pint | Southwest Airlines flight uniform from the 70s

The Modern Flight Attendant

In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that airlines could not discriminate against men. Men still only occupied 19.3% of the workforce by the 80s, but the term stewardess was dropped and replaced with the gender-neutral term: flight attendant. In 1978, airlines could finally set their own fares, causing a boom in more accessible and cheaper travel. This began opening up opportunities for the travel industry. With the greater need for flight attendants, the position became more inclusive and less restrictive.

The average flight attendant today spends between 75–100 hours in the air every month. They are an integral part to the flying experience managing passengers’ safety, comfort and more. Over the last few years, flight attendants have faced an uptick in unruly passengers, new COVID-19 safety protocols, staffing shortages and other hardships. Flying would not be possible without the hard work flight attendants put into their jobs every single day. We are incredibly grateful!

The next time you fly, be sure to say an extra thank you to these globetrotting remarkable crew members.

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