Why I Was Compelled to Watch ‘Pan Am’

While I was pondering the angle to take on the new television show Pan Am, I came upon Patrick Smith’s article on Salon.com, “Why I’m not watching Pan Am”. The author (a pilot) offers (in jest, I assume) that he feels hurt that he was not invited to provide his expertise as a technical advisor, and “it’s a TV show, not a historical documentary, and I’d be liable to find myself sitting there grumbling at the screen, pointing out inaccuracies and taking the whole enterprise a little too seriously.”

In a way, the reason why I wanted to watch it was the same reason he refused to. To see if they would accurately portray the workplace culture of the 1960’s, which I have heard about and find very intriguing. In addition, with the recent Air Canada labour troubles on my mind, the show seemed a propos.

I have another interest in the air travel industry: my younger sister has been an Air Canada flight attendant since 1987, and to this day, I still am perplexed as to why a McGill graduate in Modern Languages with a teaching degree would want to be a flight attendant. But flight attendant she became, escaping the 9-to-5 trap and travelling all over the world.

Still, in the 1960’s, flight attendants in Canada had to be educated and bilingual. The criteria in 1987 were the same. So I guess she was well-suited for the job.

According to Wikipedia, Pan American World Airways, aka “Pan Am”, “was the principal and largest international air carrier in the United States from 1927 until its financial collapse on December 4, 1991.”

Well, according to many flight attendants (they were known as stewardesses in the Pan Am days), from what they heard of the workplace culture in the airline business of the 60’s, the first episode was accurate, somewhat.

The stewardesses had to be single, maintain physical standards of attractiveness that included regular weigh ins, girdles, make-up and even hair length. Their jobs included frequent layovers with the so-called handsome pilots of Pan Am. And if they married or became pregnant, they had to hand in their resignation.

They also had to retire or transfer to a ground job when they turned 32 or 35 years old.

Pilots and other airline employees were not subject to the above rules.

In addition, the show was able to describe the era, reasonably well, what with the Cold War, political unrest, civil rights and tolerated sexism.

However, that workplace culture failed Pan Am at some point, as flight attendants and airlines did battle over discriminatory policies in mid to late 1960s. I hope the show will be able to reflect that struggle.

Flight attendants’ union officials complained about these policies and tried to overturn them through official grievances and collective bargaining, unsuccessfully. However, the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was enacted to address racial discrimination, also covered employment and prohibited discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex. Thus, flight attendants’ union officials successfully used this Act to challenge the airline’s age and marriage rules in labour relations and in the courts, and eventually forced airlines to drop age and marriage restrictions entirely by the end of the 1960s. In the 1970s and beyond, they used this Act with less success to challenge maternity restrictions and strict weight monitoring. As we can see today, they eventually won.

Since this is my last blog post for a while, (I’m taking a month-long break), I am leaving you with two clips of my favourite 21st-century airline show: BBC’s Come Fly with Me, which is a comedy series set in a busy airport and on departing and arriving flights, featuring characters played by Matt Lucas and David Walliams. This show is far from being politically correct. So for those who are sensitive, don’t press play.

Flight attendant Penny hasn’t had to work in economy class for 20 years, but today, she has no choice.

Precious Little works at the coffee kiosk in the airport terminal. However…

See you in November!

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