Being an air hostess during the golden age of flying

19 Nov 2015

Stewardesses from BOAC, the forerunner to British Airways, remember a more glamorous era of air travel, 50 years on.

Gaze around you at the snoring, coughing and occasionally bare-footed passengers on your next flight, packed like sardines, and "glamorous" will probably be the last word that springs to mind. It is also highly unlikely you will envy those tasked with escorting this irritable and sometimes unruly herd on and off the plane.

But it wasn't always like this. Aircraft cabins were once bastions of sophistication and securing the job of flight attendant - or air hostess, as it was back then - worthy of a picture story in your local paper.

“It really was the most glamorous job in the world, like being a super model, or an actress today" Wendy Barlow, a former flight attendant with BOAC.

Wendy Barlow, a former flight attendant with BOAC, the forerunner to British Airways, explains: "Being born in 1942, brought up in the post war period, when rationing was still in force, and food was scarce. It was a revelation to me to learn all about the various foods, wine and cocktails from around the world. I had only seen such opulence on the big screen in cinemas.

“It really was the most glamorous job in the world, like being a super model, or an actress today. My mother even had an article put in our local paper, and a picture of me in uniform. The title of the article was: 'Wendy becomes an Air Hostess with BOAC.' We were the golden girls!”

Barlow joined BOAC in November 1965, and this week, 50 years on, BA invited her, and others from the class of '65, to meet some recent recruits, share their memories of flying during the "golden age" of air travel, and discuss how the job has changed.

Recruitment

The requirements for flight attendants back in 1965 would have feminists wincing today. They had to be single, between the ages of 21 and 27, and with a "neatly proportioned figure" and "pleasing appearance". Furthermore, they could only join for a maximum of 10 years.

The stewardesses from 1965 revealed that some of their colleagues kept subsequent marriages secret to enable them to stay at the airline.

US carriers during that period had similarly stringent requirements. In 1966, a New York Times classified ad for stewardesses at Eastern Airlines listed these requirements: "A high school graduate, single (widows and divorcees with no children considered), 20 years of age (girls 19 1/2 may apply for future consideration). 5'2" but no more than 5'9", weight 105 to 135 in proportion to height."

Today, height requirements remain (for practical reasons cabin crew must be between 5'2" and 6'1") but now married women of any age may apply.

Training

The 1965 recruits, many of whom had never flown before, embarked on six weeks of training before they were ready to fly.

Appearances were paramount, and during training they had a visit from Elizabeth Arden, who taught them how to apply make-up.

Wendy Barlow remembers: “Joining BOAC gave me confidence and taught me how to make the best of myself, smiling until my jaws ached. Being taught how to apply makeup and care for my skin by Elizabeth Arden, and having my hair done in a neat style by Vidal Sassoon.”

Rosalind Sharp, Barlow's contemporary, added: “Our training was scary and if a hair was out of place we were criticised. If our nail varnish was chipped we were in trouble. And what was the difference between a John Collins and a Tom Collins?"

Training today still lasts six weeks, but far more attention is paid to safety protocol, as Telegraph Travel's Lizzie Porter discovered when she joined new recruits at Heathrow last year.

Grooming is still important, however. Staff are still expected to be immaculately attired. The Uniform Standards manual requires women to wear lipstick and blusher “as a minimum”. Hair must be secured in an approved list of styles and, if in a French plait, “the ends must not exceed 1.5in/3cm”.

Salary

The recruits of 1965 were paid a starting salary of £584, equivalent to around £10,100 today, according to the Bank of England's inflation calculator.

The annual “total reward package” for a new flight attendant at BA is between £21,000 and £25,000.

On the job

They also had "special responsibilities for looking after children". "Keeping tidy the cloakroom" was another part of the job.

But it was hard work. Stewardesses could be called upon at short notice to go to any destination in the world for a period of three days to three weeks, and frequent refuelling stops meant considerably longer journeys.

Today a BA flight to Sydney operates via Singapore on a Boeing 777. The journey takes 23 hours. In November 1965, the BA720 to Sydney was operated by a Boeing 707. It departed on a Friday at 1530 and included stops in Zurich, Beirut, Karachi, Calcutta, Singapore and Darwin. It arrived in Sydney on Sunday, local time 0625.

All those extra legs meant a lot of meal services.

Passengers completing the entire journey will have eaten half the farmyard by the time they reached London, having been served lamb, turkey, beef, ox tongue, chicken and ham - not to mention three rounds of cheese and biscuits.

Cigarettes - "English or American", "plain or filter tip" - also feature on the menu.

In 1965, BOAC had two classes of travel: first and economy, but economy back then was roomier than it is today.

The stewards and stewardesses sometimes wore white gloves to serve customers and even carved meat in the aisle.

Despite the thorough training, there were occasional mishaps.

Diane Hamill, another BOAC stewardess, recalled: “I was serving on the 707, taking a three-tiered trolley down the aisle. This included cheese and fruit, finger bowls for First Class, wine, and champagne. I must have caught a nick in the carpet as the whole trolley fell over – spilling its contents everywhere. The cabin went completely silent. I went back to the galley and said: ‘Someone give me a cigarette’.”

Her former colleague Judith Mockett added: “On one flight, I somehow managed to set fire to a passenger. As I went up the aisle I inadvertently knocked an Australian gentleman’s arm just as he was putting his cigarette to his mouth. The ash fell on his nylon shirt and set fire to it immediately - I hadn't even noticed. By the time I came back down the aisle, he and his pal were laughing hard and told me what had happened.

"I offered to get some burn cream for him and he said that if I put it on for him, he would not send in a complaint. Such flirtation by passengers towards the air stewardesses was a very common occurrence and something we all became deft at dealing with!”

The destinations - and the glamour

Today, many teenagers will visit several continents on their gap year, while family holidays in far-flung countries are the norm. Back then, being a flight attendant offered a rare opportunity to see exotic destinations - some of which you never even knew existed.

“When I received my fist hand written roster, it said go to Port of Spain as an ‘A’ girl [senior stewardess]," said Wendy Barlow. "I thought it was exciting to fly as an ‘A’ girl on my first trip - but then thought that it’s not very far to go so I won’t need to take much with me - I am only going somewhere in Spain. When I got on the aircraft the steward told me we were going to Port of Spain in Trinidad. Shock!”

Celia Wesley, another BOAC stewardess, recalled being sent to Calcutta (now Kolkata) at an hour's notice to take the place of a stewardess who had been taken ill. She said: “I entered the spacious lobby of the Grand Hotel and stepped into another world, another age, another time. Here existed the faded grandeur of the British Empire. I felt totally out of place in my purposeful navy uniform and military style hat. Oh, if only I had been able to make a more fitting entrance by graciously gliding in, corseted in a long elegant Victorian dress.

"Distracted by my thoughts, I waited behind a man who was checking out at the reception desk. When he turned round, it was none other than Marlon Brando, looking handsome and suntanned. He was beaming broadly at me. I stood and gaped - but he had gone.”

Kate Clubb, a contemporary, added: “I remember enjoying four nights in Fiji due to a delay caused by a strike and listening to the local people singing 'Now is the Hour' with the backdrop of the lagoon and moonlight.

“We had such fun, such camaraderie, such hard work but so much laughter! When I fly these days I think that essentially the job has not changed but passengers do not seem to ring the bell so much as they did when there were only six cabin crew. Now the planes are so big and the number of cabin crew so much bigger and I wonder whether the hotel room parties are quite so much fun.”

 

This article was written by Oliver Smith from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.