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What Happened to Hot Stewardesses?



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I can’t find a post here, so I figure it was probably in a G-file, but I know Jonah has noticed the decline in physical appeal of flight attendants, and if I recall, posited that the culprit was feminism. In an instance of what is either mildly chauvinistic great minds thinking alike or intellectual plagiarism, Glen Whitman has asked himself the same question, but come up with a different answer. There are less cuties in the friendly skies, says Whitman, because of deregulation. When airlines were legally barred from competing effectively on price, they competed instead on quality. One of the ways they did it was by hiring young, pretty girls. Since deregulation, though, airlines have discovered that fliers are more interested in cheap flights than eye candy. 

Megan McArdle disagrees. She agrees with (my memory of) Jonah, that it’s more likely about anti-discrimination laws/norms and “feminist shaming,” but also about union power:

Stewardesses used to be subject to all sorts of extremely strict rules: they couldn’t be married, couldn’t gain weight, couldn’t get pregnant, couldn’t be much over 30.  If you fire everyone who violates those rules, then yes, you will select for a much “hotter” group of women than the current crop. 

You could probably still get a large group of young, hot women to take a job that involves free flights all around the world.  But those jobs are no longer open, because airlines stopped firing all the old, fat parents. Thanks to a combination of feminist shaming, union demands, and anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, once they no longer fired people over a certain age, union seniority rules immediately started selecting for older workers, in two ways:  layoffs are usually last hired first fired, and older people have a lot of sunk costs in terms of pension accrual and seniority, so they’re less likely to leave.  If you fly a major airline, you’ll notice very few stewardesses in their twenties.

It’s an interesting question. My hunch is it’s overdetermined and that if you could run a regression you’d find that both Whitman’s and McArdle’s stories explain some of the variance. I’d add another factor (one McArdle starts to get at) that is likewise probably interdependent on the other two: The labor market for young women has changed. Since the 60s heyday of Pan Am, women have vaulted past men in educational achievement at the same time that a variety of professions requiring college degrees have become more accessible to them. Thus many of the young, attractive women who might have opted for a career as a flight attendant now have more options available to them. Also, flying has become a decidedly more mundane — even dreary — affair in the last few decades, and thus is probably less appealing as a career than it would have been to a young woman in 1965, when the idea of the jet-set lifestyle was probably more alluring.

An interesting hypothetical though, is what are the attractive young women who would have been flight attendants in 1965, but were born in 1985, doing now instead?

UPDATE: Looking at it, that last hypothetical seems stupidly malformed. Why am I asking what a woman who would have been a stewardess in 1965 is doing now instead when the post is in large about answering that question? What I meant, but didn’t really articulate, is: Considering all the reasons mentioned above, it seems that it is now more difficult, and less socially and psychologically appealing, for young women to get into the business. So what would a woman who would have wanted to be a stewardess had she been of age in 1965 elect to do now instead? What are the jobs that still reward youth and beauty, offer a certain socially-recognized glamor, and are realistically attainable (thus excluding pop star and actress)?

Also, this in an e-mail from a reader:

McCardle [sic] is right.  A flight attendant friend of mine told me this years ago. The seniority rules are manifested in other ways you didn’t mention: New flight attendants are assigned to the least desirable jobs.  Senior flight attendants have first pick of the more desirable routes. This means young flight attendants work the commuter routes and in the first class cabins.  Who wants to work the route between LA and Fresno? If you observe on your next flight, you’ll see the young flight attendants working the first class cabin.  This is because it is the hardest job.  You have to be on your feet all the time, serving free champagne, food, etc. and attending to the needs of the passengers. You will see the oldest most senior attendants on flights between CONUS and Hawaii or Europe.  They “earned” those routes and got to pick them. Foreign carriers don’t follow these rules so they still hire young hotties.  Just look at the attendants on SAS or Singapore Air.



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