The first-ever US flight attendant went to work 90 years ago today
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On May 15, 1930, a new profession took off in the United States: flight attendant — or “airline stewardess,” as it was known in the early days of aviation.
Ninety years ago today, Ellen Church took her first flight as a cabin attendant, a grueling 20-hour trek from Oakland to Chicago with 13 stops en route.
Church, a licensed pilot, had wanted to work behind the controls, but Boeing Air Transport, which was later folded into United Airlines, was skittish about having a woman on the flight deck.
According to a history of the profession compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration, Church was determined to make her living in the air and she convinced the airline to let her work in cabin service by touting her other qualifications. She was also a registered nurse.
In the early days of commercial aviation, unpressurized planes flying at much lower altitudes meant that traveling by air could be much more harrowing than it is today.
“There were literally a lot more bumps and turbulence,” said Taylor Garland, a spokeswoman for the modern Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). The fact that the profession was essentially created from scratch by a registered pilot and nurse “speaks to how the profession has evolved,” she said.
And it has. In his book Hard Landing, which looks at the development of the modern airline industry, Thomas Petzinger Jr. wrote that flight attendants were initially hired to calm “a public that was still largely terrified of flying.” That’s why in the early days of the profession, flight attendants were required to hold nursing credentials, in addition to fitting a certain look.
Having attractive, medically trained women on board, airline executives reasoned, would soothe unfamiliar travelers and ensure they were looked after if all the bouncing around made them ill.
In nearly a century, the role of stewardess has evolved. Not only has its name shifted to the more gender-inclusive “flight attendant,” the job itself has gone through phases from primarily being a calming onboard caretaker to being treated as a sex object and marketing ploy to being a front-line worker in the middle of a global pandemic.
“Ellen Church created our profession as a licensed pilot and registered nurse. After she was told that women were too emotional to be in the cockpit, she convinced Boeing that women were needed in the cabin to take care of the male passengers who may have a difficult time with the rigors of flying,” Sara Nelson, AFA’s president, said in a statement.
She added that the union continues Church’s trailblazing today. “We continued the work that Ellen started by fighting discriminatory policies including leaving the job age at age 32, remaining single and adhering to a strict set of limitations regarding weight and appearance. We turned the job into a career, and even fought for men to have the same rights as women on the job. We’ve also fought for safety and security for crew and passengers alike.”
Over the decades, the ranks of stewardesses swelled from around a hundred in the early days of the profession to tens of thousands of flight attendants today. Although their exact responsibilities — and uniforms — have changed over the years, the core mission has always been to make sure airline passengers are safe and comfortable.
“Flight attendants have been aviation’s first responders and essential to commercial aviation for 90 years, often using emotion as a superpower to fight for the people in our care. I think it’s safe to say Ellen was right about her abilities and Boeing was wrong,” Nelson said.
Flying in 2020 looks way different than it did in 1930 — honestly, flying in May 2020 looks far different than it did even in January — as flight attendants again modify their uniforms and find themselves newly focused on passenger health above all.
But they have remained a fixture of air travel and their role will be crucial to the aviation industry as it continues to evolve.
Featured photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images.
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