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Flight Attendants

Why Are American Long-Haul Flight Attendants so Old?

Why Are American Long-Haul Flight Attendants so Old?
Brenda Bertram

The title might be crude, but if you’ve flown on an American carrier, it’s a thought that’s likely crossed your mind. The Flight Attendants on American airlines appear to be, on average, a bit older than those throughout the rest of the world. The CEO of Qatar Airways certainly seems to agree, boasting in 2017 that the average age of his cabin crew was only 27, compared to American ‘grandmother’ flight attendants. For obvious reasons, this didn’t go down well.

Does he have a point, though? American Airlines does boast the world’s most senior flight attendant still in service (a mere 83 years old) and Delta forcibly retired a 90-year-old flight attendant in 2014, against his will. I want to be clear – I don’t think these two cases are representative of the average flight attendant working in America. But there do seem to be a few of them. Bob Akana was 83 when he retired from United Airlines, and Iris Peterson had clocked 61 years before her retirement from the same airline.

Before we start to figure out why American flight attendants might be older, let’s figure out if they are, on average, actually older.

So, Just How Old Are These American Flight Attendants?

American flight attendants are, on average, 46 years old. This has, understandably, crept up over the years. The golden age of aviation saw flight attendants hired at a very young age, and they were retired by around the age of 35. This applied to females only, though. Males could keep on flying until their sixties.

Around 80% of flight attendants working in North America in the 1980s were under 35. However, by 2007, this demographic had changed considerably, with only around 20% of flight attendants being under 35. It seems many of those surveyed in the 1980s were still hanging around, with 22% of all North American flight attendants being 55 or older.

How Does This Compare?

Like most countries of Europe and the Western world, there is no maximum hiring age for flight attendants or a published age of retirement for North American flight attendants. It is expected that, while staff can carry out their duties safely, they are able to keep working. While I might question how the aforementioned 90 year old was able to carry out his duties in the case of an emergency, there is no question that flight attendants well into their 40s, 50s, and 60s are able to operate swiftly and safely.

While many Western countries have legislated to prevent ageist hiring practices and discrimination, a few countries around the world have a different view on flight attendant hiring practices. Cabin Crew Excellence claims a maximum hiring age of 30 for Oman Air, 28 for Air Arabia and around 34 for Saudi Arabian. Staff can, of course, continue flying beyond this age – but this is the cut off to be considered for initial employment.

While there is limited information on a maximum hiring age, Asian airlines offer a lot longer period of work, with the retirement age at Cathay Pacific apparently set at 60, though Hong Kong Airlines, Cathay Dragon and Hong Kong Express have a retirement age of 45. Flight attendants at All Nippon Airways and Philippine Airlines can work until they are 65, 60 at Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airways, and 62 at Singapore Airlines.

Emirates does not publically state its maximum age at recruitment, which is estimated to be around 30. Having lived in Emirates company housing with some 400 of their flight attendants for a few years, I can assure you that the girls I met were, on average, pretty young.

What Has Led to so Many Older American Flight Attendants?

Like so many things in life, there isn’t a single answer.

Changes to civil rights laws in North America during the 1960s started to change the hiring practices of airlines, moving away from them preferentially hiring young women. They could no longer discriminate on the basis of age, sex, or race. They also had to throw their ‘no marriage’ and ‘no baby’ rules out the window, and allow women to reenter the workforce following these life events.

The deregulation of the airline industry during the seventies also led to a hiring freeze, and when airlines finally looked for new staff, they had a range of experienced hires they could choose from.

Lastly, we all know that aviation changed significantly after September 11, 2001, with a huge number of mergers and bankruptcies. In the tradition of last on, first off, many younger flight attendants lacking seniority were the first to go.

Why Do They Stick Around?

Firstly, it’s apparently one of the more reasonable paying jobs not requiring a college degree.

That’s even when you take into consideration that, after adjusting for inflation, wages dropped by around 26% percent between 1980 and 2007 in America. If you haven’t got a degree, though, and you want to change careers in your 40s or 50s, your options are probably limited. Hospitality, retail, and other service industries generally pay less than a flight attendant gig, so despite your disapproval, you’re likely to keep showing up to work. Even pay disparities resulting from ongoing mergers and low morale don’t seem to drive the aging workforce to retire.

Maybe it’s the potential to have a lot of spare time (and preferential routes) once seniority is attained, plus the extended holidays and cheap travel, that will keep those boomers hanging on as long as possible.

What Is the Impact of Flying For All Those Years?

In a 1985 study, it was determined that after seven years, flying staff – male or female, pilot or cabin crew – found measurable hearing loss. Add to this the pressures of experiencing the flow of time in distortions and accelerations, and the once ‘short term occupation’ of flying becomes extremely problematic over the longer term.

Compared to a control population, flight attendants had a higher prevalence of female reproductive cancers, cancers at all sites, and sleep disorders, fatigue, and depression, but the jury is out on whether long term exposure to cabin air causes contributes to major health issues.

Given that health care needs escalate with age, and the average American flight attendant is older than the average American worker, flight attendants will probably have a significant impact on health care costs to the airline industry.

Where Does Safety Come into This?

To be fair, the purpose of a flight attendant is to effectively operate and oversee safety procedures or duties. In 99% of flights, there will be no need to do anything that would overly tax a flight attendant’s abilities, though this doesn’t diminish the hard work they do in keeping passengers happy. However, it seems they’re no longer even supposed to lift bags – they’re there ‘primarily for your safety’, but mainly for comfort.

It’s also worth mentioning that in many other Western countries, you will see older flight attendants. While hiring practices and seniority seem to favor a mixture of ages – more so than in America, anyway – airlines like Qantas, Lufthansa, KLM, British Airways and Air New Zealand all have older staff within their flight attendant ranks.

However, it does beg the question – what happens if there is an emergency? At what age is there the potential for flight attendants to become more of a hindrance than anything else – to forgot a procedure, or to move too slowly?

Let’s not forget the amazing skills exhibited by flight attendants under pressure. Although the following linked article ironically states times that flight attendants have gone beyond the call of duty, they are there to respond in an emergency situation. Some may argue that many years of flying will lead to a well rounded, responsive airline professional.

I won’t weigh in on that argument, but I’d love to know your thoughts.

 

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View Comments (31)

31 Comments

  1. Dr.Ells

    November 14, 2019 at 9:15 pm

    We FlyerTalk readers are offended by (at least) 2 of this “author’s” statements.

    If you haven’t got a degree, though, and you want to change careers in your 40s or 50s, your options are probably limited.”

    That is NOT true. NOBODY’s options are limited except by failing to dream them — and when such dreams and ideas are mocked by authors such as above.

    Maybe it’s the potential to have a lot of spare time (and preferential If you haven’t got a degree, though, and you want to change careers in your 40s or 50s, your options are probably limited. Hospitality, retail, and other service industries generally pay less than a flight attendant gig, so despite your disapproval, you’re likely to keep showing up to work. Even pay disparities resulting from ongoing mergers and low morale don’t seem to drive the aging workforce to retire.

    “Maybe it’s the potential to have a lot of spare time (and preferential routes) once seniority is attained, plus the extended holidays and cheap travel, that will keep those boomers hanging on as long as possible. routes) once seniority is attained, plus the extended holidays and cheap travel, that will keep those boomers hanging on as long as possible.”

    The “author” is RUDE and ageist.

  2. psusaver

    November 15, 2019 at 4:53 am

    This is an unnecessary article. If they do their assigned duties fine, then how does average age matter.

  3. Global321

    November 15, 2019 at 5:30 am

    Rather than have a retirement age, shouldn’t there be retesting for all FA’s on safety measures? If a 60/70/80/90-year-old FA can handle emergencies – whatever lifting/opening/etc required – they should keep their job. If a FA of any age cannot, they should be let go. Age should not factor into it. Retest all FA’s every x years to ensure they can handle the job.

  4. lorenberg

    November 15, 2019 at 5:58 am

    As one that hired and managed literally thousands of people over the years, I can attest to the fact that there are some people that are old at 45 and others that are young at 60. That said, it makes little sense to limit folks or to assume that all are fine to work to some arbitrary age. Much better to let people’s differences work for you and not make life more difficult by putting all in boxes.

  5. marjiep

    November 15, 2019 at 6:29 am

    Let me preface this with… I am OLD. AND I question the ability of an overweight FA who blocks the entire aisle, the ability of an older FA, and yes… those old people that sit in the emergency exit seats, to assist in the case of an emergency. IS there a refresher, a continuing education, a test of mental and physical ability to assist ? Does this happen yearly??? Do they go through a physical each year that says they are ABLE TO DO THEIR JOBS? SAFETY was my main issue as I read the headline. I have also written to the airlines about those who sit in the emergency exit seats and are clearly incapable (bent over with cane, hearing aids, older than me and I’m 77). I was told that as long as the persons said they were capable, there was nothing the airline could/would do..

  6. DeltaFlyer123

    November 15, 2019 at 6:49 am

    One thing not mentioned in this overly lengthy article is that the average age of people in Europe and USA/Canada is higher than in the Middle East. And aviation has been around a lot longer in these countries, so people are older. I am sure the same is true for other professions.
    Flight attendants in the countries mentioned in the article are considered like geisha girls, to please their customers rather than perform the mundane tasks of taking care of safety and serving meals. That’s because air travel here is just a necessary part of life, not a form of entertainment.

  7. pokecheckted

    November 15, 2019 at 8:08 am

    “Compared to a control population, flight attendants had a higher prevalence of female reproductive cancers, cancers at all sites, and sleep disorders, fatigue, and depression, but the jury is out on whether long term exposure to cabin air causes contributes to major health issues.”

    A dear friend of mine lost his Delta FA wife at the shockingly young age of 46 to cancer. She had been flying since she was 23. She even continued to fly after her diagnosis.

    Statistically insignificant sample size maybe, but very eye opening to me.

  8. DCAFly

    November 15, 2019 at 10:38 am

    The 90 year old Delta FA is probably more capable of doing their job professionally than the author of this article. What a shame there is no such thing as journalistic malpractice.

  9. edgewood49

    November 15, 2019 at 11:19 am

    I agree with Dr.Ells there seems to be a steady decline in the quality of content especially with the new “expert bloggers”. And as DrE’s preamble begins we are insulted by this “work”. Disclaimer I too am old a beat up old fighter pilot from Vietnam and years running a construction company. However last physical at the VA my reflects and vitals are spot on, the reason I said this all those “OLD” FA’s that the author refers to have to maintain a certain level of physical level maybe not to the flight surgeon’s never the less. I have seen many younger FA’s that frankly I would question their ability the advantage of us “oldies’ is a certain level of maturity ” been there seen that” Give me experience any day of the week.

    Hoping this is published.

  10. glob99

    November 15, 2019 at 11:38 am

    The FAs with seniority get first dibs for routes.

  11. machias

    November 15, 2019 at 2:20 pm

    This is an incredibly rude article written for the sole purpose of notoriety and clickbait. Shame on the “author”.

  12. atm6170

    November 15, 2019 at 10:33 pm

    What an incredibly offensive article. Why does no one say this about CEOs or lawyers or politicians? For your information in the 50s and 60s flight attendants did not retire at 35, they were FORCED to retire. Flight attendants have been at the forefront of the wars on age and sex discrimination, We really don’t need the strides they made to be destroyed by silly, pointless articles like this.

    It’s a seniority based industry so longevity carries privileges. It’s also possible that people stay because our pensions have all been wiped out. We might also enjoy the job.

    And I assure you, far more dangerous than the age of the flight attendants, is passengers inattention and failure to heed basic safety procedures. You’re going to be injured because someone stopped to get their bag during an evacuation, not because the over 50 flight attendant couldn’t get you out of the plane.

  13. Jim1978

    November 16, 2019 at 6:09 am

    As someone drawing ss I can say if a pilot has to retire at a certain age so must a FA, make them both the same. Pilots fly the plane but it’s the FA who run the show.

  14. edgewood49

    November 16, 2019 at 6:47 am

    X2 to machias

  15. skidooman

    November 16, 2019 at 7:15 pm

    The reason why Qatar can boast a much younger crew? Simple: labor laws let them do it. So they hire young women, preferably pretty, and it then becomes a selling point. Or at least it does with some. Is anyone surprised?

    Another example: Indigo in India is claiming to advance the cause of women, yet in their hiring notice (conveniently posted in the on board catalog) they previously stated looking for young, thin ladies of “fair complexion”. Pretty sure this was rude to many.

    Now, what about the ACTUAL level of service? In my experience, age has nothing to do with good or bad service. I received both excellent and horrible service from both categories. And these ladies (because yes, most of them are ladies) aren’t there to flirt or to be pretty, so this passenger appreciates service and it doesn’t matter the age (or sex) of the person providing it.

    I did notice that the service in the US tends to be lower than other places, but it has nothing to do with age and more to do with corporate culture. CA has young staff, but I cannot say their service is better than UA’s. On the other hand, NH has older FAs yet they score high in service. I got good experiences from Europe as well.

  16. Irpworks

    November 16, 2019 at 8:43 pm

    Says much about some readers that they are offended by simply asking questions and being shown data on a routine issue. What is “rude” is asserting the author as having malicious intent without evidence of such.

  17. NYC96

    November 17, 2019 at 1:14 pm

    the author forgot to mention that this industry bascially went bankrupt after 9-11. And, because of that, Pensions were terminated. Health benefits in retirement gone. Those two issues alone have many flight attendants working past 65 years of age. They all are re-qualified in their jobs at training every year per the FAA. Opening doors, performing emergency procedures and handling medical emergencies. Most cant get social security until 67 without penalties. Most stay simply because of its lifestyle. THEY ENJOY IT.

  18. Zeeb

    November 18, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    This is sure a long article to say all these words and not even mention that long haul flights are more desirable and people with more seniority, which often means FAs who are older than average, get first pick of which routes to work.

  19. euromannn

    November 20, 2019 at 5:59 pm

    US based airlines have regressed in young stewardesses under age 35. Decline has Led to many older and overweight primarily stewardesses. I have only seen 3 total male stewards who were over weight in 20+ years of traveling

    Primarily Asian airlines are more focused on attractiveness of attendants but I never see this in US on major carriers

  20. o2bmmw

    November 20, 2019 at 6:53 pm

    In my most recent flights, I received wonderful service by the “mature” flight attendants in business class to and from Europe on American. On the other hand, we experienced dreadful service from the “young” FA’s in Polaris on United last year. When asked about the wines on offer (after much fanfare about their wine flights) the response was “red or white.” And then they disappeared after meal service.

    So, as many of the commenters have said here, age is completely irrelevant.

  21. kabroui

    November 20, 2019 at 9:10 pm

    I used to like Flyertalk. Articles like this are making me like it a lot less.

  22. MikeFly

    November 21, 2019 at 3:50 am

    I tend to agree with the thought that there should not necessarily be a set retirement age but rather based on qualification. If I did not have confidence in the airplane and pilots on my flight last week from HKG to LAX, I might have chosen not to fly based on what I now know about the FA’s working in F. The two FA’s were very senior. One FA, was completely forgetful, he couldn’t remember to put the phone back in the cradle, didn’t realize we were starting our take off roll and barely caught himself as we accelerated down the runway, I really thought he wasn’t going to be able to get to his seat. He was not able to buckle himself in by the time we had wheels up. Service was bad too – he forgot what courses were part of the meal service, was not sure of what was on the menu, and it goes without saying that after the first meal service was nowhere to be found. The other FA, was very frail. Things were constantly dropped in the galley and it was painful watching her try to move the carts around. In fact I offered to help. There is no way that in case of an emergency that they could handle their duties, in my opinion. Hard to imagine that they could clear a blocked aisle, assist someone who is injured to an exit, could not lift a plug type emergency exit door, etc. Yes, I was disappointed in the service provided, but this flight was the first time in a long time that I actually thought about my safety in case of an emergency. This is the only example where I had a concern about my safety, most flights are not remarkable and of course a couple have been stellar. Bottom line, I don’t care if the FA is young or old, I just want them to professionally handle both aspects of their job – safety and service.

  23. PurdueFlyer

    November 21, 2019 at 10:52 am

    another also-ran “article” on a blog that’s becoming more and more irrelevant every day.

  24. CalFlyer

    November 21, 2019 at 10:56 am

    Very “American” reactions by most commentators here. Of course I like to see attractive young flight attendants much more than the grandmas I met on many United long haul flights. And it is not only for the more appealing visuals. It is also because I have experience so much more attitude in elderly FAs than in young ones. I don’t need anyone to scold me with their looks when I order my third glass of champagne. When I think about which airline to book, the overall experience matters. So Asian and ME carriers prevail.

  25. EpsilonZer0

    November 21, 2019 at 12:58 pm

    My worst experience flying was on AA NRT-ORD route and those old crones were witches. Had the nerve to ask me why I wanted water. Water. “Why?” Was the only time I have ever written a complaint letter and they didn’t even bother to respond. I even wrote the name of that witch to make sure she was reprimanded. Never flew AA again. I will take the young and inexperienced over that any day.

  26. DeanoYYZ

    November 22, 2019 at 5:53 am

    The use of Sybil Peacock Harmon’s image (now deceased) is an insult to both her memory and her family.

    Out of respect to Sybil’s family, this image should be deleted and not associated with this clickbait tabloid style inflammatory ‘article’.

    Sybil was one of Delta Airline’s first flight attendants, flying from 1940 until 1943 aboard the DC-3 before she left during World War II in 1943 to assist the war effort. She was a nursing school graduate before joining Delta, which was a requirement for flight attendants at that time. She married Army captain Wallace Harmon and their daughter Peggy was a Delta flight attendant for 35 years. Delta hosted her 102nd birthday party at her retirement home.

    Sybil died at the age of 103.

    The author should be ashamed. I am not surprised Brenda Bircham (Bertram?) hides behind sunglasses in her byline photo.

  27. AS Flyer

    November 22, 2019 at 1:50 pm

    This article is offensive and sexist. I expected more from Flyer Talk. Why, I have no idea as some of the articles posted here are ridiculous. This one takes the cake.

  28. edgewood49

    November 23, 2019 at 2:59 pm

    is this a bit long in the tooth, no pun intended Let’s move on to something relevant

  29. ElSemm

    November 24, 2019 at 5:07 am

    You may or may not like the article but I have to agree with CalFlyer and EpsilonZer0. In six recent long haul AA flights the cabin crew have been advanced in age (like myself) and have zero idea of service standards. The only reason I’ve flown with them is to avoid the ‘old’ Club World seat being UK EC Silver. I cannot fathom why AA allows this level of shocking service to continue.

  30. 757FO

    November 26, 2019 at 4:52 am

    I hope she ends up on one of my flights, I’ll have her removed just on principal. What a poorly written and thought-out article.

  31. jn in ca

    November 26, 2019 at 10:32 am

    If anyone ever needs any proof that the US airlines have service as bad as the commenters are claiming, the comment above mine is that proof.

    A 757 FO gloating about having passengers thrown off to fulfill some twisted sense of principle. (not principal) What an offensive sense of entitlement.

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