The First Air Stewardesses

The 1929 stock market crash and ensuing worldwide depression, coupled with more stringent safety regulations, caused many of the flying circuses and barnstorming circuits to fold. During the decade, options for women pilots in the United States and Europe were limited mainly to sales, marketing, racing and barnstorming and being an instructor pilot. In 1930, Ellen Church, a licenced airplane pilot and nurse, who was unable to secure work flying proposed to airline executives that women be allowed to act as hostesses on planes; her argument being that using nurses as flight-stewardesses would increase safety and help convince passengers that flying was safe. Until then, it had been the co-pilot's duty to pass out box lunches, serve coffee, and tend to the passenger's needs.

Ellen Church c 1930 (Public Domain)

Church was hired on a three-month trial basis [See Note 1] by Boeing Air Transport (later renamed United Airlines), which then selected the first seven stewardesses for the airline, requiring them to be under 115 pounds, qualified nurses and unmarried. Their first flight (a three-engine Boeing 80A biplane for a 20-hour flight from Oakland/San Francisco to Chicago with 13 stops and 14 passengers) took off on 15 May, 1930. [1]

American Airlines began using stewardesses in 1933, and other airlines soon followed, although Pan American resisted the trend until 1944. [2]

Nelly Hedwig Diener was the first air stewardess in Europe, and started flying for Swissair on 1 May 1934, quickly becoming known as the Engel der Lüfte ("Angel of the Skies"). [3]

Nelly Diener on Curtiss AT-32C Condor (CH-170) in Dübendorf, 1934 (Public Domain)

She died just over two months later when Swissair Curtiss AT-32C Condor II biplane (CH-170) aircraft crashed near Tuttlingen, Germany, on 17 July, 1934, while flying through a thunderstorm. The other two crew members were the pilot, Armin Mühlematter, and the radio navigator, Hans Daschinger. The Nine passengers also died. [4] The aircraft had departed Zurich for Berlin, with stopovers in Stuttgart and Leipzig. Shortly after crossing the Swiss-German border, the aircraft, cruising at an altitude of about 3,000 m, encountered a thunderstorm, and while flying through it, the right wing eventually broke off. This resulted in an immediate loss of control and the aircraft plummeted into a forest near Tuttlingen, exploding into flames on impact. [5] [6] [7]

Daphne Kearley became the first – and only – pre-Second World War British air hostess, on 16 May 1936. Aged just 19 at the time, and paid £12 per month, she worked for a company called Air Dispatch flying on an Avro 642 (one the only two Avro 642 planes ever built, and had seats for 16 passengers and included a lavatory) between Croydon airport and Le Bourget in France. Kearley’s duties covered a range of activities, including providing typing skills, taking dictation and producing letters for business passengers. Airline meals usually consisted of smoked salmon and caviar – a far cry from much of today’s fare in economy class. Kearley was clearly a hit with the passengers - she reputedly received 299 airborne proposals of marriage during her 10 months in her job.

At that time, passengers had to worry not only about frequent crashes but also about sudden drops of altitude, which, in unpressurised planes, could rupture one’s eardrums. To communicate with passengers, cabin crew often had to resort to speaking through small megaphones to be heard above the din of the engines and the wind. The noise in a typical Ford Tri-Motor during take-off was nearly 120 decibels, loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss. However, it wasn’t just nursing qualities that made these female flight attendants so popular. It was also to do with their appearance, which helped to sell the idea of a glamorous career.

Even once airlines became more relaxed, and eventually dropped the nursing requirement, there were other strict rules the women had to follow to be eligible for the job. Requirements were so tight that airlines enforced rules which would probably be frowned upon now. According to Vanity Fair, there were a few aesthetic rules that airline hopefuls had to fit into.

These include both weight and height guidelines, meaning women who weighed over 140 pounds were not permitted to take on the role. In short, you needed to be both desirable (although not to Jayne Mansfield proportions) and, at least in theory, available.

AB Aerotransport (Swedish Air Lines) air hostesses at Bromma Airport, Stockholm, 1946 (Public Domain)

The Upside and the Downside to being a Flight Attendant

You get to travel all around the world if you are working for an international airliner. You get to visit some of the most exotic places around the world. You can’t walk into an airline company and apply for the airhostess job. There is long procedure and most of the time these companies tie up with training schools where they teach how to become an air hostess. Even if there is an opening the competition is very tough. Out of 100 applicants only one gets the job. Most of the airliner pays their airhostesses and other crew members very well. They also pay you for extra hours in case flight is late or delayed.

A Mid-flight smorgasbord. (Public Domain)

You make good money compared to other jobs in the hospitality sector. Moreover most the airline companies give you free accommodation if you are going out of country. The work schedule is also very hectic and you have stay air borne for long hours. Hence you spend very less time in home with your family. You can also get fired from the job if you take leave without informing your superiors, or there is a complaint then you will be put on probation. Harassment is also very common in this line. You are harassed by your seniors because they ask for favours.

Austrian Airlines flight attendant (Public Domain)

You have to work with a team and you learn the most important virtue called patience. Moreover when you travel around the world visit new places and meet all kinds of people you develop social skills. The airhostess job is very difficult because you have to deal with all kinds of people on the plane, especially with flight safety and security issues. You also have to listen their other complaints about flight delays, food and if someone is sick.

Your experience as an air hostess can help you in forwarding your career if some day you want to leave this job. You have to retire earlier because the job is for young women. As you cross 35 you have to look for another job.

In 2015, Air India grounded 130 of their flight attendants for carrying extra pounds in their 'personal luggage'. The mass grounding is just the latest in a 10-year-long tug-of-war between the airline and its larger flight attendants. In 2013, rival Indian airline GoAir said it was hiring mostly women because they weighed less than men. In these times where passengers wear sweat suits and live like pigs on the plane it’s hardly justified to impose model criteria on the crew.

Flight attendants and crew members are known to be exposed to cosmic ionizing radiation which is a form of radiation that comes from space and intensifies as altitude above sea level increases. [8]

Cabin crew members are also regularly exposed to more UV radiation than the general population, which can make these workers more vulnerable to skin cancers. [9]

Poor cabin air quality is a subject of ongoing study in relation to symptoms such as headache, fatigue, fever, and respiratory difficulties among many others that have been reported by flight attendants, particularly on long-haul routes. [10]

Flight attendants are exposed to verbal and sexual harassment. [11] Studies in the United States and Australia have found that the vast majority (two-thirds) of flight attendants experience sexual harassment in the course of their careers, including sexual assault, inappropriate touching and sexual comments both by colleagues and passengers. [12] [13]

Note 1:

Ellen Church was the first stewardess, but not the first Flight Attendant. This was German Heinrich Kubis, a German professional waiter who held the distinction of serving as the world's first flight attendant having served Zeppelin passengers in-flight since March 1912, when he began contract catering on the DELAG airship Schwaben. [14]

[1] Haynes, Danielle (25 May, 2020). "First female flight attendant took maiden trip 90 years ago."


[3] This Day in Aviation. Retrieved 8 September 2016.

[4] Retrieved 26 June 2018.

[5] Swopes, Brian. "This Day in Aviation - 27 July 1934,", Retrieved 17 February, 2014.

[6] "Crash of a Curtiss Condor 32 in Tuttlingen: 12 killed" Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives, Retrieved 17 February 2014.

[7] Kebabjian, Richard. "Accident Details"., Retrieved 17 February 2014.

[8] Griffiths, Robin F.; Powell, David M. C. (May 2012). "The occupational health and safety of flight attendants". Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. 83 (5): 514–521.

[9] Lim, M; Bagshaw, M. (July 2002). "Cosmic rays: are air crew at risk?" Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 59 (7): 428–433.

[10] Rayman, Russell B. (March 2002). "Cabin air quality: an overview". Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. 73 (3): 211–215.

[11] "The sexual harassment of flight attendants is a massive problem". The Economist. 21 May 2018, Retrieved 8 April 2019.

[12] "Me Too in the Air". Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. Retrieved 5 April 2019.

[13] "TWU - Transport Workers Union (TWU) - Campaigns". Retrieved 5 April 2019.


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