March 4, 2010 -- Air travel might not be so sexy these days, but in Japan plenty of people are willing to pay top dollar for an experience with a club entertainer clad in an authentic Japan Airlines flight attendant uniform.
JAL, Asia's largest airline, which declared bankruptcy in January, is diligently working to ensure that its uniforms don't slip into the wrong hands as the airline faces massive layoffs, especially among its uniform-wearing crew. JAL this week announced it would cut its work force by 2,700, or about 5 percent.
People have been known to pay thousands of dollars for the outfits of JAL and rival airline All Nippon Airways, or ANA.
Joan Sinclair, a photographer who put together a book called "Pink Box: Inside Japan's Sex Clubs" said there is a big market for such uniforms, which women in the country's sex clubs have been known to wear.
"JAL still has the reputation of having beautiful flight attendants. Some of these uniforms will go for thousands. If they are genuine uniforms, they are in limited supply," Sinclair said. "Worn uniforms, if it comes with a Polaroid photo of the woman who wore it, go for a premium.
"JAL uniforms have been sold for years on the secondary market," she said.
Sinclair said some of Japan's sex clubs are built to resemble the inside of an airplane.
"There's a club I documented in Osaka called Air Touch," Sinclair said. "They have a choice of first class or business class. They had women dressed like flight attendants. They served drinks, they served airplane snacks. They had the seat belts. They even had announcements over the loudspeaker. They gave out sexual services as well."
American airlines have moved away from that image in favor of more comfortable outfits, with the expectation of the short-lived Hooters Air, which flew from 2003 to 2006.
Most Asian airlines still try to convey a bit of that sex appeal. Singapore Airlines is known for its Singapore Girls, used heavily in its marketing. Japanese passengers have a particular fondness for the uniforms of their country's two airlines. Most airlines around the world offer passengers collectible models of their airplanes. ANA goes one step beyond, also making available a series of statues -- think bobble heads -- of flight attendants in uniform.
JAL spokeswoman Carol Anderson said that in June 2005, somebody tried to sell a JAL uniform on the Internet. JAL bid more than $2,000 to keep the uniform out of the public's hands, according to the Kyodo News. Anderson would not comment on the bidding but said "the company was able to successfully recover the stolen property, and with the assistance of authorities, the seller was properly charged."
Sexy Flight Attendants
Many men around the world fantasize about flight attendants.
Robert Dunlap, a filmmaker who makes documentaries about kinky sex and produced the fetish film "Beyond Vanilla," said people fetishize various uniforms, from police to cheerleaders to priests and nuns. Some people, he said, are turned on by the flight attendant uniform.
"It displays either an authority or somebody's sexual fantasy," he said. It could be "the fantasy about the mile-high club or just the power of somebody taking you up and off."
Some sex clubs go so far as to have confessional booths, boxing rings and mock prison cells, according to Dunlap. He said with flight attendants, the fantasy goes one step further because they're serving you.
"There used to be this fantasy of being able to pick them up in some foreign land, Dunlap said. "Who really wouldn't be turned on by some gorgeous French stewardess while you are on your way to Paris?"
Outside of the fetish factor, JAL worries that in the wrong hands, missing airline uniforms could pose a security risk.
Japan Airlines Uniform Security
JAL and other airlines take missing uniforms seriously. Every JAL uniform is reported to have a serial number sewn into it. The airline also has a staff dedicated to tracking the location of each article of clothing.
"Japan Airlines worldwide policy for the distribution, usage and collection of its uniforms is extremely strict, and each company-owned article is logged and accounted for," Anderson said. "Old or worn uniforms are also returned to the company and properly destroyed."
The airline would not say whether it had plans to insert computer chips into its uniforms to electronically track them, as ANA does.
"Japan Airlines clearly isn't skirting this issue," said Jeff Pecor, of travel site Yapta.com. "Let's just hope it doesn't wear them out. After all, they have an airline to keep buttoned up."