(CNN) – “I came of age when I hit my jet age,” says Anne Hood, the American novelist and New York Times best-selling author whose most recent book, Fly Girl, is a memoir of her adventurous years as a TWA flight attendant. At the end of the golden age of air travel.
As a child growing up in Virginia, she watched the first flight of a Boeing 707—which heralded the era of passenger jet travel—and watched Dulles Airport under construction.
At the age of eleven, after returning to her native Rhode Island with her family, she read the 1964 book How to Become a Flight Attendant, and a decision was made.
“Although it was sexist as hell, it tempted me because he talked about getting a job that allows you to see the world and I thought, OK, that might work.”
When I graduated from college in 1978, Hood began sending job applications to airlines. “I think 1978 was a really interesting year, because many of the women who went to college had one foot in old ideas and stereotypes, and the other foot in the future. It was a confusing time for young women.”
“Flight attendant” was a newly coined term, a gender-neutral promotion of “stewardesses” and “stewardesses”, and the liberalization of the airline industry was around the corner, ready to turn things around.
But for the most part, flying was still glamorous and sophisticated, and the flight attendants were still “a beautiful and sexy adornment,” in Hood’s words, even though she was already fighting for women’s rights and against discrimination.
The stereotype of flight attendants in miniskirts flirting with male passengers persists, popularized by books such as “Coffee, Tea, or Me? The Unchained Memoirs of My Flight Attendant”—published as factual in 1967, but later found to be written by Donald Payne, CEO at American Airlines.
Some of the worst requirements to be hired as a flight attendant — such as age restrictions and job loss in the event of marriage or childbirth — have already been eliminated, but others remain.
Perhaps most shocking was the fact that the woman had to maintain the weight she was at at the time of employment.
“All the airlines sent a chart with your application, they looked at your height and maximum weight, and if you didn’t fall within that, they wouldn’t even interview you,” Hood says. “But once you were hired, at least in TWA, you couldn’t reach that maximum weight. You had to stay at your hiring weight, which in my case was about 15 pounds less than the maximum.
“My roommate was fired because of this. The really horrible thing about it, other than what it did to women, is that this restriction wasn’t removed until the 1990s.”
Hood was one of 560 flight attendants, out of 14,000 applicants, hired in 1978 by TWA, then a major airline, acquired by American Airlines in 2001.
The mission began with a few days of intensive training in Kansas City, where trained flight attendants will learn everything from aircraft part names to emergency medical procedures, as well as safety protocols for seven different aircraft. The list included the Queen of the Sky, a Boeing 747.
“It was kind of terrifying, because it was so big—and the stairs, the spiral staircases that lead to the first class, you had to go up and down infrequently,” Hood says. “I’d keep thinking: Don’t get stuck. Eventually I got used to it.”
Hood’s favorite aircraft was the Lockheed L-1-11 TriStar.
Christopher Diehr / Moment Editorial / Flickr Vision / Getty Images
She says her favorite plane for work was the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar. “Domestic, only Eastern Airlines and TWA have flown it. It was a very friendly and functional wide-body plane with a nice setup of two seats on each side and then four in the middle, so everyone could easily get out. No one was unhappy with that plane.”
She says that flying was still magical at the time.
“People dress to fly and remember food in a good way. It’s really different from today. I can just compare it to being in a good hotel, or maybe on a cruise ship. There was nothing plastic and the coach was very nice,” says Hood, who remembers putting on her uniform. Designed by Ralph Lauren and sculpted Chateaubriand cooked to taste for first-class passengers, who also had the option of Russian caviar and lobster stew to go with Dom Perignon.
Not every bed was made of roses. Smoking on the plane was rampant, and it was a nightmare for the flight attendants.
“If you went on a five-day trip, which is uncommon, you had to pack an entire separate uniform because you smell like smoke,” Hood says. “Boy, I was glad when that stopped. The front rows of every section were considered smoke-free, but the whole plane was full of smoke because you couldn’t stop it going backwards, it was ridiculous.”
How about the Mile High Club? “It was not uncommon on international flights to see a man enter the bathroom and a minute later his seatmate joins him, or a copy of that,” Hood says. “It didn’t happen on every flight, but you’ve seen it.
“International flights were not usually as full as they are now, so in those five-seat middle sections of the 747 you could see a couple raising the armrests, holding a blanket and hiding under it. I can’t tell what they were doing, but it looked suspicious.”
As for travelers who flirt or ask flight attendants, this was also common. “I’ve dated passengers, but that was mostly disastrous. That was never what I would have envisioned. But in 1982, I met a guy on a flight from San Francisco to New York. He was sitting at 47F—and I dated him five years.”
Hood left the job in 1986 to focus on her writing career.
Hood has seen her fair share of strange things on board. “The weirdest thing for sure was the woman in the front row who seemed to be breastfeeding her cat. I mean, I can’t say that was actually happening, but she put her cat to her chest.
“And then the guy who flew all the way in his tight-fitting shirt and tie, because he didn’t want to wrinkle his pants for a job interview. Or the guy on the 747 in Frankfurt riding his bike down the driveway,” she reveals.
Having said that, sometimes the routine was kick-starting, and not every trip was a great center of adventure and magic.
“I would say the job was 80% fun and 20% boring. On some trips, especially the ones that weren’t very full, there was a lot of time to fill them up. You can just serve people a lot of food and a lot of drinks, and I play a lot of movies.” You made the work fun. I loved talking to people. I loved the feeling of it. I still love flying today,” says Hood.
She says it was actually possible to visit and experience the cities she’s been to. “Sometimes your layover was too short or you were tired, but for the most part, the city was out of the house. I got a lot from that when I was traveling internationally.”
She left the job to focus on her writing career in 1986, by which time things had changed. Deregulation, which removed federal control over everything from fares to routes, is now fully effective, changing flying forever.
Planes became full of more seats and buses ceased to be fun, but flying also became democratic and available to a greater part of society.
Hood says she is proud of her career in Heaven.
“Flight stewardesses are a force. They’re pretty much affiliated with unions. They’re independent. In the cabin, they make all the decisions. They have to troubleshoot. They’re there for emergency stuff. They land in cities where they don’t.” I don’t know anything or anyone finding their way around.
“It’s an empowering job, but it’s a sexist job,” she says. “It’s in itself as contradictory today as when I started it.”
However, she recommends it as a career option.
“I was 21 when I was hired, and that gave me confidence, poise and the ability to think on my feet,” she adds. “To take charge on that plane, and as soon as I get off, walk into a city and feel completely at home — or at least find out how it feels to be at home in it.
“I don’t know if someone’s job should be – if they want it to be, great. But I think working for a few years as a flight attendant can change your life.”