Do Older Flight Attendants Get a Bad Rap?

PHOTO: A flight attendant giving instructions in an airplane aisle.Getty Images
A flight attendant giving instructions in an airplane aisle.

How did flight attendants go from sex symbols to punching bags in just a few short decades? I"m not only thinking of that Southwest pilot who called some of his colleagues "grannies" last year (he got his comeuppance in the form of a suspension) but also all those nasty comments on the Internet and mean-spirited remarks I hear personally.

Sure, we"ve seen a recent flurry of tributes to beloved older flight attendants - United"s 83-year-old steward and the 60-ish twins who still push drink carts for Delta come to mind - but that"s unusual, to say the least.

More common - at least anecdotally - are complaints that aging flight attendants are "mean" or unhelpful and the Internet is littered with comments bemoaning "hags" or invoking the "B-word." Not long ago, I even heard from a veteran airline pilot who said, "In defense of the traveling public, some flight attendants do prosecute their duties with "extreme prejudice." Not surprisingly, he prefers to remain anonymous.

For the record, I think flight attendants are getting a bad rap, and I"ll tell you why. I"m also going to give examples of some very bad behavior by older passengers. But something is happening; maybe it's a confluence of ageism, attitude and economics.

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Regarding age and ageism, I refer to a 2009 report from the Population Research Bureau:

In 1980 per the PRB, about 80 percent of U.S. flight attendants were under the age of 35. According to the report's latest available figures, by 2007 the number of these "youngsters" had dropped to only about 20 percent while the numbers of older cabin crew members soared. By 2007, half of all flight attendants were age 45 and older, but here's the real shocker: Nearly 22 percent of them were 55 and older.

In other words, the days of double-entendre airline ads like the one from long-defunct National that purred, "I'm Cheryl. Fly me" are long gone, but do they get any more respect now that they"re "seasoned"? I couldn"t help but notice that the subjects of the two admiring profile pieces - the 83-year-old and those twin flight attendants - were men. The reporters would say, that"s just how it worked out, but would the stories have been as appealing if they"d been about old women?

Certainly Heather Poole, flight attendant author of Gadling"s popular Galley Gossip column, sounds tired of fielding questions like "why are flight attendants fat, old, grumpy, lazy and ugly" unlike some of their "foreign counterparts." Poole"s response, in part: "I wonder just how big you are?"

Today, U.S. flight attendants have the same rights and protections we all do, though it wasn"t always so, and it took a while. In days of yore, flight attendants had to quit once they married or, horror of horrors, turned 32. Then there were those weight restrictions (why do you think they wore girdles?) and make-up requirements and such. No more.

As for foreign counterparts, they apparently hire them young at Singapore Airlines, where flight attendants are reportedly given five-year contracts that are renewed at management"s discretion. But let me ask a question: What"s more important, looks or time-tested skills?

I"m not saying younger folks aren"t capable; of course they are. But say your baby decides to come early - at 32,000 feet - which happened to a Delta passenger in April. I'll bet she appreciated the help she got from a veteran flight attendant - with 29 years on the job.

And remember how an American Airlines pilot fell ill in midair last fall? His seat in the cockpit was filled by a 61-year-old flight attendant who happened to have a pilot"s license and coolly helped to land the plane. Airline officials praised her assistance as "outstanding."

Let"s go back a little further. On that "Miracle on the Hudson" flight, once Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullengberger landed the plane in the river, who do you think got all those passengers out safely? The three female flight attendants, that"s who - ages 51, 57 and 58.

If some of today"s older flight attendants seem a little grumpy, you might be too if you lost as much pay as they have. After adjusting for inflation, their median hourly wages dropped by 26 percent between 1980 and 2007 (while median hourly wages of all U.S. workers rose by 13 percent). Some flight attendants said their earnings dropped by a third after 9/11.

Some argue that today's flight attendants don"t have to do as much. While it's true many airlines no longer have blankets to pass out and there are no more hot meals in domestic coach, that's always been the least of it. The main responsibility of flight attendants is safety - yours and mine.

Plus they have lots of other things to worry about, such as the 50-year-old passenger who allegedly kicked and spat on flight attendants (on US Airways in March); the 61-year-old passenger who violently grabbed a flight attendant forcing her to seek medical treatment (on United in April); or the 65-year-old woman who "forgot" she boarded her American flight with a loaded gun (and where were you, TSA?); and the 53-year-old passenger who allegedly would not quit playing "Words With Friends" and was given the boot (yes, you, Alec Baldwin).

Next time you board your plane, try smiling at your flight attendants. Maybe they won"t notice. Or maybe it"ll make a world of difference.