How True


Dec 21, 2002
Airline jobs lose luster in a changed industry
Friday February 14, 2:26 pm ET
By Julie MacIntosh
NEW YORK, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The sight of a smartly uniformed airline captain made such an impression on young Richard Nick Louis that he decided right then, at the age of 10, to become a pilot.
I was part of the old breed who pointed up at the sky saying ''That''s what I want to do,'' said Louis, who is now retired. That''s the way my career started out, the romantic days where ... it was always sort of a challenge whether you''d get there or not.

But, nearly half a century later, the exoticism and wonder that once defined air travel -- and those who worked in the business -- has dissipated into a collective groan, as flying has morphed from a luxurious status-enhancer into a hassle-filled form of mass transit.
Cheaper tickets have made jetting cross-country a reality for the general public. And as the passengers became less prominent and worldly, so have the flight crews themselves.
The desperate state of the airlines, crippled by more than $7 billion in losses for two straight years, has added new fears of wage cuts and layoffs into the mix.
It''s a different world, but Louis, 59, says he can still see that uniformed air captain in his mind''s eye, and feel the excitement and reverence he sensed the first day he sat in the cockpit as a pilot for United Airlines.
But in my 31 years, maybe I had 5 minutes where I could breathe easy. It was just no fun anymore, said Louis, who retired at age 53. After 31 years, I quit 7 years early.
Some of that romance has been kept alive by numerous Hollywood movies that formed idealized -- if dated --images of daredevil airline captains and gorgeous flight attendants that persist today. Steven Spielberg''s recent film Catch Me If You Can is a recent example.
But gone are the days when the sight of pilots and flight attendants ducking smartly in and out of airport taxis left children awestruck and their parents envious.
To most passengers today, air travel itself is not part of the fun of getting away, but an obstacle course of ticket counter hassles and security checks.
Not so many decades ago, the mere existence of a jet was a cause for wonder. But as blasting across the sky in a metal tube became commonplace, do did working in one. Pilots complain they''re now viewed more as bus drivers, while passengers treat flight attendants like wait staff.
People didn''t fly as much back then, and the curiosity was there, said Georgia Panter Nielsen, who was a flight attendant for more than 40 years. But some of the myth surrounding the job was blown out of proportion, she admitted.
It never was as dramatic and as glorified as people think, she said. It was the mystique.
The demise of those myths can be a mixed blessing.
Today''s low airfares and global economy mean even travelers with financial constraints can afford to book the occasional flight. But children of the well-heeled 1950s travelers now fly in flip-flops and grubby sweatshirts, a trend that is irksome to many airline crews.
While consumers themselves have made travel more casual, the airlines can also be held responsible. Most of them have simplified their crews'' roles, cutting back to the bare minimum on in-flight food service to save cash.
The role of a flight attendant has lost its appeal over recent decades, helped along by dramatic changes in the jobs market for women. And many would argue that shifts away from discrimination and traditional roles for women are a vast improvement.
Back then, you had to be good looking, you had to be single, and you had to be a woman to be a flight attendant, said one airline captain with 30 years of experience. If you didn''t meet those three requirements, you weren''t going to get hired.
Former flight attendant Panter Nielsen said the 1960s gave rise to exciting new questions about women''s roles that led to diversity -- and fewer white, middle-class stewardesses.
Most of the people I worked with before that time were my age, my height, and my weight, she said.
I think the hardest part of the job was never the passengers, Panter Nielsen said. It was trying to work through the preconceived ideas about women''s places and our roles.
Teenage girls now have an infinite array of career choices, so the flock of young women who once scoured the classifieds for flight attendant jobs and congregated at college recruiting events has all but evaporated.
While nearly all flight attendants used to be female, about 15 percent of the jobs are now filled by men, according to Association of Flight Attendants spokeswoman Dawn Deeks.
The introduction of auto-pilot technology and other computerized flight controls has also chipped away, some say, at the macho image of pilots.
The old days of being ''Joe Pilot,'' you know, John Wayne with the earphones on, fighting the controls to land the airplane in a storm -- forget that, Louis said. He now jokingly calls his son, also a pilot, a professional typist.
Chronically rough relations between some airlines and their labor unions have also led some fatigued pilots and attendants back to school to train for other, more stable, professions that allow time for spouses and children.
But despite wage cuts and furloughs, long days and failed marriages, some current and former airline crew members said the essence of their jobs has remained constant.
My perception of the job I do hasn''t changed, one airline captain said. I''m responsible for an expensive airplane, and that''s not even close to the number of lives I represent.