We recently received some negative feedback on our story from a couple weeks ago concerning airplane etiquette. While the reader enjoyed the article overall, he took issue with our use of the term “stewardess” to describe Leigh Masterson, a veteran Delta flight attendant and one of the three experts in the piece:
The term, “stewardess” harkens back to a time when, not only was the job strictly for females; but more importantly it refers to a job where things such as getting married, getting pregnant or even getting a few pounds heavier would get you fired. It carries a lot of ugly baggage, though many airline professionals do little more than inwardly wince when it is used, many become seriously offended. Regardless of whether using the term stewardess should be considered a breach of etiquette, one thing is for sure and is of real value to the readers of this article: Saying ‘stewardess’ within earshot of a flight attendant is often all one needs to do to ensure an unpleasant flight experience.
The reader raises a valid point. Back in the day when airlines advertised the attractiveness of its flight attendants and made them wear miniskirts, there was a critical distinction between flight attendants and stewardesses: Flight attendants were there for safety; stewardesses were there for eye candy. In her best-selling book Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, former flight attendant Heather Poole writes:
During Pan Am’s heyday in the 1960s, there were strict requirements for stewardesses: They had to be at least 5-foot-2, weigh no more than 130 pounds and retire by age 32. They couldn’t be married or have children, either. As a result, most women averaged 18 months on the job.
I reached out to Masterson to apologize and explained that someone had taken issue with us for essentially referring to her as a “trolley dolly.” Here’s her response:
I completely understand where your reader was coming from. Stewardess is a dated term, and we are now recognized as flight attendants. While some crew members do take offense to being referred to as a “stewardess,” I can only speak for myself when I say that I don’t hear the term used that often anymore, and it only bothers me when I feel it’s being used in a condescending way. That said, I suppose since we’re talking about etiquette here—and because it can be viewed as offensive to some—it would be best to use the term “flight attendant” when referring to your flight crew.
We regret the error.