Over the years, the job description and public perception of flight attendant staff on commercial airlines has changed enormously. A role once filled only by women who needed to be registered nurses aged 25 or younger, the “sky girls” of yesteryear have certainly taken on a new role. Today’s flight attendants are responsible for, among many tasks, passenger comfort and safety. And, during intense moments of rescue or inappropriateness, the amount of scrutiny or media coverage that is generated can make them instant household names.
After some very publicized moments of heroism, outrageous behavior and scandal, the visibility of flight attendants and cabin crew has certainly increased. We’d like to salute some of the most memorable flight attendants from commercial airlines. Whether hard working, pioneering, fed up or courageous, these names should sound familiar. We welcome them to the Flight Attendant Hall of Fame.
Before she became famous for starring on ABC’s primetime series “Lost”–a show with a plotline that circulated around a plane crash–Canadian actress Evangeline Lilly worked as a flight attendant on Royal Airways. The job didn’t last long, as she moved on quickly to school, modeling and acting. But the irony certainly lives on.
Image -Lucy Pemoni, AP
Otherwise known by her blogger alias, “Queen of the Sky”, Ellen Simonetti gained notoriety in 2004 for her blog, in which she vented, ranted and raved about her job as a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines … until she was fired for her blogging after posting photos of herself on the job. Simonetti’s became one of several well-known cases in the early 2000s involving employees losing their jobs for operating personal blogs.
Image – Ellen Simonetti, Myspace
This former flight attendant took her career to new heights, when she was elected Prime Minister of Iceland in 2009. Her election also pioneered new territory on another front: she’s the first openly-gay prime minister in history.
Image -Chris Ratcliffe, Bloomberg
In August 2010, Steven Slater became a working-class sensation for his “rogue” resignation from JetBlue. According to Slater, a rude passenger on board his flight that had just landed at JFK airport insulted Slater, using an obscenity. Slater proceeded to use the plane’s loudspeaker system to rant about the incident, ending with a proclamation that he was “done.” He then activated the plane’s emergency exit slide, and used it to leave the aircraft with two beers in hand. Slater was arrested later in the day, lost his job and eventually was fined for his actions– but not before becoming an overnight celebrity (and hero to frustrated employees around the world).
Image – Seth Wenig, AP
This 23 year-old flight attendant is remembered for her extraordinary bravery in the face of terrorists in 1986. During the 17-hour long hijacking of Pan Am flight 73, Bhanot lost her life while blocking three children from gunmen’s bullets. The 350 survivors of the attack attested to Bhanot’s other heroic gestures, including her refusal to collect U.S. passports–preventing terrorists from singling out passengers by nationality.
Image – AP / PA
Iris Peterson was known as the “number one flight attendant in the industry” prior to her retirement in 2007. When she said goodbye to her job at United Airlines at age 85, she had served 60 years working on planes. The context of her career is fascinating: Peterson began working at United in 1946, making a small monthly income. She eventually joined a stewardess lobby in the 1950s, and spent much of her career improving rights for her peers (like flight attendants’ right to be married, which wasn’t allowed until 1968) as well as increasing safety measures and equipment on commercial flights.
Image – United Airlines
A flight attendant for Atlantic Southeast Airlines airlines, Sarah Mills grabbed headlines and infamy when she was arrested for drunken antics onboard the plane she was supposed to be working on, as well as threatening a pilot with the words “you’re dead.” A video was filmed during her arrest and released to the media, showing Mills slurring and claiming “all I did was get drunk” and that she was “thinking about punching someone.” Mills ended up getting her (humiliating) 15 minutes of fame as a result.
Image- Lexington-Fayette County Jail / AP
Ellen Church began her job as a “stewardess” for Boeing Air Transport (a predecessor to United) in May of 1930, making her the first female flight attendant in America. Church worked in an era before the glamor of large-scale commercial aviation hit in the 1960s, and in the ’20s and ’30s the general public still perceived air travel as dangerous. Church pitched her nursing experience to executives at BAT as a key solution to reassuring people into flying, and while they wouldn’t hire her as a pilot, BAT agreed to take her on as a flight attendant. She was later recognized for additional heroism during WWII, when she earned a medal for serving as a flight nurse.
Image – United Air Lines, AP
What is it about flight attendants and promiscuous men? Suzen Johnson became tabloid fodder in 1997, after she was exposed as Frank Gifford’s mistress. She took the scandal even further when she posed for Playboy later that year.
Image -American Journal / AP
In one of the most unbelievable flight attendant moments of all time, Vesna Vulovic made plenty of headlines when it was reported in 1972 that she survived a bombing on JAT Flight 367, and a subsequent fall of more than 30,000 feet. Her survival aside, the other details of the bombing and her survival made the story all the more incredible: Vulovic wasn’t even scheduled to be working on that flight (she was covering as a favor to a friend), her first request after waking from a month-long coma was for a cigarette, and she eventually rehabilitated and was able to work after being paralyzed after the fall. Although she holds the Guiness World Record for the highest fall without a parachute, journalists have recently disputed whether the story was a hoax generated in the interest of communist propaganda.