Why Flight Attendants Get Less Attractive Over Time

Prior to deregulation in 1978, the government told airlines what routes they could fly and what prices they could charge. They weren’t allowed to compete on the basis of price.

In the two years leads up to deregulation, the Civil Aeronautics Board “experimented” with price competition. I vaguely recall Southwest becoming the largest liquor distributor in the state of Texas as a result — they were a purely intra-Texas airline and not subject to Federal regulation, their prices were not set by the Feds. But with these ‘experiments’ their prices could be matched and even undercut by competitors. So they began offering two tiers of pricing, discount fares and then full fares which were valid for the same seat but came with liquor.

While the government could control pricing they couldn’t actually stop competition. That’s why you used to get such over the top meals, with pricing set high airlines needed to induce passengers to choose them and were willing to up the investment to attract those purchases. Which led to the absurdity of the CAB actually considering regulation at one point which would limit the thickness of sandwiches.

Via Megan McArdle, Glen Whitman thinks this phenomena also explains the declining attractiveness of airline flight attendants. (Some may object to Glen’s characterization, but surely simply calling out “Deltalina” points to the exception that proves the rule.)

For an economist, the most fascinating aspect of Pan Am is the highly attractive flight attendants — or rather, stewardesses, since the show is set in the early 1960s. If you’re young enough, you might think that’s just TV. But I’m just old enough to remember flying in the 1970s, and I recall stewardesses who really were, in fact, hot. Okay, I was too young to understand the concept of “hot” — but I was definitely aware that I was being attended by some very pretty young women.

Not so anymore. Flight attendants aren’t necessarily unattractive now, but they’re no more fetching than people in any other service profession that doesn’t get tips. And what’s changed? In a word, deregulation.

Glen contends that attractive stewardesses was one way that airlines competed when they couldn’t compete on price, but in a post-deregulation world it’s clear that customers won’t pay more for attractive flight attendants to airlines don’t invest in them.

Except.. Except..

That “hot stewardesses” aren’t necessarily more expensive. Sure, all things equal there’s probably research that says attractiveness influences compensation though the effects I’ve seen have tended to be small. And that would make the opportunity costs for those women higher, raising the price they could command.

If that were a driving factor, though, you would expect foreign airlines not to advertise the ‘hotness’ of their flight attendants, and in fact they don’t just build a reputation on it but even advertise it to U.S. consumers. How many of you have seen this Korean AIrlines ad?

Instead, a supposed higher cost to employ attractive flight attendants doesn’t seem to be a driver here.

Glen is certainly right that on the whole customers won’t pay for comely service in the sky, Hooters Air is no longer operating. But they will pay not to have surly service, at least in premium cabins. And though there are certainly fantastic crew on US airlines, there’s no consistency to it, and there are also very bad flight attendants from a customer service (not just attractiveness) standpoint, including up front. And airlines do very little to control this, independent of customers’ willingness to pay some increment. Which suggests to me that it’s a significant increment, and not just in terms of the wage that would be demanded by flight attendants who would provide better service… just as there’s a barrier which makes the increment significant were airlines to hire more attractive flight attendants.

In fact, airlines make huge investments to compensate for poor service delivery. While US airlines tend to be behind on many premium cabin amenities, United and even Continental and Delta have been ahead of many world carriers in investing in their hard product (better seats). And yet they have a difficult time competing with the better international carriers, even when those carriers offer an inferior hard product. Because customers don’t like paying $5,000, $10,000, or $20,000 and not being well-treated.

Certainly there are changes in demographics and the female workforce as Megan observes, but the driver here really does seem to be unionization and labor laws. And I don’t make a judgment in this post when I say this, I’m genuinely looking for the explanation.

Airlines in the U.S. can’t have weigh-ins. They can specify uniform, but even Delta’s introduction of “the red dress” (as an option) generated much union teeth gnashing. And a campaign to produce the red dress in plus sizes for employees who were very much not-RDQ.

Who flies what route is determined by seniority, pay high business class fares on the longest flights to say Sydney and Hong Kong, and since these are also the most desirable flights for flight attendants to work, you get the oldest flight attendants.

With unionization, and when times are tough and airlines shed staff, you get last hired, first fired, this biases towards older flight attendants. And with flight attendants furloughed, airlines have to offer spots when they expand to now even older than they were before flight attendants who haven’t been working.

Further, pay is based on seniority, older flight attendants make more. The job would be more attractive for younger flight attendants if they were paid even as much as an average flight attendant, instead the income distribution is skewed to make the job increasingly attractive as the employee gets more senior. Which also makes it harder for older employees to leave.

Since it’s generally hard to get fired from a union position, service standards are very difficult to enforce.

Of course, even if union contract provisions weren’t in place, airlines would have a difficult time enforcing old standards due to changes in law, such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Now, there was unionization in the 60’s to be sure. But there weren’t as many older flight attendants then, and those that were there tended to be younger… until they weren’t. It’s only when a large portion of union members begin to “age out” that age becomes a significant issue for the unions.

Meanwhile, Megan points out that there are plenty of international carriers who do see it worthwhile to hire for attractiveness, and advertise attractiveness.

Glen Whitman could say, and he would be right, that all of these things — union costs, legal costs — raise the cost of airlines hiring on average more attractive flight attendants. It isn’t that consumers don’t value attractiveness, it’s that they don’t value it enough to outweigh the costs. Airlines which do not face these union and legal costs find it a worthwhile marketing strategy to hire more attractive flight attendants.

That’s a little bit different of an argument than what Glen was making, it’s closer to Megan’s point that it’s institutions rather than consumer preferences which drive the outcome, but it would be a more economic way of saying it.

Update: An email from D.B. points to this Google book excerpt referencing the Love Airlines case which found that hiring flight attendants based on looks is illegal sex discrimination. So as I suggested above, there are legal constraints to individual hiring choices, and as I separately contend the average age in particular is boosted by union contract rules.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Attractive, much less “Hot”, flight attendants? Hell, I’d settle for just plain customer friendly attendants. On some transatlantic First Class flights on AA, it seems the FAs think the plane is theirs, and they are doing us a favor by letting us fly with them.

    Considering Union rules, and the near impossibilty of getting fired, they may just have a point.

  2. Same here. Could care less about how attractive a FA is. Our most memorable experiences (best and worst) have been those where the FA understood (or couldn’t grasp) what was truly important.

  3. Im married now…so I could care less how attractive they are hehehe..The only thing that matters to me is a how nice they are to me in flight. I want them to smile at me..and give me every reasonable request with cheer.

  4. Any insight into how much more powerful the unions are now than in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80, 90s, relative to the airlines?

    When did FA unions get started? Certainly not in the 1930s?

  5. @toomanybooks Pat Patterson, generally credited with introducing flight attendants to aviation, was President of United for about 30 years… mid 30’s to mid 60’s… he began the practice of delegating employee scheduling to unions, as I understand it he believed that unions ‘were closer to the needs of the workers’ so in a better position to manage things like schedules.

    It’s not my argument that unions are more powerful than in the 70s. Although airline unions are relatively powerful compared to unions generally. Rather, there just weren’t more flight attendants than there were slots for flight attendants during times when airlines were growing rapidly. And in earlier times those young flight attendants joining unions were… still young. It takes years for the role of unions to generate an on-average older workforce.

  6. The Union argument for poor customer service ignores Southwest FAs, who are strongly unionized, yet offer fantastic customer service. It is a red herring in my opinion. The culture of the airline, set by example from the very top, drives customer service standards.

  7. @Carl I’m really curious to hear about Southwest’s customer service in international business class? Thanks! Regardless, my point here is about average age and enforceability of attractiveness, my point about unions is explanatory and is actually a value-neutral one…

  8. (Different Carl)

    While I appreciate attractive and well-groomed FAs, what’s by far most important is how well they treat you and serve you. Beyond all the safety statements, they are in a service position, and if they don’t want to serve, they are in the wrong job.

    I think an important issue is how difficult it is for the airline to monitor and evaluate the quality of service provided by the FAs

    It would be awesome if there were a non-union management employee as the supervising FA on every flight, or at least every widebody flight. That person could oversee the service as well as evaluate the employees.

    But otherwise, independent of the union issues, there probably isn’t any process which brings to the attention of management who is providing good service and who isn’t. Or the airlines need to listen a lot more to customers instead of being put into the defensive position of defending employees when there are complaints, because generally the airlines don’t know what’s going on aboard their planes.

  9. Premium class is irrelevant. Most passengers travel in coach. The union bias supporting poor customer service in general is widely held, yet SW is a good example that refutes that argument, and as I explained, their culture helps drive that service excellence despite their unionization.

  10. Agree with 3 previous comments – common courtesy is enough for me. I see too many FAs who practically ignore customers – even in first class, barely acknowledging passengers, minimizing routine and rushing through it so they can sit down and gab. I too would welcome polite friendly FAs on the biggest airlines. They exist, I’ve seen them from time to time on JetBlue or Southwest (LGB or SNA).

  11. Also, I think in the 70s and 80s the airline policies were largely denigrated as sexist (the uniforms, younger, prettier FAs) and most airlines were forced to abandon their age/weight/grooming requirements for FAs. The foreign carriers haven’t had these pressures.
    I agree too that unions do play a role – the most tenured FAs have seniority to select routes and they prefer the transoceanic upper class assignments. I was on an AA flight in first a few years ago and every FA was easily 55 or older – that doesn’t matter as long as they can perform the safety and emergency procedures.

  12. It’s not unions, it’s management. Management decides who to hire, decides what emphasis and resources to put in training. Management can fire union workers who fail to meet established standards. But management has to be paying attenton. Southwest is proof union staff can provide good CS (so I hear). Delta is proof non-union FAs can be mediocre. End of the day there’s a lot of factors that go into a company having consistently good CS – management controls most of them.

  13. Airlines aged, so did their staff. I flew Kingfisher in India last year, a very new airline, with very attractive and young female FAs.

  14. Yeah, I really couldn’t care less about the “attractiveness” of my flight attendant: it’s “attentiveness” that matters to me. It’s a broad generalization, but I do think that YOUNGER flight attendants (attractive or not, although I suppose most folks associate beauty with youth) would generally make for a better flight attendant pool. People change when they get older and, in service industries, you can easily fall into a rut. I think being a flight attendant is likely to be more fun if you’ve only been doing it for 3 years instead of 30 years. And if you’re having fun, you’re more likely to be enthusiastic, and do a better job.

    The problem at the major US airlines is that they haven’t really expanded in recent years (indeed, many of them have contracted) so their workforces are aging. And in this economy (how’s your 401K doing?) retirements are probably pretty slow. Eventually, though, the workforces of the majors will be refreshed, and you may see more younger, enthusiastic flight attendants.

  15. While I like the FAs to be attractive too, I like to think this is a good sign and it shows the society has progressed now with less discrimination and US is better than Asia and other places. Age and attractiveness have nothing to do with the service level we received — the few FAs I had problem with were mostly young actually,

    Like many people mentioned above, the difference between our experiences on us airlines and Asian airlines are more about the service attitude. And the degrading of service isn’t limited to airline –the same thing with hotel services I must say. So maybe we should look beyond management and union etc and look a bit deeper.

  16. Oh yes the unions! Certainly the CEO and the rest of the corporate board have zero responsibility for setting corporate policy or hiring management staff – that’s why the shareholders pay them millions every year.

  17. @Jake Read the comments above, United’s Pat Patterson who ran the airline for 30 years very much bears responsibility not just for CAPITULATING to unions, but for turning over management of personnel scheduling to them. No whitewash of management responsibility.

  18. I also think the contribution of unionization to this issue is overblown.

    Other posters have held up examples of Delta (non-union) with the same issues as the other majors, and SW (union) that generally does not have those issues. And in many other countries, unions are more common and more powerful.

    One relevant and big difference between the US and many other countries (and thus between US and non-US carriers) is that the US has a very low tolerance for discrimination in the workplace, including (espcially?) discrimination based on physical appearance.

    In very, very many (perhaps even most) other countries, when applying for a job, it is common practice for your resume/CV to include information such as marital status and age/date of birth, and to be accompanied by a photo (headshot). This can facilitate discrimination in the hiring process. In some countries, job ads even list attractiveness as a requirement and/or include specific physical characteristics (height/weight). I suspect that this is a much greater factor than unionization.

    It is also worth noting that labour and employment laws in the US are generally much weaker than in many (most?) other countries. Even in unionized workplaces, it is often easier/cheaper to fire an employee in the US than in many other countries. Two big exceptions are discrimination and sexual harassment (related, arguably), which are often treated much more strictly in the US than in many other countries.

  19. Folks, to be clear about the claim regarding the effects of unionization of flight attendants in the post, it is primarily that union contracts lead to a higher average age of employee, which influences attractiveness. If you disagree with the post, that’s the claim you need to wrestle with, not whether Southwest (a still younger airline which has grown rapidly) can have cheery flight attendants.

  20. I understand the premise here and it is valid to a degree. I think an additional factor to consider is work conditions. I have met many flight attendants and while some were indeed a bit gruff many seemed very nice. They seemed to enjoy their job, but resented the way management at the airline treated them. That resentment sometimes percolated into their mood as happens to all of us.

    I had the pleasure of flying with an attendant who was going to work at our destination hub. We chatted for awhile and she admitted that there were days where they would get company or union communication that would seriously affect her mood because it undercut what she believe was more important. That was offering great service. She railed a bit against the DYKWIA crowd, but we all do that. Was she hot? No, but she was motherly in a way that warmed my heart.

    I think a lot of the gruff attitude from the attendants is due to them becoming jaded in an industry that seems to consistently race toward the cheapest it can be. Just like servers the flight attendant is blamed for everything that is wrong, even when it is beyond their control. How many of us could remain always cheerful?

  21. Hi, Gary. I just wanted to respond to your update about the Love Airlines case. As I read it, the court said that airlines could not discriminate on the basis of sex — but it said nothing directly about hiring based on appearance. Furthermore, despite the court case, the workforce remains overwhelmingly female (about 75%).

    I think it’s worth adding that we don’t have to choose among the various explanations, because they have reinforcing effects. Deregulation reduced the incentive to hire attractive staff, *and* anti-discrimination laws made it more costly to do so. No contradiction there. Also, the explanations can be entangled; e.g., after dereg, the airlines had less incentive to resist terms in union contracts that required FIFO hiring/firing policies.

  22. Gary how is this different many other industries in US? Most of the places I have worked seem to have a much older workforce as well and there are no unions. Also as retirement wave comes through the workforce should get younger though not sure more attractive.

  23. This was a difficult article to get through because of the ridiculous number of punctuation errors. It made my head hurt to try to navigate some of these paragraphs. I know it is just a blog entry, but a little journalistic professionalism and polish is needed here.

    A high school student could write better.

  24. First: This whole debate is ludicrous. Why don’t we want more attractive teachers, police officers, nurses and doctors, politicians, etc.? This entire idea shows the discrimination Americans feel regarding flight attendants. I was one for thirty years and the flying public was very quick to point out to me someone who was “old.” When I started in 1973, old was over thirty years of age. Secondly people, the expression is not “I could care less” because that means you actually care; you all show your stupidity in this conversation, but those of you who “could care less” are actually attempting to say “I could NOT care less.” Back to the original thought, flight attendants are human beings doing a very trying and difficult job. I left because even at fifty years old I found it too hard, physically yes, but emotionally and mentally due to the American personality. So let’s start a new exchange here on the overweight, grumpy, hostile, greedy American personality.

  25. What a ridiculous article. The last thing on our minds should be how attractive flight attendants are, but rather, how good they are at their job — which, by the way, is not to “serve” you, but to make sure everybody is safe. I bet a 20-year-old girl on Korean Air is not as good at handling an emergency evacuation as a 45-year-old Delta flight attendant.

  26. @augias the flight attendants on South Korea’s Asiana 214 did an AMAZING job saving lives.

    But this is about the changing incentives airlines faced pre- and post-deregulation and how they marketed to customers.

  27. I didn’t realize that women still had to be young and pretty to have a job. I guess the rest of us should just shoot ourselves to make these creepy, sexist men feel good. I didn’t get hired at a stripper joint and I’m not going out for americas top model. I have a family to support. I need my job. I love my job and I give the best service I can with what management gives me to work with. Do these attractive rules apply to all jobs? Are men required to be attractive? If I come to your place of business am I aloud to complain to your management about how old, fat and ugly you are? With everything so p.c. Today it amazes me how it’s socially acceptable to discriminate against women. Also you receive better service and products from other airlines because their government often subsidizes them. I don’t know about other airline unions but ours is awful. And believe me they do come after us when people complain. Even when the customer was drunk, obnoxious and violent the media doesn’t tell those stories. I guess they wouldn’t sell as well. Where was the police and the media when I was sexually assaulted on the plane? Where was the police and media when I was assaulted by a drunk passenger who I was trying to help from loosing consciousness and cracking his head open on the floor? Get a life people. I love nothing more than when the 99 percenters are on my plane. I love to make them smile and I love it when they exit the plane saying how nice the flight was.

  28. So I’ll just put it out there and don my flame suit. I prefer attractive AND kind people to serve me whether it’s on a plane, in a restaurant or at a doctor’s office. Service personnel are the front line sales force for any company and with 60+% of communication being non verbal…well, you see why there’s not many unattractive people on billboards. Also, i think the idea of eliminating weigh-ins for FAs is ridiculous. An FA should fit down the aisle without slamming into both sides. In an emergency a wide body doesn’t fit through a narrow aisle if they can’t even fit during the boarding process. I don’t think unions are to blame for this although i generally think labor unions’ day has come and gone and now they exist largely to justify their own existence but more generally our protectionist labor laws that make everyone a snowflake (via “reasonable accommodation” and other such litigation fuel).

    Finally, I’ll just insert that as a very frequent flier with many very frequent flier friends – the topic of “wow, I had a beautiful stewardess” or “I could have sworn I was on O’Donnell Air” is quite often discussed. Bottom line – it DOES matter to customers.

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