I am a flight attendant, but NOT a stewardess.  Although many people use the two job titles interchangeably, many flight attendants view the word stewardess as offensive! 

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  “That is so outdated.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

Sandra was right.  No one in the airline industry – within the United States, at least – uses the word stewardess.  Why was the name changed?

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

I can’t speak for flight attendants around the world, but within the United States I know that flight attendants despise the word stewardess.  I inwardly grimace every time someone calls me that!  Although I would never correct someone for accidentally saying it, hearing someone call me stewardess feels degrading.

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.
Within my company, flight attendants today only use the word stewardess jokingly.  Here are a couple of common phrases my co-workers will say:

“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

Hopefully I’ve emphasized well enough that the information in this article applies to flight attendants within the United States.  I can’t speak for airlines in other parts of the world, but I have observed that most Western cultures recognize the word flight attendant as the internationally accepted term for my job.  (In German you see the word Flugbegeleiter or Flugbegeleiterin more often now than Steward or Stewardess.)

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 Weight Requirements
Oman Air has restrictions on gender, age, and weight.
Picture
This Korean Air posting limits gender, marriage status, and age.
Picture
Air Arabia restricts applicants by age and weight.

Flight Attendant Jobs in the Future?

So, what happens next?  Will the flight attendant position get another name change when we begin commercial transport into space?  Time will tell!

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.  ;-) 

-Jenn Grahams

 


Comments

03/04/2015 08:28

Hi Jenn,

Just came across your site via your interview on Suitcase Stories :-)

Nice article above. It is interesting to read for someone like myself who flies so often.

I always want to show respect to my flight crew so knowing how to address them correctly is a big help for me not to offend. (I wonder if I might have used a politically incorrect phrase in the past to then discover certain members of the crew being rather unattentive or rude?0

I fully understand the point about the crew being there for passenger safety first and foremost. In fact that IS the reason why you are there. Service is just an extra benefit for us passengers although become an expectation, particularly for long haul.

I look forward to reading more of your stories. Who knows I might bump into you on a US flight someday.

Reply
04/08/2015 11:56

Hi, Guy!

I'm sorry I didn't come across your lovely response sooner! Thanks for your feedback! I'm glad I was able to clear up the misunderstanding. I love hearing from frequent fliers such as yourself! It's nice to get the passenger perspective on things and you do a great job of that on your website!

I agree strongly with what you wrote here:
"Service is just an extra benefit for us passengers although become an expectation, particularly for long haul."

In my experience, the frequent fliers understand more clearly how things have changed in the past decade. It's all about safety now. At the same time, flight attendants *should* work toward making the flight comfortable when possible. At my airline, this is getting harder and harder to do as we scale back on domestic amenities. (No more blankets or free snacks in Main Cabin...Snacks in First Class instead of a full meal...) I still try to make things nice though. A smile and a sincerely cheerful attitude are really two simple things ALL my co-workers should be able to provide to customers!

I hope your flights are pleasant and that I run into you sometime! Safe travels! ~Jenn

Reply
04/08/2015 12:09

Thanks Jenn, our paths may have already crossed. Even still I'm sure we'll come across each other at some point through the airports.

It is true the point you make, both passengers and crew feel the effect of the cut backs. I must admit this is a main reason why I prefer not to fly with the US based carriers as I think they offer less than their foreign rivals.

You can't put a price on service with a smile though and I always remember the happy and pleasant crew.

Safe travels.

04/08/2015 12:09

Thanks Jenn, our paths may have already crossed. Even still I'm sure we'll come across each other at some point through the airports.

It is true the point you make, both passengers and crew feel the effect of the cut backs. I must admit this is a main reason why I prefer not to fly with the US based carriers as I think they offer less than their foreign rivals.

You can't put a price on service with a smile though and I always remember the happy and pleasant crew.

Safe travels.

04/08/2015 12:09

Thanks Jenn, our paths may have already crossed. Even still I'm sure we'll come across each other at some point through the airports.

It is true the point you make, both passengers and crew feel the effect of the cut backs. I must admit this is a main reason why I prefer not to fly with the US based carriers as I think they offer less than their foreign rivals.

You can't put a price on service with a smile though and I always remember the happy and pleasant crew.

Safe travels.

Jessica
03/31/2015 16:13

I am surprised that although the word "stewardess" is not used much worldwide, the stereotype of a stewardess is still upheld in some countries, especially those with traditional female roles. I am glad the world is changing to fix this outdated term and image.

Reply
04/08/2015 12:04

Agreed! Those screenshots I posted were taken at the time this article was written in 2015. The process takes time. Many lawsuits and court battles took place in the United States before airlines finally had to start hiring based on ability and NOT looks, age, or marriage status.

There are some basic height and weight restrictions still in place at my airline, but they are for safety reasons. For instance, if a candidate can not reach the emergency equipment stored in the overhead bins, they would not qualify. If a candidate is too large to walk down the aisle quickly and unhindered, they will not qualify.

Thanks for caring and sharing, Jessica!

Reply
04/08/2015 12:10

Thanks Jenn, our paths may have already crossed. Even still I'm sure we'll come across each other at some point through the airports.

It is true the point you make, both passengers and crew feel the effect of the cut backs. I must admit this is a main reason why I prefer not to fly with the US based carriers as I think they offer less than their foreign rivals.

You can't put a price on service with a smile though and I always remember the happy and pleasant crew.

Safe travels.

Reply
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Reply
09/22/2015 22:24

Nice Post !! I like it, it also comprises a lot of useful facts. thanks to share your experience.

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    Jenn Grahams

    is a flight attendant and an aspiring writer.  She lives in the Midwest with her husband, many pet fish, and two chinchillas named Kuzco and Pancho.

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