Retirement packages have become a growing concern for aging flight attendants in a profession that was once limited to the young, thin, single, and childless.
Lawsuits filed in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s drastically changed hiring and firing practices in the airline service industry. No longer are American flight attendants held to strict rules of height, weight, gender, and age. As a result, many of today’s flight attendants are staying in the industry and asking for quality retirement packages.
“Retirement benefits have become a major part of negotiations,” said Mary Kay Hanke, International Vice President of the Association of Flight Attendants. “We have a large percent very interested in retirement because they’re nearing retirement.”
In the industry’s more than 60-year history, very few flight attendants have made it to retirement. United Airlines has retired 500, many more than U.S. Airways 70 retirees, Continental’s 36 retirees, or America West’s total of 21. American Airlines, employer of 20,000 flight attendants, has had 110 women retirees.
“I know to a lot of folks that number sounds low, but not when you look at the history of the flight attendant profession,” said Karen Watson, a spokesperson for American Airlines. “Women left to marry and to have children and simply weren’t at the job at retirement age. Those obstacles have been removed and flight attendants for the first time are retiring.”
In fact, women who decided to marry or become pregnant were once required to quit their jobs. Those were not the only strict restrictions on women flight attendants, or stewardesses, as they were called previously.
Stewardesses could work only until they reached age 32 or 36, depending on the airline that employed them. Their hair could not reach the collar of their uniforms, and they had to undergo mandatory “girdle checks.”
The height and weight of attendants was also strictly monitored. For example, a 5-foot-2-inch stewardess could weigh no more than 118 pounds.
For the first 30 years of air travel, all attendants were female. “Airlines hired females so the male population wouldn’t be afraid to fly,” said 35-year American Airlines veteran Sherri Cappello. Also, airlines wanted a constantly changing set of attractive young women who would appeal to business travelers.
As women began making gains in all business arenas, the rules against flight attendants began to change. The ban on marriages was lifted in 1967. Pregnant flight attendants were no longer fired after 1970, but were required to take an unpaid leave of absence. Men also began to work as flight attendants. Weight restrictions were relaxed only recently, in 1991.
Currently, United flight attendants list retirement benefits as their Number 1 contract issue. “We hear our members loud and clear,” said Denise Hedges, President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. “While we will work for a balanced agreement that effectively addresses a whole range of issues, retirement will top the list.”