Read an Excerpt From Ann Hood’s Latest Memoir ‘Fly Girl’
The Rhode Island author delves into her past as an airline stewardess and reveals the ways in which the job empowered her despite its roots in sexist standards.
In 1978, in the tail wind of the golden age of air travel, flight attendants were the epitome of glamour and sophistication. Fresh out of college and hungry to experience the world, Ann Hood joined their ranks. She carved chateaubriand in the first-class cabin, found romance on layovers in London and Lisbon, and walked more than a million miles in high heels, smiling as she served thousands of passengers. She flew through the start of deregulation, an oil crisis, massive furloughs and a labor strike.
As the airline industry changed around her, the Rhode Island native began to write — even drafting snatches of her first novel from the jump seat. She reveals how the job empowered her, despite its roots in sexist standards. Packed with funny, moving and shocking stories of life as a flight attendant, Fly Girl captures the nostalgia and magic of air travel at its height, and the thrill that remains with every takeoff.
In this book excerpt from Fly Girl, released in May, Hood details her foray into the interview process for becoming a flight attendant.
How to Become an Airline Stewardess
The history and the culture of being an airline stewardess that I stepped into was a combination of women fighting for equal pay, fair work rules, and respect for their jobs as flight attendants while those same women were being portrayed as sex symbols, used to dress sexy, act demure, and lure businessmen onto airlines. It seemed, in 1977, to pretty much capture the role of women in general.
During winter break from college during my senior year in 1977, my parents sat me down at the kitchen table and asked me what exactly English majors did once they graduated. My parents were mostly hands-off. Or maybe the ambition and work ethic I had shown since I was a kid convinced them I would do just fine. Not only was I the one with my hand always in the air to be called on with the right answer; the one who wrote plays and forced classmates to perform in them; who edited the yearbook and school newspaper, starred in drama club plays, and got straight A’s, I worked as a Marsha Jordan Girl; was the Rhode Island teen rep to Seventeen, sending monthly dispatches on fashion and trends in my school — “Everyone is wearing Dr. Scholl’s sandals now that the weather is warm. Red is the most popular color!” “Astrology is really a hot topic at West Warwick High School!” — and a Bonne Bell Girl, sitting in the mall demonstrating how Ten-O-Six Lotion helped your complexion or making lipstick from scratch by melting special wax and adding dyes to it. I fought for more relevant English classes. I fought for recycling. I fought for the end of the Vietnam War. My parents sat back and watched, dazed and proud, at fashion shows and school plays and awards ceremonies.
When I left for college in 1974, I wanted to major in English so I could learn how to write novels. After my meeting with Mr. Stone back when I was twelve, I had eventually returned to my original plan to become a stewardess and then a writer. Run with the bulls! Jump naked into fountains! Shop on Carnaby Street! Becoming a flight attendant — by then they were no longer called stewardesses because of the increase of men in the job — would offer me adventure, the chance to travel for free, glamour and excitement, all while I hatched plots and characters for my novels. But my father tried to convince me to major in business, a new frontier for women. “If you’re a business major, you’ll be able to write your own ticket,” Dad said. What I didn’t tell him was that I was interested in a different kind of ticket, one that gave me unlimited flights on 747s heading everywhere in the world.
That December day that my parents asked me what I intended to do with my BA in English, my mother expected me to announce that I would become an English teacher. To her, that was a very good job — summers off, benefits, home by three or four in the afternoon. Besides, why else would someone major in English? My father probably still held out hope that I would enter the business world. I knew plenty of young women who majored in the mysterious new field of marketing. They had taken special classes on how to write a résumé and they’d bought suits — knee-length skirts and matching jackets with floppy bow ties — for interviews with banks and insurance companies and IBM, the dream place to land a job back then. Dad frequently dropped tidbits about businesses that were hiring managers. “And they want women!” he always added. Even English majors.
“I want to be a flight attendant,” I told my parents.
They looked at each other. They looked at me.
Then my father asked, “If you’re a flight attendant, do we get free tickets?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Sounds like a good plan,” Dad said. Like me, he had wanderlust.
He told me to get in the car. We were going to Logan Airport to pick up applications.
Dad and I drove the hour to Boston and I went from terminal to terminal at Logan requesting flight-attendant applications at the ticket counters, where there seemed to be an endless supply, and he idled in the car curbside. By the time we were back home, I had a big stack of applications. Alleghany, American, United, Eastern, National, Northwest, Delta, Republic, Air New England, and many more that I no longer remember. Only two really mattered to me. I didn’t want to fly around the Ohio Valley or between Washington, DC, and Boston. I wanted to see the world, and in 1977 only two airlines flew internationally: Pan Am and TWA. True, Delta had taken me to Bermuda, and Eastern had flown me
to the Bahamas the following year. But I wanted pyramids and the Wailing Wall, the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum. I wanted to gobble up every city on every continent.
Back at home, my father and I sat at the kitchen table while I read through the applications. Some were just one page, others were several pages long.
“Now, fill them all out,” my father said in his slightly Southern drawl.
I looked at all of those beautiful logos of clouds and globes and wings and said, “I think I’ll just apply to these.” I plucked TWA and Pan Am from the stack, then added Eastern for good measure because they flew to the Caribbean and Latin America.
“Apply to all of them,” Dad said. “You never know. For example, I just read in the paper that United is trying to get routes to China.”
With all my twenty-one-year-old bravado I wanted to tell him that I did indeed know. Instead, I picked up a pen and began to fill out every application, Dad instructing me along the way. The
applications were mostly the same: name and birthdate, level of education, height and weight, vision, and the perplexing question “Can you swim?” (Later I would learn that this was a requirement for most airlines in the unlikely situation of an ocean ditching.) They also asked if you were willing to relocate (definitely!), if you spoke any languages (French, un peu), and for a list of jobs you’d had (salesgirl, waitress, model).
That same year, Anna Quindlen wrote in the New York Times, “They are attractive and good-tempered … they are flight attendants, and the occasional air traveler who still thinks of them as the Coffee-Tea-or-Me type is in for a jolt. Beneath the faultlessly groomed exteriors — ‘It is still our contention that cosmetics are necessary for all women,’ said one training specialist — there is a different kind of person.” That person, Quindlen went on to describe, was “older, better educated.” Combine that with travel benefits, a salary competitive with other entry-level jobs, and the chance to work with many kinds of people, and the job of flight attendant was perhaps even more appealing than in the early days.
Weight: 120 pounds
Vision: Corrected to 20/20 with contact lenses
Education: BA English, University of Rhode Island, 1978
Work Experience: Marsha Jordan Girl, teen model for Jordan Marsh department stores, Warwick, RI, and Boston, MA, 1971–1976
Salesgirl, Jordan Marsh, 1971–1974
Waitress, Dunes Club, summer 1976, 1977
Student Body Treasurer, paid position on student government, University of Rhode Island, 1976–1978
Freshman Orientation Leader for incoming freshmen at the University of Rhode Island, summer 1977
Languages: English, French
Are You Willing to Relocate: YES
Can You Swim? YES
The first response I received was from American Airlines. They were having preliminary interviews at TF Green Airport in Warwick, ten minutes from my parents’ house. (The airport uses Providence as its name — or PVD in airport code — but it actually sits about seven miles away in Warwick.) The same week that I filled out applications, my mother and I went to Casual Corner at the mall to buy an interview suit. No shoulder pads or floppy ties like the business majors I knew had bought. We left the mall with a black suit — polyester, pencil skirt, fitted jacket, white blouse, and a black, white, and pink patterned scarf to tie jauntily around my neck, just like a flight attendant.
Like almost every girl I knew, my hair was cut short in a Dorothy Hamill wedge, named after the 1976 Olympic figure-skating champion who sported that haircut. Standing in front of the full-length mirror on the back of the door of my childhood bedroom in my black suit and that scarf and black high heels, my short hair highlighted to look sun-kissed, I saw a flight attendant looking back at me.
My father had told me a story that a friend of his from work had shared with him about his daughter’s flight-attendant interview. She’d been led into a room and invited to sit across from the interviewer. For the next excruciating five minutes the two of them sat in silence. Then the interviewer stood and thanked her for coming. She never heard from the airline again.
“They’re looking for friendly people,” my father told me. “Walk in there. Shake hands. Say your name and ask them how they are. Don’t just sit there waiting for them to do something.”
The story of that interview gone wrong scared the hell out of me. I would do as my father instructed, but what if the interviewers surprised me with something else?
“Just have your answers ready,” Dad said.
Sure. But answers to what?
“Well, why do you want this job?” he asked.
“I want to travel,” I said.
He laughed. “So does everybody. They aren’t hiring you to give you free vacations.”
“I like people?” I tried.
Dad grinned. “There you go. You love people and you love to travel.”
At the airport, I was led into a small waiting room with half a dozen other applicants, and one by one we were called in for a preliminary interview. I love people and I love to travel, I kept repeating until my name was called.
My interviewer was a woman with big hair that looked as if it were hair-sprayed into a helmet. She had on more makeup than I’d had to wear during fashion shows at Jordan Marsh, and she did not look like she loved people. She looked angry.
I put on my best smile — her lips were covered in very red lipstick, mine in pale-pink lip gloss — and shook her hand. “Hi! I’m Ann. How are you?” I said.
She frowned and looked over my application. Then she asked me to walk back and forth across the room, the same request given to Kate Ferguson back in 1946. I walked back and forth, stopping when I was in front of her again, still smiling.
“Thank you,” she said in a way that let me know we were done.
“That’s it?” I said, surprised. I hadn’t even been asked to sit down.
“Yup,” she said, and opened the door for me. “Thank you for coming.”
Needless to say, I never heard from them again. I went over and over what I had done wrong but couldn’t come up with anything. My father said that I simply didn’t have the look they wanted. I thought of how certain I’d been when I’d stared in my mirror that I looked exactly like a flight attendant. “Every airline has a look they’re after. This one wasn’t for you.”
Neither was Alleghany, but I decided that on my own when I got the letter to come for a preliminary interview at TF Green. They’d included a brochure that explained I would train and be based in Pittsburgh. The route map on the back was a series of lines radiating from Pittsburgh all through Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley, up to Detroit and cities like Binghamton, Albany, and Buffalo in upstate New York. I studied that map and knew that this wasn’t what I wanted. Jumping into a fountain in Binghamton didn’t have quite the same pizzazz as jumping into a fountain in Paris.
I soon realized that for various reasons other airlines weren’t the right fit for me either. Midwest Airlines would have me based in Milwaukee and flying around the Midwest; Air Florida had routes mostly around Florida; Southwest flew predominantly in Texas; and yet another, PSA, flew up and down California. Many of those smaller airlines eventually grew or merged with other airlines and today are still flying.
But in 1978, I had my sights set on Pan Am and TWA. I wanted to see the world, and they were the airlines that could show it
My father convinced me to interview with United too, because they were a solid company with plans for expansion internationally. Besides, he said, I needed a safe bet just in case TWA, Pan Am, or Eastern didn’t hire me. Didn’t hire me? Despite my disastrous American Airlines interview, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might not actually get my dream job. My father must have seen the look of terror on my face because he quickly added, “It’s always good to have a choice.” I decided he was right. I liked the idea of living in a big city like Miami, Eastern’s home base, or United’s home base of Chicago. Their routes, though not as far-reaching as Pan Am’s or TWA’s, were extensive nonetheless. I’d flown to Hawaii with my girlfriends on United the past summer, and the flight attendants, dressed in sarongs and wearing leis, served us Mai Tais and coconut chicken. Honolulu? Buenos Aires? Caracas? I accepted interviews with all four airlines — Pan Am, TWA, Eastern, and United.
Although none of the preliminary interviews for these airlines asked me to walk across the room, they were pretty well all standard: one or two interviewers, often in their flight attendant uniforms, looked over my application and asked very few questions. In ten minutes or less, I was walking back out in my black polyester suit, scarf tied around my neck, and the next applicant was on his or her way in. Unlike the disastrous American Airlines interview, all four of these led to the next phase of hiring.
Eastern Airlines sent me a letter congratulating me on being invited to a final interview in Miami. Tucked inside was a round-trip ticket. If I had any doubts about pursuing a job as a flight attendant, that ticket sealed the deal. Free tickets were apparently going to fall in my lap once I worked for an airline! I went back to Casual Corner and bought the exact same suit in white with a scarf in tropical colors. I was going to Miami, after all, and I wanted to look the part.
Eastern flight attendants wore bright blue or yellow polyester dresses decorated with a pattern of the airline logo. To me, they all seemed tanned, with peachy or pink lipstick, like girls who spent a lot of time at the beach. Lolling on a tropical beach on my days off sounded fine to me. With that ticket in hand, I knew I could be one of those girls, sipping cocktails under palm trees, driving a convertible, jetting off to South America. When I arrived in humid Miami, I went straight to the hotel — also paid for! — and met up with other applicants in the lobby. A bus with Eastern Airlines written across it in huge letters whisked us off to corporate headquarters for physicals, height and weight measurements, and tons of forms to fill out.
Although this was my first experience at a final interview, it was consistent with all of my interviews to come — everyone traded stories and tips about who was hiring and how many flight attendants they needed, what different airlines were looking for, like “All American” or “Sexy” or “Sophisticated,” and the different interview practices each had. There was an immediate camaraderie with the other applicants. After all, not just one of us would get the job. Airlines were hiring hundreds or even thousands of new flight attendants. Plus, we had gotten this far because, in part, we were friendly. After just a couple interviews, I began to see the same faces, like seeing old friends.
The tone of the letter and the official business of the afternoon made me feel like the job was already mine. The next morning, we took the bus back to Eastern headquarters and one by one were invited into an impressively large office to have our final interview. “I love people and I love to travel!” I said. I smiled big. I talked about how much I liked Eastern Airlines. Yes, I answered, I was happy to relocate to Miami or their new base in San Juan.
Then the interviewer leveled a serious gaze at me and said, “Ann, what will you do if you don’t get this job?”
Don’t get the job? But they had flown me to Miami! They asked me for my uniform size!
I stuttered and said um too many times. I didn’t think telling him that I wanted to write novels would go over very well, so I said, “Um, I don’t know? Maybe go to grad school? In English?” That surprised even me, as I had no desire at all to go to graduate school. I was going to be a flight attendant and have adventures and write novels.
“That sounds like a good plan for you,” he said, and I felt like I might throw up right there in that sunny office. Wasn’t my plan to be a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines? On the flight home, I realized I should have said that if I didn’t get the job, I’d reapply. All I wanted to do was work for them!
Still, I held on to the hope that what had happened wasn’t what I thought had happened. I couldn’t have flubbed the interview, could I? A month later my mother called me at college to tell me I had a letter from Eastern Airlines. Did I want her to open it? Not really, but of course she had to. No airline ticket this time, just a form rejection letter. I remember sitting in the phone booth of the student union and crying.
“Sweetie,” my father told me, “You’re just not the type they’re looking for. I just know United and the others will love you.”
By then I’d had other preliminary interviews and I was already getting second interviews for Pan Am and United and TWA. One of them had to take me, didn’t they?
Excerpted from Fly Girl: A Memoir. Copyright (c) 2022 by Ann Hood. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. All rights reserved.