August 1997 Whispered Watchword
How Does Vicki Barr Compare to Today's Flight Attendants?
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Vicki Barr Flight Stewardess Series, I'd like to take a look at some of the similarities and differences between Vicki and real life flight attendants. We'll begin with a little bit of history. The first flight attendants were for United Airlines in the 1930's. They had to be registered nurses, no older than 25 years old, no taller than 5'4'' and weigh 115 pounds or less. Flying was still in the early stages, there was much more airsickness than there is now and emergencies cropped up regularly. The stewardesses had to be adventuresome and athletic.
During the war years of the 1940's the requirement that stewardesses be nurses was dropped. By 1947, when we meet Vicki Barr, the United States had entered the golden age of air travel. The aviation industry was growing by leaps and bounds. In 1941, a few airlines were transporting approximately 3 million people annually. By 1961, 56 different airlines carried 58 million passengers a year. Today, I am a flight attendant with USAir. We are the fourth largest airline in the United States (behind United, Delta, and American). We carry nearly 200,000 passengers daily to more than 400 cities. And air travel is no longer as glamorous as it was in Vicki's day.
However, I am stuck by the similarities between Vicki's experience and my own. In Silver Wings for Vicki, Vicki Barr interviews and trains to become a flight attendant. In The Clue of the Carved Ruby, she trains for "Worldwide Airways" and the chance to work international flights. Both books reminded me of my own training with Piedmont Airlines and USAir. Not too much has changed in the fifty years since Silver Wings for Vicki was written. The airlines still run advertisements for "cattle Call" interviews and every flight attendant applicant says, " I love people and I love to fly" just like Vicki.
Although some requirements have relaxed since the 1950's; for example, flight attendants can now be married. Many things remain the same. The airlines have standards concerning hair, makeup, and jewelry. During initial training, every applicant, male and female is taken for a "make-over". WE no longer have weigh-ins every month, but we are still required to wear high heels (unless we have a doctor's excuse). Uniforms no longer have hats and gloves, except for a few European Airlines. Southwest Airlines attendants are the envy of most flight attendants for their casual uniform of khaki shorts and polo shirts.
Vicki's schedule changes from book to book and that is very realistic. Each month flight attendants bid for their schedule and the schedules are awarded by seniority. So one month you work flights to Florida and the next month, you work to LA. Flight attendants can also work on the ground in the training department or as supervisors, like Vicki does in The Mystery at Hartwood House.
Layovers have changed a bit. In the 40's and 50's, it was common to have two or three day layovers because an airline would serve a city only once or twice a week. Today, when you have hourly service between some destinations, you are lucky to get 24 hours in a city. The FAA regulates crew rest and they regard nine hours as a minimum. The airlines take advantage of this and it is rare to see a layover longer than 48 hours. The average layover is 16-18 hours, just enough time to do a little sightseeing or shopping and have dinner. The biggest mysteries I solve on a layover are where the used bookstores are located and how to get there without paying a fortune in cab fare.
It is still very common for girls just out of training to live together, especially when they relocate to a strange new city. When my sister was hired as a flight attendant in 1994, she lived in a Washington, DC apartment with five other girls. Unfortunately, they did not have a "house mother" like Mrs. Duff to take care of them. As the years go by, Vicki loses touch with the girls she met in initial training and this is also very realistic. The changing schedules and the opportunities to move to different cities make it hared to maintain close friendships among flight attendants. However, at USAir, we have what we call buddy bidding. This way friends or husband and wife teams can bid together for the same schedule.
One of my favorite examples of how little the airline industry has changed is from The Silver Ring Mystery. Vicki and Jean prepare their Electra Turbo-prop aircraft for an emergency landing and everything they do is much the same as we do it today. The select "able-bodied passengers" to assist at door and window exits and they brief all the passengers on the locations of the exits and brace positions. That section of The Silver Ring Mystery could have been lifted from my 1997 emergency manual.
Air Travel has lost much of the glamour and excitement it had in Vicki's Day, but the best flight attendants bring the same love of flying and sense of adventure to the job that Vicki Barr embodies.