The period after the Second World War saw a rise in passenger travel. The 1950s and 60s witnessed the development of larger aircraft and more destinations. To provide services on aircraft, women were employed. In those days, the selection of female staff was in the majority of cases based on looks. Air travel was the domain of the rich who were supposed to be pampered! However, as air travel began to replace sea travel and planes became more sophisticated, the process of the selection of air hostesses changed.
In addition to presenting food trays on aircrafts, stewardesses had to be prepared to administer first aid and help in emergencies. Romance was no longer a inflight feature, with air hostesses waiting for their prince charming and vice versa as in the 1963 movie “Come Fly with Me” starring Karl Malden and Dolores Hart. More flights, thousands of passengers of different cultures, less turnaround time and stress became a part of the life of an air hostess.
The mushroom growth of airlines and the expansion of the travel industry created jobs for thousands of women in this profession. I write this as someone who started my professional career in Saudi Arabian Airlines before going to the media industry. I observed in those days air hostesses and their performance. Saudia was then a small airline and pilots knew the names of most of their inflight crew.
However, with vast development programs, flights increased and so did passengers. The job itself became strenuous. The quality selection and vigorous training which Saudia provided kept all stewardesses on their toes.
But more so did the passengers, many of whom were oblivious and indifferent to the work conditions of the women who served them on board and who at times were treated worse than maids. The “male ego syndrome”, lack of respect and rude behavior toward these important members of Saudia became an almost normal routine.
Working long hours away from home, leaving family and friends, missing birthdays of loved ones, not being by the bedside of dying relatives were the burdens and worries that were on the minds of all these women.
Many were single mothers who worked to better the lives of their children. Many of them also were more noble, cultured and educated than the passengers whom they served and who at times berated them and hurled insults at the slightest provocation. Cases of verbal and physical abuse also occurred. Passengers forgot that these flight attendants were not only there for serving them food but also for their safety and welfare and in an emergency would probably even sacrifice their lives for the safety of all onboard.
This, in fact, happened in the case of the Indian air hostesses Neerja Bhanot the heroine of Pan American Flight 73 hijacked by terrorists on September 5, 1986 who saved 360 lives and died while protecting three children from a hail of bullets.
There are Saudia air hostesses who, God forbid, in a similar situation would do the same. Saudia inflight staff work silently bearing the insults of the “nouveau riche” who think they own the aircraft, of the rude and ignorant and the impatient. Yet they serve all – rich and poor – with the same dedication. There are cases where these flight attendants pooled money to help deported laborers on their flight home so that they might carry on to their final destination. There are air hostesses who fed hundreds of stranded laborers around consulates waiting for the correction of their visa status. They bought food and cartons of water for these workers.
I could go on and on about many of the kind acts of these nameless staff who are onboard for our safety and comfort. The least we can do is be courteous and say a small thank you.
I call on Mr. Saleh Al-Jasser, Director General of Saudi Arabian Airlines, to declare a special day to commemorate Saudia’s inflight crew and thank all those past and present for their loyalty and services to the airline.
That would be our salute to them.