Last weekend the New York Times published an enlightening piece—63 Years Flying, From Glamour to Days of Gray—about Ron Akana, United Airline Flight Attendant Seniority Number 1. You read that right, he’s been flying for 63 years. Hawaiian born, he was a 21-year-old in a aloha shirt when he was selected from among 400 applicants to fill eight steward positions, one for each of the Hawaiian islands. Above, he’s third from the right.
As expected, the article highlighted the differences in airline flight over his career. What was more interesting—and telling—were the demographics of the industry’s flight attendance corps. Based on his analysis of 2010 census data, University of Texas-San Antonio sociologist Rogelio Saenz revealed that 40 percent of roughly 110,000 FA’s are at least 50, if not older.
Here’s the important part: less than 18 percent of flight attendants are 34 or younger. Seniority equals employment tenure, and Mr. Akana’s service is the textbook example. But I wonder if the ability to work more years is the primary reason why their average age is increasing. In the late 1960s courts finally overturned the airline requirements that female flight attendants had to retire at 32 and quit if they got married or pregnant.
Back in the day, when people dressed up to fly, airlines served real food, and every seat offered first-class room, flying held promise of far flung adventures to romantic destinations. And those were the days when being an airline pilot was also a daydream destination of many youngsters as they looked for a career. Could the dearth of younger flight attendants be an indication related to cyclic shortages of qualified pilots to show that the industry must finally stop living in the past?
At all levels, from flight instructor to flight attendant to airline captain, the industry has relied on a bountiful supply of starry-eyed people who’ve “paid their dues” (saving the airlines millions) because they’d do anything to fly. People starting their careers today don’t possess, from what I’ve read and experienced, any real motivation to make similar sacrifices. For the foreseeable future, the airlines are going to need crews, so it will be interesting to see how the airlines will attract and train them. And as passengers, we must always remember that in every aspect of life, you get what you pay for. –Scott Spangler