Flight attendants

Flight crewmembers who are responsible for aircraft passenger safety and comfort.


Stewards provided the first in-flight service in the elegant dining rooms and private compartments of European airships between 1910 and 1937. In contrast to this luxurious and quiet mode of travel, the first paying airplane passengers in the United States traveled with the mail and fended for themselves.

In 1922, Daimler Airways of Britain hired the world’s first airplane stewards, known as cabin boys. Selected on the basis of small stature and light weight, cabin boys provided general assistance and reassurance to passengers brave enough to fly the early flying machines but did not serve refreshments.

Stout Air Services of Detroit, which eventually became part of United Air Lines, hired male aerial couriers to serve aboard Ford trimotors between Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1926. Later, Transcontinental Air Transport, which eventually became Trans World Airlines (TWA), also hired male couriers on its trimotors. They were the sons of the airlines’ investors and were promised that these jobs would launch their aviation careers.

Several airlines around the world introduced in-flight service in 1928. Western Air Express, forerunner of Western Airlines, began using stewards on its Los Angeles-to-San Francisco run to serve box lunches from a Los Angeles restaurant. Lufthansa of Germany hired a professional waiter to serve lunch on board its Junkers aircraft between Berlin and Vienna. Mexicana hired stewards on its Ford trimotors. Air Union, a forerunner of Air France, also employed stewards.

In 1929, Pan American Airways introduced the cabin boy type of attendant to serve on board Sikorsky flying boats and Fokker aircraft between Miami, the Caribbean, and South America. Food service was essential on flights to remote areas because there might not be food available for passengers along the way.

The crew often would bring several days’ worth of food on the flight. The galley (kitchen) was in the tail of the flying boat. The cabin boys had to be small and nimble enough to crawl back to the galley, prepare the food, and serve it to the passengers. In May, 1930, New England and Western Airways was the first to employ African American attendants, Pullman railroad porters who had already been trained for on-board service.

On May 30, 1930, a more surprising and lasting innovation was brought into the airline cabin. Boeing Air Transport hired eight women to be the world’s first airline stewardesses. Ellen Church, a registered nurse, is credited with convincing the company that would become United Air Lines to hire women cabin crewmembers. Pilots did not immediately welcome the women, and the pilots’ wives were even less enthusiastic, but the flying public responded well.

Stewardesses went to work for Delta Air Lines in 1940, Continental Airlines in 1941, and Pan American Airways in 1944. The airlines had little choice but to hire women during World War II because all the able-bodied men were drafted into military service. By 1950, the stewardess was an integral part of air transportation. Her glamorous job was sought after by young women and idolized by little girls, but sometimes denigrated as being a glorified waitress.

In the mid-twentieth century, stewardessing was one of the few occupations open to women that provided adventure. Stewardesses personified the airlines for which they worked, were the main connection the public had with the airline, and were often used for promotional campaigns and advertising. On some airlines, stewardesses wore ethnic costumes as their uniforms. In the 1960’s, miniskirts, hot pants, and sexist advertising overshadowed, but did not diminish, their safety responsibilities.


Body size and appearance dominated the hiring qualifications for the first in-flight personnel because of the constraints of the aircrafts themselves. Cabin ceilings were low and aisles were narrow in the early airplanes. Even though jet aircraft provided more space, stewardesses were still expected to be slim, have beautiful legs, and wear girdles. Weight checks were prevalent.

The original eight stewardesses were registered nurses. This was a requirement until nurses were needed in the military during World War II. Stewardesses could not be married, were age twenty-five or less, weighed no more than 115 pounds, and could be no taller than five feet four inches. Stewardesses had to retire at age thirty-two or when they got married.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 promised equality for the cabin attendants, but it took a 1967 court case brought against Braniff Airlines by a stewardess to break down the marriage barrier. Until then, men who worked as stewards or pursers could be married and have children, but stewardesses had to remain single.

It took more litigation in the 1970’s before women with children could work as flight attendants—the new non-gender-specific job title. These changes, plus the removal of the maximum age cap, encouraged men and women to make cabin service a career. Flight attendants can work into their seventies or when they are pregnant, as long as they can perform their duties. Some stay on the job for fifty years.

Qualifications vary among the airlines and change as equipment, routes, job markets, and regulations change. Flight attendants must be in good health and pass a physical examination and drug test. They must have good eyesight, hearing, and communication skills and be able to handle stress, irregular working hours, and being away from home. Airlines generally require flight attendants to be at least five feet two inches tall in order to reach the overhead compartments. Weight should be proportionate to height.

The minimum starting age for flight attendants is between eighteen and twenty-one. Some new hires start much later, choosing cabin service as an exciting second career after working as doctors, lawyers, teachers, or in any other profession. A high school diploma is required, some college education and experience working with people is preferred. Speaking two or more languages is a plus, especially for international airlines. Flight attendants must be able to work well in teams. The ideal flight attendant is well groomed, friendly, resourceful, and confident.

Duties and Working Conditions

A flight attendant’s most important responsibility is to provide for the passengers’ safety. This begins with checking safety equipment, securing carry-on items, and making safety announcements about exits and emergency equipment such as oxygen masks and life vests. Flight attendants enforce Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements such as fastening seat belts, use of electronic equipment, and no smoking.

Flight attendants help passengers stay safe when flying through turbulent air and take charge when dealing with an emergency landing or other problems. They handle medical situations, unruly passengers, and children flying alone. Flight attendants stand for long periods of time and must be able to push and pull carts that weigh from 150 to 250 pounds.

Food and beverage service on airlines has changed dramatically over the years. After elegant dining on airships came box lunches and coffee from thermoses served on airplanes. Fried chicken became a staple for most early airline meals. Food service improved as galleys were installed on larger aircraft. European airlines had always provided alcoholic beverages, but U.S. airlines did not begin to offer liquor or wine until 1950.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the price of airline tickets was regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), airlines competed with each other through the in-flight service they provided. Jet aircraft made more elaborate meals possible and introduced two to three different classes of seating and service. The wide-body jets, especially the Boeing 747, dramatically changed in-flight service and flight attendant duties. Cocktails could be served in VIP lounges on an upper deck and meals could be cooked in a galley in the aircraft’s belly and brought up to the main level by elevator.

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 gave the airlines greater economic freedom and drastically affected every aspect of air transportation, including in-flight service. As price became the major ticket selling point, the labor-intensive, service-oriented industry struggled to cope with the new rules. Job security was replaced with uncertainty and sometimes layoffs as established airlines filed for bankruptcy and new airlines came and went throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Most airlines only provided the minimum number of flight attendants required by FAA regulations—one per fifty seats—and all the seats were usually filled. Food service was reduced and often eliminated for economy passengers. The snack bags which passengers grabbed before boarding were less ample than the box lunches of the 1920’s.

Flight Attendants in the Twenty-first Century

Full-time flight attendants work 75 to 85 hours per month in the air and another 75 to 85 on the ground. Flight delays can extend these hours. The airlines provide hotel accommodations and allowances for meal expenses when attendants are away from their home base. If flight attendants do not live at their assigned base, they must commute to the base on their own time to start their work assignments.

Most airlines use computerized bidding systems for work assignments. The most senior employees get the first choice of assignments, which are made one month at a time. Flight attendants on reserve status must be ready to work when they are called. Starting salaries averaged $15,000 annually in 2001, with experienced flight attendants earning about $25,000 and some as much as $50,000. Experienced flight attendants may become pursers or supervisors or become involved in training and recruiting.

Flight attendants work in a confined, moving environment at high altitudes, breathing recycled air. Their work is strenuous and they are susceptible to back injuries. While doing mundane work with a smile, they must be ready to handle disruptive passengers, medical problems, aircraft emergencies, hijacking, and terrorist situations.

Flight attendants have worked to improve the environment for themselves and their passengers. Their efforts led to U.S. airlines banning smoking on domestic flights in 1990 and on international flights in 1997. Through their professional associations, they work for improved safety features and regulations. The Association of Flight Attendants is the world’s largest flight attendant union, with about fifty thousand members at almost thirty airlines.

The benefits of this occupation are enormous for those who like to travel and work with people. Flight attendants travel while they are working and may be able to sightsee on their layovers. They receive free airline travel passes for themselves and family members and discounts on other travel accommodations. Flight attendants enjoy the satisfaction of helping people, and many have heroically saved lives.


Only a small percentage of applicants are selected for training and not all of those pass the four to seven weeks of rigorous, intensive training and testing at the airline’s training center. Trainees learn aviation terminology, company policy and operations, FAA regulations, and all about the airplanes on which they may fly.

Trainees must thoroughly understand safety procedures and equipment, demonstrate that they can perform such duties as putting out fires, evacuating aircraft, and helping passengers survive a ditching at sea. Trainees learn to give first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and to use a defibrillator (AED). As new equipment is developed, it is added to the training. Flight attendants are trained to be alert to potential medical and security problems.

Safety and emergency procedures are the most important aspects of flight attendant training, but attendants also learn how to project their airline’s image through their appearance and the service they provide. They learn to prepare and serve elegant meals and beverages for first class, as well as fast service and clean-up on short hops. They are schooled in personal grooming, weight control, and how to wear their uniforms.

Upon successful completion of initial training, flight attendants are assigned a base. They spend a certain length of time on probation and on reserve status. They may have to relocate. Qualifications are maintained by participating in a minimum of twelve hours of recurrent training every year. Safety related topics are emphasized. Flight attendants sometimes train with the pilots and other personnel to improve teamwork and communication.


  • Association of Flight Attendants. (www.afanet.org) A good source for current developments and issues affecting flight attendants.
  • Bock, Becky S. Welcome Aboard! Your Career as a Flight Attendant. Englewood, Colo.: Cage Consulting, 1998. Information for the aspiring flight attendant.
  • McLaughlin, Helen E. Footsteps in the Sky. Denver, Colo.: State of the Art, 1994. A comprehensive history of the flight attendant occupation in the United States with many photographs and personal stories written by flight attendants representing many airlines.
  • U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook: Flight Attendants. (stats .bls.gov/oco/ocos171.htm) Up-to-date information on the duties and opportunities in the field.

Air carriers

Airline industry, U.S.

Commercial flight

Emergency procedures

Food service

Training and education

From the earliest days of commercial air travel, flight attendants have been dressed in distinctive uniforms to make them easily identifiable to passengers and to emphasize the brand image of the airline.

(Hulton Archive)