By Nan McKay
As a teenager, my favorite thing to do was to go out to the little airport in Peoria to watch planes take off and land. As soon as I turned 20 I became a flight attendant for a large airlines based in Chicago. I had had 2 years of college, and I was dying to see what else was out there. I really wanted to go with Pan Am because they went around the world, not just the U.S. but you had to be 21, and I didn’t want to wait!
The job was different in those days. It was considered more of a "glamorous" job than the hard work it is today with faster flights and more people. We strutted down the airport halls in your crisp, snazzy uniform. Our hair couldn’t touch your collar and we couldn’t wear earrings. We wore hats and white gloves. We went to "stewardess college" for 7 weeks of training. We had to be a certain height (tall enough to reach into the overhead bins) and weight. If we went over their weight limit, we would be on “weight check.” And we could lose our job if we didn’t improve. I have to say, I was on weight check several times. I probably could benefit from it today.
I flew all kinds of airplanes. The smallest one was the Convair 240 with 40 passengers and 2 propeller engines which went only 235 MPH so it took a long time to get from one place to another. It had 2 engines in case one failed. We were encouraged to take the time to learn everyone’s name and stop or even sit and talk with them. Those planes were very noisy so we had to yell and get very close to the passenger to make yourself heard. Many that’s why there were so many marriages.
It was expensive to fly back then. We tended to get more business men (yes, men) as our passengers. In the 1950s, you could expect to pay 40% or more for the same ticket you buy today. A ticket on TWA in1955 from Chicago to Phoenix, for example, cost $138 round-trip. Adjusted for inflation, that's $1,168.
Take a look at “What Flying Was Like in the 1960’s” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaXZ8Nisyjo and you’ll see it was more spacious than today. Big bathrooms, roomy seats, social areas in first class where we served hors devourers. We had the china service on the longer flights. We set the table with a tablecloth and fancy china and silverware and poured coffee from silver pots. There were no pull-down trays. You hooked a tray into the seat. Take a look at what the passengers wore on the youtube video. Smoking was allowed, of course. You can see why the girl from Peoria wanted to escape to the world.
I remember my first flight. It was a bigger plane and we had to serve a meal. I was in the back economy section. I bustled around and had the trays with the dinners all out when I heard the captain say, “We are now landing.” OMG, the food trays were all out! We landed that way. Not a good beginning.
We bid our trips by trip, date and position. When we were new, it took a long time to get to work in first class unless we were on "reserve" which meant we had to be available 24/7 unless we were released by Crew Sked. If we didn't have a regular schedule and flew reserve, we filled in for someone who became ill or didn't show up. Then we had the opportunity to fly the good runs, like Hawaii, or first class.
We all heard the story about the stewardess (we didn’t call them flight attendants back then) who was sucked out of the back of the plane because the door wasn’t latched tight. That incident happened while I was flying, so we always looked carefully at the door!
If you could pass the Spanish test, you could get a Mexico flight and be paid extra. Anything that paid extra, I always took. I could pass the test, but people would ask me if they could bring back a chicken and I thought they were talking about flowers.
Finally, I got married, which at that time required a stewardess to resign. Today, as a paying passenger, I have logged over 5 million miles on American and 2.3 million miles on United. Plus miles on other airlines. I still get a thrill out of that feeling you get in your stomach when the plane takes off. I still love it. Sometimes I feel like I should get up and help out.