“I don’t think of myself as sex symbol,” says a stewardess in Julia Cooke’s social history of Pan American Airways and the female flight attendants who flew with the carrier in the 1960s and 70s. “I think of myself as someone who knows how to open the door of a 747 in the dark, upside down, and in the water.”

That comment was made to a journalist some 50 years ago — but even in the 21st century, airlines continue to exploit the stereotype of the sexually alluring stewardess to promote their business.

AirAsia still likes to surround chief executive Tony Fernandes with comely young women when he signs multibillion-dollar deals for new aircraft. VietJet, run by Vietnam’s richest woman, had its air hostesses pose in bikinis for a publicity stunt in 2011. And Ryanair believes that the best way to sum up the green credentials proclaimed in its 2020 environmental policy document is to photo-shop three young, attractive stewardesses saluting in front of a forested landscape.

Haven’t we moved on? In many ways, we have, according to Cooke’s entertaining trot through the golden age of aviation. It is hard to imagine that a global carrier would today argue in a US court — as United did in the mid-1960s — that only attractive “young girls” could “add to the pleasure of the trip, the loveliness of the environment or the ego of the male passenger”.

The days of sacking stewardesses when they hit 35 or got married — because, according to management, wives tended to put on weight — are also long gone. A stewardess in the 1960s worked on average for just 32.4 months. Yet in 2017, a trim 81-year-old Bette Nash celebrated her 60th anniversary as a flight attendant.

Come Fly the World tells the story of PanAm’s heyday through the personal stories of some of its stewardesses — one a science major, another with a degree in education — all well-educated, multilingual and hungry to explore the world. At a time when just 6-8 per cent of American women had college degrees, roughly 10 per cent of Pan Am stewardesses had attended graduate school. Being a flight attendant offered an “alternative to the postwar straitjacket” of marriage and children.

Stewardesses were expected to look and act like the epitome of conventional femininity — a distinctly white ideal in 1960s and 70s America. They often drew the scorn of feminists for the titillating imagery used by airlines in ad campaigns such as National Airlines’ “Fly Me” or Braniff International’s Air Strip (yes, an air hostess changing uniforms to the tune of “The Stripper”). But they were also among the first to use the newly established Equal Employment Opportunities Commission to challenge gender-based discrimination.

It may sound harsh to say that the individual stories of the smart and capable women chosen by Cooke is the least interesting part of her tale. Come Fly the World really takes off when she begins to look at the social and political context.

These women were not merely stewardesses, she argues, but diplomats serving US national interests in times of both war and peace. “Pan Am was the American flag, for all purposes an extension of the US government,” Cooke quotes a CIA officer as saying. The state — via the War Department — funded the creation of subsidiaries in Africa and South America that established it as the first “and, for decades to come, the only commercial airline to circle the globe”.

Some risked their lives in war-torn Vietnam to pick up soldiers on leave. Flights could be targeted by snipers, and stewardesses were given the status of second lieutenants to ensure the protection of the Geneva Convention should they be captured.

Their memories indicate the grit required for the job. One recalls a flight into Vietnam organised by Ed Daly, chief executive of World Airways, to evacuate women and children. Hundreds of refugees scrambled to board the aircraft but as flight attendants reached down to pull people up, shots were fired and grenades exploded. The strongest climbed over the weakest and in the end, out of 268 people who managed to board, there were only five women and three small children.

Cooke also sheds light on the operation to bring Vietnamese orphans — many the unrecognised children of GIs — to America. The experiences left Cooke’s protagonists marked for life. One former stewardess falls ill every year on the anniversary of Operation Babylift. Others decided to quit aviation, the harsh realities of a turbulent world creating a yearning for stability.

Come Fly the World is no detailed academic treatise. It is a much more personal tale, entertaining in parts but which, like the memories at its core, can be scant and disjointed. Yet Cooke succeeds in driving home the fact that these women were far from the vamps they were all too often portrayed in popular culture. Unfortunately, decades on, it is still too early to claim a definitive victory in that battle.

Come Fly the World: The Women of Pan Am at War and Peace, by Julia Cooke, Icon Books, RRP£16.99, 274 pages

Peggy Hollinger is the FT’s international business editor

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