Shortly after college graduation in the mid-60’s, I boarded, by chance, the first regularly scheduled 727 flight out of the Philadelphia airport. Allegheny Airlines was at that time still flying DC3’s between Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Reading. Twenty years later I again, by chance, took the last regularly scheduled 707 from Chicago to Melbourne, Australia via Los Angeles, Honolulu, Fiji and Sydney. In the ensuing 20 years I have flown on virtually all commercial airlines, save Aeroflot, to most of the world’s capitol cities and would not be guilty of exaggerating if I claimed first hand experience with the golden age, if not the entire age, of commercial jet travel.

Early on only a handful of affluent adventurers boarded planes. As the demand for relatively low cost air travel mushroomed, the equipment got larger and faster, and airport expansion, computerized bookings and a global economy made the world’s most exotic tourist attractions available to the masses, and helped create today’s multi-national corporations.

Airlines convey a nationalistic fervor, with British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France, American Airlines and JAL competing with intensity just a little short of open war.

Growing up in the 50’s before Playboy, Victoria’s Secret, cable television, R-rated films, adult videos and the internet, the most glamorous and sought after fantasy for most men, young and old, was any relationship, real or imaginary, with an airline stewardess. In the infancy of the airline industry, these were the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, the sexiest and most exciting women on earth, whose job was to provide a level of service only surpassed by world-class restaurants, and to do it with a radiant smile and a gracious sense of humor even with the odd fanny-pincher, who still existed in the pre-sexual harassment period. There was genuine joy in anticipating the views of well endowed young women sashaying up and down the smoke-filled aisles, to serve drinks and dinner and a cordial to accompany a fine after dinner cigar.

I vividly recall in the mid-70’s boarding a Singapore Airlines flight (still perhaps the world’s best airline) and being served chilled Russian Vodka, caviar and Satay sticks by Asian princesses in Pierre Balmain originals who were capable of communicating in at least four languages, and who insisted on carving the standing rib at your seat. These flights generally occurred at the end of a long trip and it was difficult as a young man to avoid becoming sexually aroused.

Also at this time, Johnathon Winters, one of the world’s great comedians, was at the top of his game and while he bounced in and out of mental institutions, when sane was generally regarded as the funniest man alive. His signature routine was “Maudie Frickert, the World’s Oldest Airline Stewardess.” Even today it’s hard to keep from laughing out loud when remembering the corpulent Winters, white curly wig and hair net, print dress, nylons and heels, berating the flying public as the chronically irritable and nearly deaf Frickert. At the time it was doubly funny as the real stewardess was the antithesis of the ponderous Maudie.

Winters, however, was obviously prescient sensing that the demands of being a glorified airborne waitress would ultimately drive out all but the meanest, least attractive and hardest to employ.

Not even Winters, however, could have envisioned the abysmal quality of the average flight attendant/steward (stewardess is no longer a socially acceptable job description), be it the entry level flight attendant on a regional carrier or a long service attendant working upfront on a major international airline. In fact, many of the highest paid long service attendants make Maudie Frickert look like an Olympic athlete.

Admittedly competition has forced most airlines to dramatically curtail or eliminate food service on all but the very longest flights and has forced more passengers into smaller spaces in order to maximize capacity on each flight. It is hard to arouse a passenger crammed into a seat too small for his legs by throwing him a bag of stale pretzel mix and a diet Coke in a plastic cup with one ice cube in lieu of breakfast, lunch or dinner. The only relief is to stand in line to use restrooms already poorly used by many before you.

Flying business class from Chicago to Buenos Aires last week, we were greeted by a flight crew that couldn’t have been very far from assisted living. In fact, as we backed away from the gate the middle-aged steward, obviously gay and proud of it, welcomed us aboard and almost immediately asked for medical assistance as he collapsed with an apparent heart attack. The elderly and obese flight attendant in first class nearly passed out from the shock, and similarly required space in the aisle to lie down. Two of the more spritely but equally old and mis-shaped ladies from our section moved forward, staggering under the weight of the emergency oxygen canisters in an effort to assist a passenger doctor pressed into service to aide the fallen crew.

The pilot explained we would be returning to the gate where an ambulance and medivac team would help his two very sick comrades who would be replaced with fresh crew. The steward in our section, also obviously gay and proud of it, seemed a bit miffed that he was not moved forward to replace his stricken comrade and was openly irritated when a replacement steward, obviously gay and proud of it, joined the team. I’ve observed that virtually all stewards are gay and on average vastly more efficient and courteous than their elderly and often mis-shapen female cohorts. Perhaps the lure of low cost foreign travel accounts for this. It is hard to believe the airlines are any more enlightened in their hiring practices but the men are younger, more attractive and for the most part a whole lot nicer.

In the past, it was assumed that even if a less than glamorous stewardess was hired, her personality would offset her appearance. While bankruptcy has recently forced United Airlines into a somewhat more consumer-friendly posture in an effort to survive, in general there are no meaner spirited, more hostile, public servants as a group than flight attendants. They clearly don’t like being on planes, despise the traveling public and bitterly resent having to wake up long enough to serve peanuts and soft drinks. Nothing seems to thrill a flight crew more, particularly on a short flight, than turbulence severe enough to suspend flight service, eliminating the only real required work.

At the moment it is hard to imagine living long enough to once again board a plane staffed by highly motivated young men and women capable of rekindling the excitement of a 60’s era stewardess. Perhaps the Bush administration’s disdain for the middle-class, where the only real job creation is in the Wal-Mart minimum wage sector, will ultimately make these jobs more attractive and once again lure ladies to lust over. Until then, the Maudie Frickerts reign supreme.