I spent the last two days basically without leaving airports and on what felt like a bazillion airplanes, and as a result hanging out with various different airline employees who deal with customers, as well as my fellow travelers.
One thing that anyone who has ever flown anywhere will probably notice about the airline industry is that when it comes to the careers that involve actually dealing with us as stressed-out travelers, the people hired for these roles are very frequently women. Why? Maybe because we are more patient with annoying people who are screaming at us about something that we have absolutely no control over. Maybe because airlines pay the holders of these positions very very very little—especially in comparison to their corporate career-holders. Maybe because the airlines completely exploit these workers for hours on a whim. Everyone knows that we are used to being forced into jobs where we are exploited and paid less than our male co-workers. Or maybe it is because we are sexy.
So, I was on the last flight of the trip and completely exhausted, but I was having trouble sleeping because after being abroad for a year I realized that I have regained the ability to eavesdrop without even wanting to, which is super overwhelming and disturbing revelation to have amidst an already overwhelming cultural transition. There were two women sitting next to me, one which was a retired flight attendant and the other who had a lot of experience flying around the world because her and her husband used to work all over the world on military bases. They were discussing how in general the airline industry has gone downhill in the last decade—charging for luggage, no free cookies, higher ticket prices, fewer promotions, less luxury in general. Although I was not participating in the conversation, I agree that most of those things are probably true. Just look at all of the airline mergers in the past five years. Obviously in light of an economic recession and high oil prices airlines have been some of the hardest hit companies. Not really surprising.
Then, out of nowhere, the former flight attendant said, “And the flight attendants now are ugly. Back when I was working in the industry that was the most important part of our job, looking good. Now they run around with messy hair, dangly earrings, and they are fat”, at which point she puffed out her cheeks and put out her arms to imitate heaviness.
Obviously what she said was stupid, ignorant, sexist, and egotistic in that she obviously thinks highly of her own looks. All of that aside, let’s think about the role of a flight attendant and how it has changed.
Before boarding that flight I was sitting by a bunch of grown-up bro-like business men who were bragging about their six month old children pulling themselves across the floor—which, according to them, obviously means that they are going to grow up to be the star quarterbacks of their college football teams. The cool thing about the airline industry is that its usage is an interesting microcosm of how equality in the workplace in general is changing. In the past business travel has been pretty much dominated by men. Now, things are changing and women are too able to incorporate themselves more and more into the corporate world, which means more and more business trips. We are getting paid more, which means that more and more we can afford to take trips with our friends across the world. Which also, luckily, means less sexualization of flight attendants—who have since the dawn of air travel have been employed as eye candy for disgusting business men who want to pay to be weighted on by sexy women.
Obviously this view of the role of the flight attendant has not changed completely, and sexualization of woman attendants for the sake of capitalism is something that we still see around the world. It is why flight attendants get paid very little for very demanding work. It is why people feel like they can treat flight attendants like complete shit for no reason, and they are expected to be submissive about it.