Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Pan Am and the Economics of Hot Flight Attendants

A quick break from the economics of Aesop, so I can talk about the economics of ABC’s Pan Am before it gets canceled. Not that I want it to get canceled; I watched the pilot and liked it. But the Nielsen numbers say I should speak now while it’s still topical...

For an economist, the most fascinating aspect of Pan Am is the highly attractive flight attendants -- or rather, stewardesses, since the show is set in the early 1960s. If you’re young enough, you might think that’s just TV. But I’m just old enough to remember flying in the 1970s, and I recall stewardesses who really were, in fact, hot. Okay, I was too young to understand the concept of “hot” -- but I was definitely aware that I was being attended by some very pretty young women.

Not so anymore. Flight attendants aren’t necessarily unattractive now, but they’re no more fetching than people in any other service profession that doesn’t get tips. And what’s changed? In a word, deregulation.

Prior to airline deregulation, which was passed in 1978 and completed over the next few years, airfares had been set by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). For many routes, those airfares were simply too high. As predicted by a simple supply-and-demand model, airlines were willing to offer more flights at these high prices than customers were willing to buy. Under normal market conditions, that would lead to falling prices. But since the airlines legally could not compete on price, they competed on quality instead. They offered better service, better food, and... wait for it... more attractive stewardesses.

When deregulation came along, however, it became apparent that as much as male customers might have enjoyed the eye candy, they weren’t willing to pay for it. Higher quality might seem like a good thing, but it’s really only good if the benefit exceeds the cost. More attractive staff can command higher wages. The airlines could have continued to pay them, if the higher quality had attracted more customers. But as it turns out, most people just wanted to get where they were going, fast and cheap. Deregulation fueled a democratization of air travel, making what once was a luxury item available to nearly everyone. The number of people who fly at least once a year has more than doubled since 1978, while the population has grown by about 40%. These new customers have flocked to the airlines with no-frills or low-frills service, a trend that continues to this day (JetBlue, anyone?).

And y’know what? That’s a good thing, yet another efficiency gain from deregulation. There are plenty of other ways to see attractive women.


Amy said...

Isn't it possible that the more important change is the enormous increase in freedom and employment opportunities for young women? I'm not discounting the idea that airlines used to pay a premium to hire more attractive stewardesses in hopes of luring businessmen to their brand. However, on the supply side, the reason that hundreds of attractive young women were willing to take a physically demanding job that kept them on the road constantly and likely didn't pay especially well is that there simply weren't many other jobs available to an unmarried woman with no special skills in the 1950s-70s. Especially not jobs that would give her a good excuse to move out of her parents' house and go someplace fun. I suspect that even if flight attendant jobs today paid a high wage for attractiveness, you'd still see a lot of women choosing to do other things with their lives, because they can.

Amy said...

Oh, and I'd also add that decreased tolerance for sexual harassment (which was at least in part a consequence of women's increased negotiating power in the workplace) would make the "sexy stewardess" business model a nonstarter in the modern world. The male customers paying the premium didn't just pay to look at attractive women; many of them also wanted to make sexual advances or cop a feel. Most women today would demand wages far in excess of the inflation-adjusted wage of a 1960s stewardess if part of the job description was routine groping by both bosses and customers.

Glen Whitman said...

Amy -- I agree, the factors you name probably played a role. However, I'm inclined to think deregulation was more important, for a couple of reasons.

First, the improvement in the employment opportunities of women occurred steadily over a period of many years, from long before deregulation all the way to the present day. Yet the staffing change on airlines happened over a matter of a few years, in the late 70s and early 80s. (Or at least that's how I remember it; others may remember differently.) Deregulation does a better job of explaining the rapid shift.

Second, the improvement in women's economic opportunities happened for all women, not just the most attractive ones. Yet the airlines continued to hire women as flight attendants. What needs explaining is the shift from hiring attractive women to hiring all women -- and to do that, you would need to show that attractive women's outside opportunities didn't merely improve, but improved more rapidly than other women's. I suspect the reverse is true, because much of the improvement in job prospects came from greater education and the ability to take on intellectual positions -- whereas the ability to leverage beauty had always been an option.

You make a good point about harassment, but again, it seems like the rapidity of the hiring shift argues against that being the most important factor.

Justin said...

I live in South Korea and have done some travel around Asia. The flight attendants are all young and attractive. I'm curious to know if there is any regulation in this part of the world.

Steamboat Lion said...

I think it has more to do with the introduction of anti-discrimination laws. Asian and Middle Eastern airlines which don't have this constraint employ young, pretty, single females almost exclusively as FAs. They lay them off as soon as they get married or reach a certain age.

JoelW said...

I'm pretty sure it's a combination of anti-discrimination laws and that flight attendants are federal employees. There's a reason that Hooters couldn't just hire flight attendants based on looks. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/19/business/19HOOT.html

Glen Whitman said...

I don't know anything about the Asian and Middle Eastern airlines' hiring practices, nor their regulatory environment, so I won't speculate on that.

But I disagree with the claim that anti-discrimination law explains the U.S. situation. First, flight attendants are *not* FAA employees; they have to have FAA training, but they are employees of the airlines. Second, anti-discrimination laws notwithstanding, firms in the U.S. still have the right to hire based on looks in a wide range of cases. Go to most any restaurant, and see what the hostesses and waitresses look like. They're not universally young and hot, but that's certainly the tendency. Hooters still has pretty much the same hiring practices it's always had; most of the discrimination lawsuits have gone nowhere.

karlG said...

My experience isn't that the attendants aren't attractive -- they are often just older than the 1960s' stereotype. If this line of work was chosen as a career these women would be expected to age over time and leave fewer vacancies for younger workers.

JoelW said...

You can't fire based on age, that's the point.

September 14, 1965
The Steward & Stewardess Division of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA-SSD) won a landmark grievance award against Braniff’s no-marriage rule, the first successful
challenge to an airline age ceiling or marriage ban. The neutral referee who ruled on the grievance cited Title VII as a factor in his finding against Braniff.

JoelW said...

A list of cases/hearings which I haven't verified, but have no reason to doubt:


Glen Whitman said...

That decision was in 1965, yet flight attendants continued to be hot until the late 1970s or later.

You're right that age can make a difference. But even the young flight attendants aren't as stunning as they used to be.

Glen Whitman said...

Interesting link, JoelW. But ultimately, I think it supports my claim. All of those decisions were made pre-1978 (when deregulation began). And all of them related to sex, marital status, and age; none related directly to appearance. Post-1978, the website only mentions weight restrictions, and the court decisions were at best a mixed bag. I'm not saying that none of this made a difference, but if you're looking for one factor that mattered most, dereg is your best candidate.

Philip Whitman said...

Amy, you stated,"...there simply weren't many other jobs available to an unmarried woman with no special skills in the 1950s-70s." I think they have always had numerous special skills.

Here is some material I extracted from Wikipedia:

The first female flight attendant, or stewardess, was a registered nurse hired in 1930. In the U. S., the job was one of only a few at that time to permit women, which led to large numbers of applicants for the relatively few positions available. The requirement to be a registered nurse on an American airline was relaxed as more women were hired, and it disappeared almost entirely during World War II as many nurses enlisted in the armed forces.

The primary role of a flight attendant has always been to ensure passenger safety. The majority of a flight attendant's duties are safety related. Flight attendants are normally trained over a period that may run from six weeks to six months, depending on the country and airline. The main focus of training is safety. Safety training includes, but is not limited to: emergency passenger evacuation management, use of evacuation slides/life rafts, in-flight firefighting, survival in the jungle, sea, desert, ice, first aid, CPR, defibrillation, ditching/emergency landing procedures, decompression emergencies, Crew Resource Management and security. In the United States the Federal Aviation Administration requires flight attendants on aircraft with 20 or more seats to hold a Certificate of Demonstrated Proficiency.

Prior to each flight, flight attendants attend a safety briefing with the pilots. They go over safety and emergency checklists. Boarding particulars are verified, such as small children travelling unaccompanied. Weather conditions are discussed including anticipated turbulence. A safety check is made to ensure all equipment such as lifevests, torches and firefighting equipment are on board, in the right quantity, and in proper condition.
Flight attendants are trained to deal with a wide variety of emergencies; e.g., a bleeding nose, illness, small injuries, intoxicated passengers, aggressive and anxiety stricken passengers. Emergency training includes rejected takeoffs, emergency landings, cardiac and in-flight medical situations, smoke in the cabin, fires, depressurization, on-board births and deaths, dangerous goods and spills in the cabin, emergency evacuations, hijackings, water landings, and sea, jungle, arctic, and desert survival skills.

JoelW said...

I don't think you can deny the causation just because the effect was delayed. In fact, if the argument is that discrimination laws made it hard to fire women based on their age, then of course the effect will be observed on a delay. The average age will increase as you cannot let people go because of their marital status or age. It will take time for that effect to show up.

I'm not denying that there wasn't some effect from deregulation, but wouldn't you have to show that there was a wage premium that went away after deregulation?

JoelW said...

Adding: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/30/us/accord-on-flight-attendants-weight.html

CharlesWT said...

[W]hile the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of the flight attendant population diversified, inflation-adjusted median hourly wages dropped 26 percent. At the same time, that perennial glass ceiling crept into the equation; while female flight attendants used to make more than their male co-workers--who were probably less senior--they now make slightly less.

Aging Flight Attendants and a Changing America

Glen Whitman said...

JoelW -- it sounds like we're both conceding the other's point and just arguing about the magnitudes.

With respect to the wage premium, here are a couple of relevant papers:


From the former: "For the average flight attendant, real earnings were 12% to 36% lower by 1985 than they would have been had deregulation not occurred. That gap grew to 39-65% by 1992, with the exact estimate depending on assumptions concerning seniority profiles. Pilots' earnings were 12% and 22% below the levels they could have been expected to reach by 1985 and 1992, respectively, had deregulation not occurred."

From the latter: "[M]ost occupational groups in the airline industry experienced a relative decline in earnings over the 1980s. The largest declines are measured for flight attendants (11-18 percent) and the smallest for mechanics (no change)." The pilots were in between.

bumzaway said...

Airline jobs also became harder to come by ..the flight attendants with seniority hung on and grew OLDER, less attractive.

AtlantaDude said...

Deregulation had almost nothing to do with it. Instead, it was a combination of three other factors

1. Aging. The number of U.S. airline flights has not grown much since the late 1980s. So there hasn't been a lot of room for new, young flight attendants

2. Elimination of weight restrictions, age limits, marraige and pregnancy prohibitions. See links below

3. Other opportunities. Over 50% of college grads are now women. Plus, good looks can get women in the door in much higher paying careers


1979— Flight attendant weight regulations are liberalized, but weight checks continue at some U.S. airlines until the early 1990s.

Phil LePoidevin said...

I think the premise that unattractive flight attendants are cheaper is wrong. Old, unattractive flight attendants are actually more expensive! Because they have seniority, and their unions ensure steady pay increases throughout their career. Young, inexperienced, (read: hot) flight attendants would be cheaper!

Ms Chris said...

The difference between a stunning woman and a reasonably attractive one is often in the way she presents herself. (If you've ever seen candid photos of actresses caught grocery shopping in sweats and no makeup, you know what I mean.)

There's been a deliberate shift in how airlines present their flight attendants. The uniforms now are smart, business-like, not particularly sexy - the flight attendants now come across as confident, competent members of the flight crew.

This meshes with recent research on how people make judgements about strangers based on photos and first impressions: up to a point, better-looking people are rated as more intelligent and competent than their peers, but the stunningly beautiful are assumed (without evidence) to be less so.

I suspect the airlines's own market research showed that most passengers' primary interest is in safe, hassle-free flights. Treating flight attendants as professionals helps reinforce the impression of safety, while also helping the attendants feel respected by their co-workers and less exposed to workplace harassment. There are plenty of beautiful people around to look at - no need to place a premium on their looks on the job.

VagabondJim said...

2 Thoughts:

1 -- High end airlines (Cathay Pacific, Emirites, Singapore, Malaysian, and even Qantas) all have exceptionally attractive female flight attendants. And higher fares too. Exceptionally attractive...

2 -- Union contracts here in the US typically call for LIFO layoff/furloughs. So the FA pool is growing much older as the young (and presumably more attractive) FAs were let go at he start of the airline downturn after 9/11. I bet the average US FA age has gone up by more than 10 years in the last decade. (And, gotten much crankier too.)

craignonumbers said...

I think Ms Chris came close to one point I didn't see discussed (maybe it's just too obvious for anyone else to think it worth discussing). Back in the era of regulation, the high price of airline travel and the lack of opportunity for the female portion of the population meant that the typical traveling customer was a male businessman who could be attracted that way. Deregulation brought a huge new demographic into the seats, and the new customers (women, the less economically advantaged, etc) just wouldn't care much.

I think another reason is that for all intents and purposes, modern flight attendents are no longer primarily waitresses but rather most importantly corporate-paid homeland security agents. Their real job these days is to keep us in line, keep us in our seats and keep us from making trouble.

Michael Gersh said...

I remember those years. What none of you have mentioned is that, back then, flying was a luxury item. People used to get dressed up to fly. Plus then (as now) a lot of travelers were businessmen. Then add the fact that the prime reason many of these girls wanted these jobs was to meet one of these businessmen and land the fish - i.e. get married to a businessman who was well off enough to fly frequently on airplanes.

These girls were hired with rules against attaining weight or age limits, and they had to remain single as well. So the system was for a single girl to enter the stewardess force, land a fish, get married, and thus create a spot for her replacement. I am not so sure that it was overwhelmingly a result of deregulation that the system broke down. Government and union interference with airline's hiring practicing had an effect, but so did the desire of "modern" families to have larger incomes - thus began the custom of husbands encouraging the mother of their children to work. Since these days a woman will want to work after marriage, a short career as a stew was less desirable or sustainable.

CurmudgeonlyTroll said...

Air travel was a big luxury back then. The compensating differential of access to air travel, and hobnobbing with the relatively few people who did, was a lot higher.

So it was a highly competitive occupation to get into, even without high wages.

How hot the receptionist is, is usually a good indicator of the prestige of a hedge fund - same for the hostess in a high end restaurant. It's supply and demand, how much cash the place has to throw away on fancy digs and eye candy, and how appealing the place is for a young lady to work in that capacity.

Someone should get their freakonomics on over that.

Glen said...

Sorry, but this analysis is simply wrong.

In the heyday of Pan Am, workplace discrimination laws did not exist. It was legal for employers, including airlines, to mandate age, race, marital status, height, weight and overall appearance. There were also vastly fewer opportunities for women in the workforce. When combined, these conditions allowed Pan Am and all other American airlines to recruit the best, brightest and most beautiful women to serve their customers – and to fire those women as soon as they turned 30 years of age, got married, became pregnant, or let their appearances “slip.”

Airlines today are one of the few remaining bastions of labor union strength. And airline unions, like all unions, always negotiate on behalf of their most senior employees. This power, combined with strong anti-discrimination statutes and vastly greater workforce opportunities for women, is the root causes of today's older, larger, grumpier, more male – and decidedly less-hot – cabin crews.

Deregulation simply has not been a factor.

Glen Whitman said...

I'm surprised at people's resistance to the deregulatory explanation. It's clear that other factors were involved, and I've said that. But to dismiss deregulation entirely is silly.

A lot of commenters are focusing on the age issue. Yes, age is correlated (negatively) with beauty, but older women can still be attractive. So let's ask a slightly different question: controlling for age, are flight attendants now as attractive as they were in the 1960s and 1970s? For instance, if you consider only the attendants in their 20s, are they just as hot as they used to be? In my recollection, the answer is still no.

For me, what makes the deregulatory explanation so persuasive is that it also accounts for all the other quality reductions post-1978: fewer meals, fewer toys for the kids, and so forth. Everyone knows that airlines cut quality in the deregulatory era. Less attractive staff is just another aspect of the general phenomenon. (And as I said in the original post, this is a good thing, because most of those amenities couldn't be justified on cost-benefit grounds.)

Ann said...

I'm weighing in on the side of those who claim effective (and union enforced) enforcement of anti-discrimination laws was a primary factor. There were several lawsuits in which the airlines tried to argue that attractiveness was a "bona fide occupational qualification" for flight attendants. They lost. Good summary here. http://www.pepehazard.com/images/dyn/publications/pdf/bjacquescustomerpreferencesusuallynoexcusefordiscrimination04252011.pdf Is there still a lot of discrimination based on attractiveness. Indeed yes. But the question should be how do those other places still get away with it as opposed to how come the airlines don't do it too.

Glen Whitman said...

Also, a couple of commenters have pointed out that air travel used to be a luxury mostly for businessmen, whereas now it's available to most everyone (including a lot of women). I agree, and I consider this fully consistent with my point. Regulation is what kept the price so high pre-1978, making it a luxury item. And then the airlines competed on quality characteristics valued by the customers who could afford it. After deregulation, the lower prices brought in a new and larger group of customers -- and it was these customers' preferences that drove the quality shifts.

Spirit of the Season said...

Could you give some analysis about how deregulation has changed the composition of charter boat parties, using the cast of Gilligan's Island as your historical reference?

Rob Pitingolo said...

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned this yet. Southwest Airlines, which was pretty much the direct result of airline deregulation, originally had their flight attendants dress in orange hotpants. Even the "hot" flight attendants on the legacy airlines at the time still had pretty conservative uniforms, comparatively.

Herb Kelleher himself said that the hotpants were key to competing in a deregulated industry: "You can have a low-cost carrier and people still don't fly it because they don't know about it," Kelleher said. "And so, the schtick kind of fit in with getting known."

The deregulation, competition on cost theory is compelling, but it's not the whole story, and clearly regulation (in the form of labor laws) is playing a role here too.

Michael Gersh said...

Ann - businesses can and do discriminate on the basis of attractiveness, since that is (and must remain) entirely legal - at the moment of hire. What has changed is the right of businesses in many areas of commerce to terminate employees on the basis of lost attractiveness. Still, in industries where attractiveness can be shown to be a requirement for competently carrying out the duties of the work, you can still fire people for whatever reason makes business sense. Some radicals would mandate ugly leading ladies in feature films, but so far, thank goodness for small favors, the ugly women's lobby has failed to get that "freedom" enacted.

Steve said...

Whee, your argument has a massive logical leap :) "Attendants were pretty. The industry was regulated. Attendants are homely. The industry is deregulated. QED."

FWIW, I notice that attendants on the Australian low-budget airline Virgin Blue are almost all young and attractive. Of all the possible causes, lower ticket prices seems unlikely.

MagM said...

Regarding Asian airlines, check this ad:


Courtney O'Banion said...

I agree with other comments that this has much to do with anti-discrimination laws. Today, we are all seen as equals more so than back in the 1960s and early 70s. Women today I feel are much more independent and power hungry. As a future public relations professional I really can see the difference in women's work practices. We want to be the best that we can be and are want more challenging occupations.

Another reason for not having only attractive women as flight attendants? Sexual harassment (commented below). I really agree that some men are going to take advantage of a woman walking down a narrow aisle offering drinks. We live in a country where people are very open.

In conclusion, I am very glad that men and women both have the opportunity to be flight attendants and have the opportunity to do what we want.

Pettifogger said...

When Southwest Airlines was getting going, they billed themselves as the LUV airline, and their stewardesses wore hot pants. I always thought it a plus.

Just Aviation said...

There has been a definate shift from having to fit an exact model to become flight attendants, especially in Western culture with the anti discrimination rules. Even vacancies shown for example http://www.justaviation.com/jobs/search/JobCategory:Cabin%20Crew stipluate equal opportunity employment.