I vividly remember the moment someone first brought the flight attendant/stewardess controversy to my attention. It was a summer’s day back in 2012 and I was attending my first interview for a major airline carrier in the United States. (I didn’t get the job, by the way. I was eventually hired by the third airline for which I applied.) I was a nervous wreck and felt completely intimidated seeing the fifty other confident-looking, well-dressed people against whom I was competing. I stuck like glue to my only friend – a woman named Sandra whom I had met on the bus.
Sandra had years of flight attendant experience on her resume. She had left her job at the age of thirty to become a full-time mother, but with her kids grown, hoped to get back into the airline business. To be perfectly honest, I had a bit of a “girl crush” on this woman. She seemed so completely put together! She was sassy and quick-witted and very knowledgeable. It was therefore a huge stab to my ego when Sandra laughed at me when I used the word stewardess to describe the position for which we were applying.
“Stewardess?” Sandra had repeated, crinkling her forehead and wrinkling her nose as if the spoken word had emitted an unpleasant smell. “That is so outdated. No one says stewardess, hon. It’s flight attendant.”
War of Words - Why Flight Attendant is Politically Correct
The name change reflects how the job itself has changed drastically in the past few decades! In the past, stewardesses in the USA had to be female, unmarried, and meet specific appearance and weight regulations. Now flight attendants can be either male or female. Physical requirements are limited to height (Flight attendants must be tall enough to reach safety equipment in the overhead bins!) and airlines can no longer discriminate against applicants on other physical appearance aspects.
The job of a stewardess in the 1950s was focused on passenger comfort. Flight attendants today put passenger safety as their number one priority. Flight attendant training schools spend less time on image standards and etiquette and instead devote their curriculum to teaching employees how to handle medical emergencies (such as passenger heart attacks), fires, emergency landings, and a whole array of other safety-related topics!
Airline Lingo and Flight Attendant Culture
Unfortunately, the word stewardess in today’s modern society is a bit tarnished. The word harkens back to a time before modern feminism really took hold. It reminds us of when the women working a flight were intended to be eye candy and a time in which advertisers used flight attendants as explicit sexual icons. The Braniff International ad campaign in the 1960s featured flight attendants in Playboy magazine and highlighted inflight outfit changes known as the "Air Strip". Even commercials such as National Airline’s “Fly Me” ad campaign back in 1971 gave the perception that flight attendants were "easy" women who were there to please.
“Well, aren’t you just a super stew?”
This is usually said in a derogatory, sarcastic manner and refers to a flight attendant who is being too meticulous about something whether it be their personal appearance or passenger comfort.
“Yeah, she’s a sassy stew.”
“He’s the best stew I know.”
A light-hearted comment about a flight attendant whose personality or work habits are memorable. In this case, stew is just being used as a fun nickname.
Flight Attendants Around the World
In the United States, we tend to get a bit overly zealous for using the “right” word for things. Outside of the English-speaking world, it’s hard to say if this battle of words is happening. In many Middle Eastern / Asian airlines, the words Cabin Crew Member often refer to flight attendants. I’ve also heard the term Air Hostess used.
In some foreign countries, airlines still enforce rigid appearance and gender requirements. Here are a couple of online job postings for companies that filter out candidates by appearance, gender, or age:
Flight Attendant Jobs in the Future?
In the meantime, if you’re traveling in the United States and want to refer to that person who just told you to shut down your laptop for landing, try calling them a flight attendant and not a stewardess. ;-)