Flight Path: 5 Questions for a Former Pan Am Stewardess…
Everyone has PanAm fever! Inquiring minds want to know: “Is it real?” “Was air travel really as glamourous as we see on ABC’s new show, Pan Am?” Yes it was… and more.
Dr. Sheila E. Nutt, former Pan American World Airways stewardess tell us about her life within the company, navigating motherhood, and classic air flight.
Our readers want to know how accurate the show is versus
real life? Was air flight as glamorous?
Yes, working for Pan Am was glamorous! We flew to exotic ports of
call, had distinguished passengers and had limosines waiting to wisk
us off to the most luxurious hotels around the world. As a matter of
fact, that’s what Pan Am was selling to get people to use airplanes vs
trains or buses. Stewardesses were originally required to have a
nursing degree, be a certain height and weight, attractive, poised,
intelligent and know how to alleviate your fears and make you
comfortable in their “home”. Pan Am stewardesses were different in
that you had to be at least 21 years old when hired, have at least 2
years of college and speak a second language. You’d have to pass a
language qualifying exam before you completed probation. We were
taught how to anticipate someone’s needs and then fulfill them in a
mature and nurturing manner. We represented the world’s most
experienced airline and we were expected to always “put our best foot
forward”. We were expected to act like we were the best and we did.
The pilots were older than portrayed on the show. There is and Indian
pilot on the show but back then there was hardly more than one Black
one. They were all former military pilots with years/hours of
experience under their belts. We would never drink champagne from a
bottle as I saw on one episode. We knew all the best wines and
champagne and what to serve them with. We knew how to cook roast beef
to your personal satisfaction. We could fold cloth napkins 4-5
different ways. Service was impeccable and equal to the most
prestigious restaurant in the world. We knew the best places to shop
for bargains in the world and got the best prices because we were Pan
Am stewardesses. They could count on us to bring other stewardesses if
we were happy customers and bad mouth them/black ball their store if
we didn’t like them. We had lots of buying power.
Were the regulations on the PanAm uniforms strict? What happens if
you didn’t follow the rules?
Yes, regulations were strict. We would have random weight checks by
supervisors and if you were one pound over weight you were taken off
the flight and not allowed to work another flight until you were
within the weight limits. There was a medical chart that determined
the weight for your height. In my day when African American
stewardesses wanted to wear an afro hairstyle, sometimes we pushed th
envelop and the supervisor would give us a warning. We’d pull our hair
back and let it out once we were in flight. The senior purser was
responsible for maintaining the regulations away from home base; did
everyone wear their hat, white gloves and appropriate shoes during
boarding and departure; regulations shoes and apron during service,
for example. The purser would then report you to management. A
stewardess didn’t want too many bad reports in their file.
How have things changed for flight attendants - female
particularly. Also, what was the hardest part of your job? Are/were
there stigma(s) she had to overcome?
I started flying February 1970. The regulations were strict then; no
marriage or children. No retirement restrictions. One could fly as
long as she wanted to. When you got married you had to quit. No one
back then acknowledged she had a child out of wedlock. Things changed
in 1972, I believe was the year. I was married in 1973 and had a child
in 1977. Back then you had to take a leave of absence as soon as you
found out you were pregnant. You could use your sick time then take
workman’s comp for the rest of the leave. You could take the full 9
months and an additional 6 months with out pay. You’d continue to
accrue senority for the first nine months since it was the airlines
that restricted your working. It was your choice. No pregant
stewardesses on board!
Passengers back in the day were more polite. They got dressed to fly
on Pan Am. Even children came on board dressed nicely. Most passengers
expressed manners and respected us. They were in awe of us and many
times wanted our photo. I often wonder how many strangers have my
photo in their family album. We represented America for many
foreigners. Even today when I speak with a foreigner my age, and tell
them I used to be a Pan Am stewardess, they are in awe and want to
share their memory of Pan Am with me.
My father didn’t want me to be a stewardess because he’d heard they
were loose women who had affairs with numerous men. I don’t believe
stewardess were any more promiscious than any other population of
women. We were known to be beautiful and men are attracted to
The most difficult part of my job was to leave my children once I
became a mother. It was more difficult to pretend I was happy to see
all those strangers who wanted something from me; pilow, blanket,
coffee or tea or just my attention. We had to be good actresses after
a while. All of us said we wanted to be stewardesses because we love
people. After a while, we began to loath them! :-) The thrill is gone
after a few years. It becomes a job we do only for the perks; days off
and flying benefits for yourself and family. It was good pay back
then. Things changed after deregulation of the airlines.
How do you feel about the airline charging fees for things that
used to be free?
Things have changed so much since my day. It is disgraceful the way
things are now. Air travel is no longer glamorous. It is the act of
getting people from point A to point B as cheaply as possible. The
flight attendants don’t have the same joie de vivre for their job.
They lack any enthusiasm for their job because many have been doing it
for over 1/4 century. I can see why; the pay is lousy and the
passengers are disrespectful and the airlines don’t respect the work
they do. I sympathize with the flight attendant who jumpped down the
emergency slide with a beer in his hand! It’s horrible that they make
passengers pay for refreshments that are so distasteful and expensive!
If you were a flight attendant during the era of 9/11 would you
have stayed on the job or quit?
I would have probably quit. I knew from the beginning that I would use
Pan Am to prepare myself for another career and leave when the time
was right. 9/11 would have been my time to leave. I completed my EdD
in 1986 and knew in 1984 it was time for me to go. It was like
deciding to get a divorce from your husband. You knew the marriage was
on the rocks, not going anywhere but you were afraid of what lies
ahead. I took the plunge at the right time and I’m all the better for
it. I love the jobs I’ve had since Pan Am. I am one of the blessed
Dr. Shelia E. Nutt is currently the Director of Educational Outreach at Harvard University.
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