The author paid attention to flight attendants while working on his book and still does, he said. “Lately, I’ve actually noticed among flight attendants, male and female, a little bit more flamboyance and fun with the job than I was seeing five or six years ago,” he said. “I think in the way Mad Men has made us conscious of an earlier, slightly more dangerous, stimulating age of business, flight attendants have become self-conscious and said, ‘Hey, wait! We used to be sex symbols, and the men used to be maitre d’s of the sky.’ So I think we’ve been coming to this point.”
Mr. Kirn suggested that flights should be like international ocean voyages, with legalized gambling and a pornography section for those who qualify. “And you should be able to Facebook-poke your fellow passengers. Like, ‘Hey, 4B! Nice hair. Turn around, let’s see what the rest of you looks like.’ I think Branson is right, let’s bring a little bit of the libido back to flying.”
Sir Richard Branson, who lent his company and himself to the show—he appears in the first episode hosing down a Virgin America plane from a fire truck with Fly Girl Nikole—had an entirely sensible and not uncommon reason for forging a partnership with the CW, whose past forays into the medium include Beauty and the Geek and a competition-based show featuring the Pussycat Dolls. “We can’t afford national ad campaigns, so this could grow awareness of the Virgin brand,” he said. (Despite being Mr. Branson’s creation, the airline is actually controlled by VIA Partners LLC due to a law prohibiting more than 25 percent of any U.S. airline to be controlled by foreign interests.)
This was his primary reason, he said, but there was also something that had been bugging Mr. Branson about today’s in-flight staff. “They sort of dump a slab of cold chicken on your lap if you’re lucky, and this was particular in America,” he said. “I think the unique kerfuffles that have gone on in America, it’s a whole industry that spiraled down, and it’s very sad because most American industries are great.”
Mr. Branson’s transatlantic airline offers passengers massages, a shoe-shining service, hair dressers and in-flight bars for mingling during the flight. “I have the picture of the world’s first stewardess here in the pressurized plane, and it’s a glamorous picture. I expect that’s rubbed off on me somewhat,” he said.
For a firsthand account of that era, The Observer tracked down Bronwen Roberts, a Pan Am flight attendant from 1958 to 1989. She was hired in London, one of three or four girls chosen from some 5,000 applicants. She attended Winston Churchill the only time he flew Pan Am, serving him cigars and cognac. She made scrambled eggs to order and sliced roast beef in the aisle for Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn and Robert Taylor. “By the time I quit, I had had it, it was all downhill from there,” she said from her Forest Hills apartment. “I just got tired of apologizing to passengers.”
Ms. Roberts believes the Golden Age of Flying is gone forever. “We wore gloves and hats,” she said. “Now I see girls with long hair draping all over their shoulders. We had weigh-ins, and if you were too heavy, you were taken off the plane. Now I see these women and they’re huge! They can barely get down the aisle.”
And Gary Cole, a photography director at Playboy who worked on the magazine’s stewardess spreads in the ’70s and ’80s, said it was difficult to imagine re-creating them. “I don’t know that flight attendants have that same thing anymore,” said Mr. Cole. “I know as a man I don’t view them the same. Flight attendants now are heavier and older, and that’s all fine, it really is and it should be, but it has changed the way we think about them. It’s possible making a show like this might help that along, but working against that is everybody’s common experience on the airlines, which is so far from that.”
Back at the London Hotel, though, Mandy was brimming with optimism about her show and what she argued was a revitalized workplace. “The airports just seem fuller to me,” she said. The girls told a story of how their passengers have been chatting via the seat-to-seat chat on their screens and sending drinks to one another. Two passengers, Mandy bragged, even got engaged.
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