In the golden years, cabin crew took pride in their careers and would have rallied behind British Airways, says retired air stewardess Libbie Escolme Schmidt.
Watching the selfish spectacle of BA cabin crew threatening to strike over Christmas makes me realise just how much air travel has deteriorated since the golden days. When I started working as an air stewardess in the 1960s, my colleagues and I took such pride in our job that we would have pulled together to help BA, however difficult, instead of behaving like spoilt children and bullies.
Before flying became mass market, to be an air stewardess was a privilege. Our uniform was a real uniform: it was smart, official but glamorous, a tailored navy blue suit with a white blouse, white gloves and a neat cap. Every single woman who worked for what was then BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation, our state airline until 1974) remembers the uniform with great nostalgia.
Just as we had pride in ourselves, our passengers were also immaculately turned out -and they were a delight to work with. Instead of turning up in sloppy sportswear, they boarded in furs, hats and gloves. Everything was dignified – and this in the equivalent of economy class, although in reality only the rich could afford to fly then. Those who did behaved with the utmost decorum because the journey was seen as an occasion which warranted it. They were all interesting people who would often write to us via the airline after the trip to thank us.
For most of my career I felt guilty taking my wage, as it was such a fabulous experience. Every flight was an adventure. We did not have rest periods or even places to even rest; we just grabbed a few minutes wherever we could, whether in a wardrobe or sitting on an air larder which leant against a freezing door. We accepted the conditions as part of an exciting lifestyle, whose numerous perks made up for the odd hardship. As the golden years of flying came to an end, however, the people who felt passionately about the profession left.
Today the conditions and pay for BA cabin crew are the best of any airline in the world. Unfortunately, the privileges that go with the job appear to have given the recipients an overrated idea of themselves. Why shouldn’t air stewards make some concessions when pilots have agreed to a pay cut, managers have accepted voluntary redundancy and many of their other colleagues have volunteered for salary reductions? It seems that loyalty and esprit de corps have vanished faster than a vapour trail.
In these disastrous financial times, every passenger seat is precious revenue. To jeopardise this business over the 12 days of Christmas is inconceivable. Instead of taking to the picket lines, flight attendants should prove their worth by coming up with creative ways to help their passengers and their company get through a difficult period. Otherwise, they risk destroying what my generation still fondly remembers as the world’s finest airline.
Libbie Escolme Schmidt is the author of Glamour in the Skies