D.L. Stewart: ‘The romance of the skies’ has become a flight of fancy

The current state of commercial air travel was succinctly summed up by two lines in a recent New York Times obituary.

“In the old days, we saw a lot of mink coats . . . Today we see a lot of flip-flops.’’

That’s how Bette Nash described the airlines’ descent from gracious to graceless. And in her 67 years as the longest-serving flight attendant in history, she saw it all.

Ms. Nash, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 88, first dreamed of becoming a flight attendant as a child after seeing flight crews on a trip to Dayton from her home in New Jersey.

“It just looked so elegant. And romantic,” she said in a 2007 interview by the Boston Globe. “It was the romance of the skies.”

In 1957 a child’s dream took off on Eastern Airlines.

“Wearing white gloves, heels and a pillbox hat, Ms. Nash served lobster and champagne, carved roast beef by request and passed out after-dinner cigarettes,” her obituary in The Times reported.

It was the take off of “The Golden Age of Flight.”

But if passengers have gone from well-dressed to barely dressed, business suits to sweat suits, long skirts to short shorts and dress shoes to flip-flops, flight attendants have changed as well.

When Ms. Nash carved her first roast beef, flight attendants were required to be between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-6, weigh no more than 135 pounds and never married. They were expected to have legs “free and smooth of hair,” “a light pleasing fragrance” and “a well-fitted girdle.”

By the 1960s the golden age of flight had become “the groovy age of flight” and attendants were stereotyped as sexually-available waitresses. National Airlines spent $9.5 million on a campaign that read “I’m Cheryl. Fly Me” and “I’m going to fly you as you’ve never been flown before.”

But by the ‘80s, references to “stewardesses,” “Trolley Dollies” and “coffee, tea or me” were off the radar. And so, too, was the romance of the skies.

Now it’s a wistful memory as airlines squeeze passengers into tiny seats and passengers respond by finding what relief they can in more comfortable sweat suits, t-shirts, baseball caps and flip flops. And flight attendants’ requirements are: 4-foot-11 to 6-foot-4 and “proportional” weight, with no age, marital or girdle restrictions. They no longer carve meat or pass out cigarettes and if there’s a lobster aboard it’s probably being carried by a passenger claiming it’s a service animal.

But while it’s tempting to long for a return to the romance of the skies, we need to remember that the romance belonged mostly to the passengers who could afford the champagne, the lobsters and the mink coats.

Contact this columnist at dlstew_2000@yahoo.com.

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