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Flight attendants or cabin crew (also known as stewards/stewardesses, air hosts/hostesses, cabin attendants) are members of an aircrew employed by airlines primarily to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers aboard commercial flights, on select business jet aircraft, and on some military aircraft.
The role of a flight attendant derives from that of similar positions on passenger ships or passenger trains, but it has more direct involvement with passengers because of the confined quarters on aircraft. Additionally, the job of a flight attendant revolves around safety to a much greater extent than those of similar staff on other forms of transportation. Flight attendants on board a flight collectively form a cabin crew, as distinguished from pilots and engineers in the cockpit.
The German Heinrich Kubis was the world's first flight attendant, in 1912. Kubis first attended the passengers on board the DELAG Zeppelin LZ 10 Schwaben. He also attended to the famous LZ 129 Hindenburg and was on board when it burst into flames. He survived by jumping out a window when it neared the ground.
Origins of the word "steward" in transportation are reflected in the term "chief steward" as used in maritime transport terminology. The term purser and chief steward are often used interchangeably describing personnel with similar duties among seafaring occupations. This lingual derivation results from the international British maritime tradition (i.e. chief mate) dating back to the 14th century and the civilian United States Merchant Marine on which US aviation is somewhat modeled. Due to international conventions and agreements, in which all ships' personnel who sail internationally are similarly documented by their respective countries, the U.S. Merchant Marine assigns such duties to the chief steward in the overall rank and command structure of which pursers are not positionally represented or rostered.
Imperial Airways of the United Kingdom had "cabin boys" or "stewards"; in the 1920s. In the US, Stout Airways was the first to employ stewards in 1926, working on Ford Trimotor planes between Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Western Airlines (1928) and Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) (1929) were the first US carriers to employ stewards to serve food. Ten-passenger Fokker aircraft used in the Caribbean had stewards in the era of gambling trips to Havana, Cuba from Key West, Florida. Lead flight attendants would in many instances also perform the role of purser, steward, or chief steward in modern aviation terminology.
The first female flight attendant was a 25-year-old registered nurse named Ellen Church. Hired by United Airlines in 1930, she also first envisioned nurses on aircraft. Other airlines followed suit, hiring nurses to serve as flight attendants, then called "stewardesses" or "air hostesses", on most of their flights. In the United States, the job was one of only a few in the 1930s to permit women, which, coupled with the Great Depression, led to large numbers of applicants for the few positions available. Two thousand women applied for just 43 positions offered by Transcontinental and Western Airlines in December 1935.
Female flight attendants rapidly replaced male ones, and by 1936, they had all but taken over the role. They were selected not only for their knowledge but also for their characteristics. A 1936 New York Times article described the requirements:
The girls who qualify for hostesses must be petite; weight 100 to 118 pounds; height 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches; age 20 to 26 years. Add to that the rigid physical examination each must undergo four times every year, and you are assured of the bloom that goes with perfect health.
Three decades later, a 1966 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 and have at least 20/40 vision without glasses.
Appearance was considered as one of the most important factors to become a stewardess. At that time, airlines believed that the exploitation of female sexuality would increase their profits; thus the uniforms of female flight attendants were often formfitting, complete with white gloves and high heels.
In the United States, they were required to be unmarried and were fired if they decided to wed. The requirement to be a registered nurse on an American airline was relaxed as more women were hired, and disappeared almost entirely during World War II as many nurses joined military nurse corps.
Ruth Carol Taylor was the first African-American flight attendant in the United States. Hired in December 1957, on February 11, 1958, Taylor was the flight attendant on a Mohawk Airlines flight from Ithaca to New York, the first time such a position had been held by an African American. She was let go within six months as a result of Mohawk's then-common marriage ban.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's first complainants were female flight attendants complaining of age discrimination, weight requirements, and bans on marriage. (Originally female flight attendants were fired if they reached age 32 or 35 depending on the airline, were fired if they exceeded weight regulations, and were required to be single upon hiring and fired if they got married.) In 1968, the EEOC declared age restrictions on flight attendants’ employment to be illegal sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Also in 1968, the EEOC ruled that sex was not a bona fide occupational requirement to be a flight attendant. The restriction of hiring only women was lifted at all airlines in 1971 due to the decisive court case of Diaz vs. Pan Am. The no-marriage rule was eliminated throughout the US airline industry by the 1980s. The last such broad categorical discrimination, the weight restrictions, were relaxed in the 1990s through litigation and negotiations. Airline still often have vision and height requirements and may require flight attendants to pass a medical evaluation.
As there will be 41,030 new airliners by 2036, Boeing expects 839,000 new cabin crew members from 2017 till then: 298,000 in Asia Pacific (37%), 169,000 in North America (21%) and 151,000 in Europe (19%).
A 2018 study found that higher instances of breast cancer, melanoma, uterine, gastrointestinal, cervical, and thyroid cancers in flight attendants.
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