The Declining Hotness of Flight Attendants

Glen Whitman asks why there are fewer startlingly beautiful flight attendants any more:

For an economist, the most fascinating aspect of Pan Am is the highly attractive flight attendants -- or rather, stewardesses, since the show is set in the early 1960s. If you're young enough, you might think that's just TV. But I'm just old enough to remember flying in the 1970s, and I recall stewardesses who really were, in fact, hot. Okay, I was too young to understand the concept of "hot" -- but I was definitely aware that I was being attended by some very pretty young women.

Not so anymore. Flight attendants aren't necessarily unattractive now, but they're no more fetching than people in any other service profession that doesn't get tips. And what's changed? In a word, deregulation.

Prior to airline deregulation, which was passed in 1978 and completed over the next few years, airfares had been set by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). For many routes, those airfares were simply too high. As predicted by a simple supply-and-demand model, airlines were willing to offer more flights at these high prices than customers were willing to buy. Under normal market conditions, that would lead to falling prices. But since the airlines legally could not compete on price, they competed on quality instead. They offered better service, better food, and... wait for it... more attractive stewardesses.

When deregulation came along, however, it became apparent that as much as male customers might have enjoyed the eye candy, they weren't willing to pay for it. Higher quality might seem like a good thing, but it's really only good if the benefits exceeds the cost. More attractive staff can command higher wages. The airlines could have continued to pay them, if the higher quality had attracted more customers. But as it turns out, most people just wanted to get where they were going, fast and cheap. Deregulation fueled a democratization of air travel, making what once was a luxury item available to nearly everyone. The number of people who fly at least once a year has more than doubled since 1978, while the population has grown by about 40%. These new customers have flocked to the airlines with no-frills or low-frills service, a trend that continues to this day (JetBlue, anyone?).

As a libertarianish economics blogger, I would love if this story were true.  But I'm skeptical.  Stewardesses used to be subject to all sorts of extremely strict rules: they couldn't be married, couldn't gain weight, couldn't get pregnant, couldn't be much over 30.  If you fire everyone who violates those rules, then yes, you will select for a much "hotter" group of women than the current crop.

You could probably still get a large group of young, hot women to take a job that involves free flights all around the world.  But those jobs are no longer open, because airlines stopped firing all the old, fat parents. Thanks to a combination of feminist shaming, union demands, and anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, once they no longer fired people over a certain age, union seniority rules immediately started selecting for older workers, in two ways:  layoffs are usually last hired first fired, and older people have a lot of sunk costs in terms of pension accrual and seniority, so they're less likely to leave.  If you fly a major airline, you'll notice very few stewardesses in their twenties.

In the 1970s, these trends would have been playing out; most stewardesses were still young. Now they're lifers.  Any new airline can create a better looking workforce by hiring good-looking workers.  But it can't guarantee that they'll stay hot.  When the workforce is unionized and in it for the . . . pardon the pun . . . long haul, eventually you end up with what we've got: a workforce composed mostly of older and not particularly attractive people.  Mirroring the larger American workforce.

You can argue that deregulation hastened this by making price discrimination fiercer, so that there were more layoffs, and airlines were less able to offer a wage premium that would attract better looking workers.  But I suspect this played a minor role--less important than other trends, like the mass movement of women into the workforce.  Fewer women were looking for a job that would let them travel for a few years before they got married, and there were better alternatives for a long-term career.  Moreover, the changing workplace meant there were more female business travelers on expensive tickets--and they usually don't care whether the stewardess has a nice rack.

If you look at the national airlines in countries where anti-discrimination rules and/or unions are less powerful, like Qatar or Asia, you'll notice that they spend a lot of time here advertising . . . their hot stewardesses.  (Also their lay-flat seats.  But don't forget the super-hot stewardesses).  That's not because they're in an oligopoly.  It's because the domestic labor market lets them get away with it, and ours doesn't.