Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

The art of throwing a sickie doesn’t get the recognition (or the funding) it deserves. Even the straitlaced and well-attending would admit that it takes panache to get away with it on a regular basis. Bupa discovered that the most common excuses used by those phoning in sick were food poisoning and flu, though it also found that the majority of managers didn’t believe them. Bupa felt that the situation might improve if people had to supply a doctor’s note, but didn’t address the possibility that multiple sickie-throwers might place an undue burden on an already stretched National Health Service.

In case you’re wondering, the place in the UK where people seem especially skilled at bunking off is the North-West (with an average ten days lost per worker per year), while the art of malingering shows a real lack of oomph in Northern Ireland, with an average of only 4.6 days. As I was pondering these figures (and avoiding going to work), the news came that flight attendants have been found to have the worst – that’s to say, the best – rate of non-attendance of all employees in all known categories. Get this: the average flight attendant takes off 27 days a year. (They take off much more than that, when they’re at work. But often they’re not.) Twenty-seven days! Where do I sign up?

Yet, when you think about it, the trolley dollies are doing us all a great service. Who wants to be sealed in a cabin with a load of sniffling lovelies wearing too many kerchiefs and too much Touche Eclat? Next thing we’d have what sickie-throwers like to call ‘a hacking cough’ and we’d all be phoning in and costing the Exchequer an extra few million.

In my youth, flight attendants were called air hostesses and everybody wanted to be one. All the girls anyhow. All right, then: all the girls plus me. Somebody would go round the class asking us what we wanted to be and all the girls would say ‘an air hostess’, because even saying the words immediately conjured up impossible blue vistas and hot countries, to say nothing of endless fun with make-up and always knowing you were a million miles from Crapland, otherwise known as your mother’s front room and boring nights at the local disco. The matter is put rather well by Kathleen Barry, the author of a book called Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (Duke, £13.99), as she tries to conjure with the vast investment of feeling that the job represented as early as 1933:

A reporter from the Toledo Sunday Times took dramatic note of a new job for women in Depression-era America. The airline stewardess ‘goes to work 5000 feet above the earth, rushing through space at a rate of three miles a minute. She has been eulogised, glorified, publicised and fictionalised during her comparatively short existence. She has become the envy of stenographers in New York and farmers’ daughters in Iowa’ . . . Amid economic hardship, social dislocation, and tendentious debates over women’s right to employment, female flight attendants quickly gained a permanent place in airline cabins and in popular culture as enviable ‘sky girls’, with good looks, flawless hostess skills and exciting jobs.

Oh yes. We were all farmers’ daughters in Iowa once, or was it Kansas, with our eyes fixed on a career over the rainbow? But the fact about ‘airmindedness’, as the aviation writer Joseph Corn once called it (before the concept of ‘airheadedness’ had taken hold), is that it has a more secure foundation in the imagination than it does in reality, and air hostesses who started in an occupation full of cosmopolitan mystique ended in a job famous for its drab routines.

The first stewardesses hired by Boeing were effectively nurses. Their responsibility for the safety of passengers has survived many changes in the industry – though there is, of course, an absurdity at the heart of it. Despite the safety procedures very prettily described through years of air travel, no commercial jet has ever landed on water in a way that would allow passengers to depart the aircraft via the inflatable slide, with arms folded and stilettos removed. A more realistic role for the air stewardess has been in the areas of sex appeal and service. Everybody knows that a journey by air – basically a bumpy ride in a fetid tube, no matter how many petits fours or how much champagne you blag, or how far back you are allowed to recline – can be turned into a fantasy of special treatment. But Barry’s feminist analysis is clever and somewhat poignant, for it sees that in the role of the air hostess a vision of female selfhood and freedom has been forced to rub, rather uncomfortably, against a rather ogling set of corporate requirements. Mary Wells, perhaps the biggest advertising executive in the 1960s when it came to shaping the image of the airlines, once made a comment to Business Week that defines the matter. ‘When a tired businessman gets on an airplane,’ she said, ‘we think he ought to be allowed to look at a pretty girl.’ It was only a matter of time before everyday tales of swinging sky girls became the subject of million-selling books such as Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses, books which allowed every earthbound male over the age of 14 to imagine he was only a wink and a sudden upgrade away from joining the Mile High Club.

Femininity in Flight quits the scene rather early, however, and we don’t get to hear about the developments brought about by the newer carriers, the ones that charge you almost nothing for climbing on board but then pin you to your seat for two hours of aggressive selling of everything from Jennifer Lopez’s eau de parfum to Pot Noodles and Lotto scratchcards. The trolley dollies are dressed in luminous T-shirts and are altogether heavier on the eye than in former days, which might not please the tired businessman. But that’s not really the issue, is it? The issue is that the belief has gone – the sense of freedom, and of self-transportation – but at least cabin crews make less fuss about the information on the safety card, to say nothing of the helpful whistle that one can blow to attract attention.