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#ThrowbackThursday

“A Club in the Sky for Men Only”

“A Club in the Sky for Men Only”
Jeff Edwards

It sounds like an urban myth and when an old-timer regaled a FlyerTalker with tales of a time when United Airlines offered men-only flights, complete with complimentary cigars, unlimited booze and a steak dinner, it seemed much more likely this eyewitness to the golden age of air travel was remembering an episode of Mad Men, but as it turns out, art really does imitate life.

A Whopper of a Fish Story

Like a fisherman, frequent flyers love to retell stories about the one that got away. Fantastical tales about the magic of hobnobbing with the rich and famous in the upper deck lounge of a Pan Am 747 jumbo jet, the mystique of breaking the sound barrier on a transcontinental Air France Concorde flight or the romance of a TWA Constellation “Around the World Flight” are shared at airport lounges on an almost daily basis. One old salt’s tale of bygone days of air travel, however, seemed to defy credulity.

“Was traveling DTW-DEN today and this very old man (I’d say late 80’s early 90’s in age) was talking to me about ‘back in his day’ – one interesting comment he made was United use to have “Men only flights” where no women or children were allowed and United provided all you could eat steak and the booze you could drink and free cigars and cigarettes,” FlyerTalk member bhunt wrote about one such questionable exchange.  “Was this guy senile or did United really provide these “Men Only” flights back in the fifties and sixties?”

Sometimes the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

It turns out not only did United Airlines operate daily “executive flights” between Chicago and New York City, but the popular men-only flights operated five days a week until 1970. The no women or children rule, it seems, was put in place in an attempt to give the cabin a private club ambiance and to help the high power businessmen of the day to let their hair down and relax without the pressure of watching their behavior in front of the fairer sex. As an added bonus, in the event of a water landing, passengers would not be obliged to first offer flotation devices to women and children.

The Boys Club

According to a 2015 report from Boarding Area’s Gary Leff, the New York City/Chicago service billed as “A Club in the Sky for Men Only” started in 1953 as a marketing ploy to attract high-end business travelers (who at the time were primarily men).  In addition to offering passengers slippers, cigars, a healthy pour of Scotch and a “full-course steak dinner,” United Airlines also touted the ability to get the closing stock quotes, a large selection of “your favorite business magazines” and the ability to send a last-minute message to colleagues just before boarding. For a time, the “executive flights” were even sponsored in partnership with The Wall Street Journal.

There were, of course, a few women permitted on the men-only flights. Stewardesses were not only renowned for quickly lighting a cigar for passengers in the smoke-filled cabin but were also available to arrange a workspace for the very important businessmen to do very important business.

Gas Light Service

As FlyerTalker guv1976 points out, imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but regional carrier Mohawk Airlines’ famed men-only Gas Light Service on select regional DC-3 flights (which were decorated with a Victorian theme complete with red velvet curtains and gold tassels) had decidedly more of a Skull and Crossbones feel than the feel of an exclusive club for the Who’s Who of the business world. Along with five-cent cigars and free beer, it seems that a bit of Victorian-era LARPing was involved as well. This included, but was not limited to flight attendants clad in sequined costumes with subtle ostrich feather accents.

Mohawk Airlines officials were eventually convinced that scheduled men-only flights might be somewhat sexist. The airline decided to open a “family section” in the front of the aircraft. The rear section of the plane remained a men-only section where business travelers could enjoy a Victorian fantasy world as they traveled from Boston to Buffalo.

Times Change and so Must United

The United Airlines executive men-only service between New York and Chicago ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. On January 14, 1970, The National Organization for Women (NOW) declared victory in a long-running campaign to get United Airlines to end the flights marketed specifically as excluding female passengers.

“United Airlines finally ceases the “men only” executive flights between New York and Chicago, which NOW has long protested as a form of sex discrimination,” the organization said in a statement vowing to strike out at sex discrimination wherever it is found (including at 35,000 feet). “Stand with NOW for equal treatment of the sexes in public accommodations!”

 

[Featured Image: Shutterstock]

View Comments (26)

26 Comments

  1. DavidCP

    October 17, 2019 at 11:39 am

    “Stand with NOW for equal treatment of the sexes in public accommodations!”

    These were paid seats on a private airline.

  2. GetSetJetSet

    October 17, 2019 at 3:03 pm

    Sad, sounds wonderful.

  3. kkua

    October 17, 2019 at 7:58 pm

    C’mon, it’s too ripe for picking… what if the marketing of “men only club in the sky” was a targeted (and covertly coded) advertising for closeted gay men to let their guard down?

  4. irishguy28

    October 18, 2019 at 4:09 am

    Transcontinental AF Concorde flights?

  5. 60614

    October 18, 2019 at 4:49 am

    I own a United Airlines timetable from 1958 that advertises their men only LGA -ORD flights on the cover. The 5pm departure in each direction was men only.

  6. J0lt_C0la

    October 18, 2019 at 4:50 am

    Public accommodations is a legal term, and simply means “businesses that are generally open to the public”. So a flight on a commercial airliner is absolutely a public accommodation in the sense that NOW was using the term. I didn’t think for a second that I’d see comments on this article trying to justify the practice of men only flights, but here we are.

  7. pmiranda

    October 18, 2019 at 5:36 am

    Even though I don’t smoke, I still find it weird to walk into a bar with clean air, but I have no nostalgia for smoking on airplanes and in the office.

  8. knownothing

    October 18, 2019 at 5:38 am

    David: Public transportation

  9. Danwriter

    October 18, 2019 at 5:59 am

    Replace “men only” with “whites only” and then see how nostalgic it sounds. The good old days weren’t really all that good for everyone.

  10. AJNEDC

    October 18, 2019 at 6:31 am

    I would pay extra for a flight with no children.

  11. gay

    October 18, 2019 at 6:47 am

    How about an all LGBTQ* club?

  12. andrewk829

    October 18, 2019 at 7:28 am

    This ended in 1970. But now, in 2019, almost 50 years later, there are hotels that offer “women only floors”. How does that happen? Why is that OK?

  13. WillBarrett_68

    October 18, 2019 at 7:45 am

    DavidCP: “public accomodations” doesn’t mean “owned by the public.” Anti-discrimination concepts like this aren’t exactly some new-fangled invention, you should maybe do some reading on the subject to educate yourself.

  14. Morgacj2004

    October 18, 2019 at 8:14 am

    Funny how you can have women only health clubs, cruises, hotels etc but a men only flight is sexist?

  15. BJM

    October 18, 2019 at 8:26 am

    Public accommodations, in US law, are generally defined as facilities, both public and +++private+++, used by the public. Examples include retail stores, rental establishments, and service establishments as well as educational institutions, recreational facilities, and service centers.

    Airlines are public accommodations.

  16. robsaw

    October 18, 2019 at 8:41 am

    “These were paid seats on a private airline.” Yes, we know.
    Presume you’d say the same thing about racially segregated flights?

  17. DeltaFlyer123

    October 18, 2019 at 10:07 am

    I don’t recall reading about “men only” flights, but I recall Eastern had first class only DC-9’s shortly after they were introduced in the 1960’s. I’m guessing they were mostly filled with businessmen.
    I also recall Continental with their golden tails, and their motto: “we move our tails for you” That didn’t go over very well even then.
    And finally, I recall being sick after almost every flight because of the smoke, even in the non-smoking section of every flight, every airline.

  18. picturegal

    October 18, 2019 at 10:27 am

    When women start sexually harassing men as frequently as the reverse, then maybe male-only flights, hotel floors, and cruises will be justified.

  19. dhuey

    dhuey

    October 18, 2019 at 10:50 am

    “As an added bonus, in the event of a water landing, passengers would not be obliged to first offer flotation devices to women and children.”

    I love that. Good stuff, Jeff.

  20. Karen2

    October 18, 2019 at 11:47 am

    My dad (born 1916) was a Kaiser Steel financial executive in the old days. He routinely flew on the men only FIRST CLASS United flights. What you missed in the article was the lounge in the back where the men played poker, gin rummy, cribbage, and other games for money. My dad delighted in beating the socks off most of the contenders.

  21. Irpworks

    October 18, 2019 at 11:53 am

    Bring back the cigars and end TSA and I might start flying a lot again.

  22. SkybirdDEN

    SkybirdDEN

    October 18, 2019 at 3:27 pm

    I was there! I was a United Stew in ’63, ’64, and ’65—until I was required to resign when I got married in late ‘65! I worked “The Executive” flites in ’63 and ‘64! At that time they were from EWR to ORD—I was based at EWR at the time. The flites were on a Caravelle, which was an “all first class” configuration—64 pax with 2 stews.

    I have no idea how the service may have changed after I transferred to DEN in ’64, but when I flew it there was absolutely no “unlimited” liquor! At the time the CAB regulated everything—routes, fares, AND liquor! All pax were allowed two drinks (minis), and no more—in first class the drinks were served in glasses, not in the tiny bottles! The meal service itself was different in that we first had to serve a small, narrow “condiment” (appetizer) tray with the drinks, then that tray stayed on the table when the main meal tray was delivered—and it was a “normal” meal—there were no “unlimited” amounts of food either, but it was always steak—and—back in the day—the steaks we served were almost always pretty good! They were small fillets! By the time all the meal trays were out we were picking up the condiment trays—leaving the drinks. It was an absolutely chaotic flite for the stews—flite time was less than two hours. [There were no carts!]

    After all (64!) meal trays were picked up we had “gifts” that were passed out to each pax, uh, each man! The only one I remember was a small clear Lucite alarm clock—it was pretty cool! And, yes, we also had cigars to pass out! Back in the day you could smoke cigarettes, cigars, and pipes on planes! The first time you worked The Executive you’d just be crazily trying to get everything done in time for landing and you’d get the trays thrown back into the carriers and run through the cabin with the cigars! ERROR! Half the plane would “light up!” Just think about that for a minute! Smoke goes UP! They’re sitting! We’re standing! On subsequent flites you’d get everything else done—including handing out the (64!) coats, and then, on final approach—and after the no smoking sign was on!—run through the cabin really fast with the cigars—trying to get back to your jumpseat before landing!

    The Executive had absolutely nothing to do with being gay—some of you are “thinking 21st century!” It was pretty much just a way to make males feel like they were “special,” a/k/a superior, and that they “deserved” to be treated in a way that proved that to them! Everybody knew “back then” that only men were “executives!” Don’t misunderstand! Those comments are not “complaining”—just fact! I LOVED my job—and, back in the day, “that’s just the way it was!” Remember, I also had to quit my job as a stew because I got married! [I subsequently owned a business for 20 years, and much of my mail that was from people who didn’t know me was addressed to “Mr.!” Everybody also “knew” that women didn’t own businesses!] I don’t really know about the “relax and kick back” theory—it didn’t seem that way to me! The men wore suits and ties! That’s the way it was—back in the day—men wore suits and ties, and women wore hats and gloves! So it’s not like the 64 (it was always full!) guys all showed up in sweats and running shoes! Except for the fact that it was all men, and for the “special service” and gifts/cigars, it was pretty much like any other flite!

    After a 35 year hiatus I returned to “the job I was born to do in this lifetime!” in 2000 I returned to flying—over the years I had morphed into a flite attendant! I’m retired now because of a “medical situation,” but I’ll always be a United Stew!

    [Factoid! I also worked one of the very early flites into Dulles airport (IAD) in ‘63! Back in the day the mobile lounges went from the terminal directly to the individual planes—there were no concourses! I was flying A (there were no “pursers!”), and when we arrived I did what we were supposed to do, unhook the slide and crack the door! Stews were told to never open a door in “normal operations.” When the mobile lounge arrived, the “driver”—there was no PA (CSR) in the mobile lounge—pulled up to the plane and looked in through the “little window” at me—and I looked back out at him—waiting for him to open the door. That flite was also on a Caravelle, and to open the (plug type) door you “cranked it in” to crack it and then lifted it up overhead like a garage door! Unbeknown to me, the drivers had also been told to “never open an airplane door” and we stood there looking at each other (I didn’t want to open the door and get fired!) through the “little window” until the captain came out of the cockpit, realized what was going on, and opened the door! (The cockpit crew wasn’t supposed to open the doors in “normal operation” either! That was the PA’s job!) That was an interesting airport—the pax had to be at the gate in the terminal an hour before flite time to get on the mobile lounge to the plane, and a lot of people never got the message and missed their flites!]

    [Factoid #2! Airplanes used to have propellers! I also worked on DC-6s, DC-7s, and Viscounts!]

    [Factoid #3! Some of you are wondering! Yes, I’m Olde! I’m 76 now—and lovin’ it! I now do “the best kind of trippin’ there is”—on four wheels and two feet! I hike all over western Colorado and Southern Utah!]

    Skybird

  23. JackE

    October 18, 2019 at 9:45 pm

    @robsaw, we have racial segregation at the highest levels of government (e.g., the Congressional Black Caucus).

  24. BMGRAHAM

    October 20, 2019 at 9:48 am

    Too bad it ended. I see no issue with this, just as I would see no issue with women-only flights.

  25. Superjeff

    October 25, 2019 at 5:43 am

    United had two daily flights, one in each direction between LaGuardia in New York and O’Hare in Chicago, marketed as “The Chicago Executive” and “The New York Executive” by United. These were in Sud Caravelle twinjets, which United had configured in an all First Class configuration. The flights featured upgraded meal service (which did NOT include all you can eat steak, btw), and, yes, did offer cigars, and were men only. When it was discontinued, it was more due to the phase-out of the all first class Caravelles than anything else.

    As far as I can remember (and I’m old enough to remember), the only other attempt at a specialized all first class service on a U.S. Legacy carrier was in the early 1970’s when Eastern configured a couple of DC9-10’s in an all First Class configuration to operate LGA-STL, but they were not in the same league as United’s Caravelles, and the St. Louis market wouldn’t support an all First Class DC9 service when the competition (TWA) was flying 727’s and L1011’s on the same route, with greater frequency.

  26. 60614

    October 26, 2019 at 11:17 am

    SkybirdDEN — thank you for posting. That was a wonderful retelling of these events.

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