The Original Jet-setters

Complete article also available here: Irish Independent Weekend

By Anna Carey

Saturday August 29 2009

When you are shuffling along a never-ending security queue at Dublin airport, waiting for seven hours in Frankfurt for a connecting flight or paying a tenner on a plane for a tasteless soggy sandwich, it’s hard to remember that, not so long ago, flying was a glamorous, fun experience.

In a relatively short time, we’ve come to think of flying as a stressful chore. But it was once a great adventure. And as a fascinating new book reminds us, the excitement and romance of air travel was personified by the air stewardess, that chic, capable goddess of the sky who tended to passengers’ every need.

“A lot of flight crew who joined in the past 20 years have read the book and they say they had no idea that flying was once so glamorous, so leisurely and done with such aplomb,” says former air stewardess Libbie Escolme-Schmidt, the author of Glamour in the Skies: The Golden Age of the Air Stewardess (History Press, stgĀ£20). “But if you don’t know about what you’ve missed, then perhaps you don’t miss it.”

In her lavishly illustrated tome, Escolme-Schmidt conjures up a world where passengers were served four-course meals with linen napkins and a full silver service, where even economy passengers were given Elizabeth Arden toiletries and could request everything from a shoe horn to an electric razor, and where cabin crew enjoyed fabulous parties in some of the most exotically beautiful places on earth.

Escolme-Schmidt joined BOAC (later British Airways) in the early 60s, but she fell into the job almost by accident. “I came to London to seek my fortune, like millions of other young Australians in the 60s,” she laughs. “I kept spending all my money on travel and finally, when I was flat broke, I applied to BOAC so I could get home for nothing. I became a stewardess by default! But once I started the job, I absolutely adored it.”

It seems she joined at the right time. “The air stewardess really started to be seen as glamorous in the early 60s, when the jets really got going and people started to travel more.”

The first air stewardesses took to the skies in the early 30s, at the dawn of commercial air travel. Initially, no women were employed as cabin crew, but then a young nurse from Iowa had a brainwave. “Ellen Church actually approached Boeing Air Transport in San Francisco,” explains Escolme-Schmidt, “and said it was a good idea to employ nurses so that if a passenger got sick, they could be cared for.”

The idea took off — literally — and for several decades working as an air stewardess was not only one of few exciting careers available to women, it was also a way of seeing the world long before backpacking and cheap international flights. “I’ll always remember the first time I ever saw New York,” says Escolme-Schmidt. “I couldn’t believe the skyscrapers; it was a great thrill. But my favourite place of all was Hong Kong — I loved the atmosphere. It danced with life and it still does. It was such a different environment for many of us. Terribly exciting. Most of the girls say that unless they had joined up, they would never have been to so many exotic locations. We used to stay in most places for two or three days, so you had lots of opportunities to go touring. And when we got to Hong Kong, we all immediately went shopping! We led very busy lives on the ground as well as in the air.”

And those busy lives included some fabulous parties. “People would always let their hair down at the end of a flight,” remembers Escolme-Schmidt. “We were a close team so it was great fun.” It was harder to party in some places than others, however. “We used to smuggle booze into Karachi because Pakistan is a Muslim country. We were allowed to bring in a certain amount, but that only lasted five minutes. You were there for about five days and we needed supplies, so we had to be rather inventive.”

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Initially, although male cabin crew could keep on working indefinitely, female staff were forced to leave after a decade. “It was decided, by someone who I have to assume was male, that after 10 years the women had passed their use-by date,” laughs Escolme-Schmidt. “It was ridiculous. You knew about it when you joined so you accepted it at the time. But people who left after 10 years always said those years felt like 10 minutes. You were continually on the go, so life passed very quickly.”

Happily, the introduction of equality legislation in the 70s ensured that female crew could continue to fly for as long as they liked, and Escolme-Schmidt recently talked to a woman who’s been flying for 42 years.

Time restrictions weren’t the only problems faced by stewardesses. Sexual harassment was rife. “There really was a lot of it, and I always thought the girls handled it terribly diplomatically,” says Escolme-Schmidt. “But it did cause a certain amount of anxiety to some girls who couldn’t joke it off. The mentality of some of the men was that if you were on a flight, you were more or less their possession.”

The sex appeal of stewardesses was explicitly used as a selling point by many of the airlines in the 60s and 70s. “The advertisements of the American airlines were particularly bad,” says Escolme-Schmidt. “They were very sexist. The girls were exploited to some extent as products.” The idea of air stewardesses as sexually available reached its nadir in Coffee, Tea or Me?, a 1967 bestselling ‘memoir’ of high-jinks in the sky by the writer Donald Bain in the guise of two flight attendants, Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones.

Although Escolme-Schmidt welcomes the strides women have made in the industry, she’s depressed by what she sees on flights now. “The ethos back then was to give the passengers a wonderful experience,” she says. “You did everything you could to make it an exciting trip for them. Nowadays when you get on board, it doesn’t seem like the crew care whether you enjoy your trip or not. They chuck the food out and that’s it.”

But is that really true of today’s flight attendants? Michelle Doherty, who presents the daily radio show Finest Worksongs on Phantom 105.2, worked full-time as a flight attendant on Aer Lingus from 1997 to summer 2008. For several, years she combined this demanding job with presenting the popular music programme Night Shift on Channel 6, but she wasn’t tempted to give up her life in the sky for TV celebrity.

“I knew these things can be very short-lived, so I wanted to have a back-up,” she says. “Some days I could be at TV3 in the morning, then I’d change into my uniform and head off on a flight in the afternoon. It was madness. But because I loved doing both I didn’t mind.” She finally made the choice between flying and music presenting when the job with Phantom came up. “I realised I didn’t really want to do it for the rest of my life.”

For Doherty, customer care was definitely at the heart of the job. “I used to sit beside nervous passengers and hold their hands,” she remembers. “One of the best things about the job was the way you could really help people and try to settle them down. Once, a little girl panicked and couldn’t breathe properly, so I sat beside her and got her a paper bag to calm down her breathing. She was shaking, but we got her settled and one of the girls sat next to her for landing.”

Some passengers could be difficult, but Doherty found that a bit of friendliness went a long way. “You have to put yourself in their frame of mind,” she says. “They’ve been rushing all day, the airport’s very stressful, they’re up to 90 and they feel it’s okay to take it out on you. But if you just say, ‘Look, I’m trying to make your journey as relaxed as possible’, and you have the right attitude, you can make everyone feel better.”

Although the flight staff’s concern for the passengers didn’t change during Doherty’s time in the air, the services they were able to provide for them definitely did. “We really noticed the downsizing,” she says. “When I started, we had a full meal service going to London. You could give 100 executive customers hot towels. Your head would be spinning afterwards, but I liked it that way because you really felt you were going out of your way to provide a good service. It’s not very personal now, you just ask what you can get someone and that’s it.

“But everything has to change, and costs have to be cut. If you want flights to be cheaper, services have to be reduced. You can’t have it both ways.”

Of course, budget flights aren’t the only significant thing to happen to aviation in the past decade. “I was in LA on September 11,” says Doherty. “That was terrifying because we were stuck there for days and we didn’t know when we’d get home. I was trying to get through to my family and couldn’t because the lines were jammed.”

The subsequent increased security made things more stressful for everyone — including the staff. “Everything changed,” says Doherty. “The passengers would be stressed out getting on and it would take them ages to get through. And we had to be searched too, so it was all very time consuming for us. The security checks became even more intense.”

It’s a long way from the relaxed old days. “Passengers told me they feel they’re now viewed as the enemy when they get on board,” says Escolme-Schmidt. “The staff don’t like you moving around. But when I was working, passengers used to wander up and down the aircraft chatting to people — and of course they could smoke, too. It was a great big, long dinner party!”

But although flying may have changed, the idea of taking to the skies hasn’t totally lost its lustre. And Libbie Escolme-Schmidt thinks it never really will.

“To most people, flying will always be something that is almost magical,” she says. “And that’s why I think it will always have that special feeling about it.”

– Anna Carey

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