Perspective: Come Fly With She

After decades, the young and cheery flight attendant still dominates the ads for air travel

Back in 1971, National Airlines ran a TV spot that featured its young and attractive flight attendants chirping a tagline destined for infamy. “I’m Maggie—fly me,” said one pearly toothed maiden. The “girls,” as Time reported, were also required to wear “Fly me” buttons on their uniforms. When some of the nervier ones complained that “Fly me” was little more than an artful way of saying “Screw me,” National executives shrugged their shoulders: “The stewardesses,” said National’s PR director Robert Mattel, “[have] become an extension of the airline.”

Mattel—who denied all charges of misogyny—was speaking for his industry and, judging from the ads on these pages, he still could be. Flying is dull. All there is to do is stare at the clouds. Of course, pert young things—flight attendants or otherwise—are always considered a draw by marketers, which is why their centrality in advertising works, whether it’s applied to a 1969 ad for United or a 2010 one for Cathay Pacific. Sexist? Of course. Effective? Uh-huh.

But there’s more at work in these two ads than a bunch of toothy grins, according to Bob Herbst, the founder of and a retired pilot. (Herbst flew 767s for TWA back in what he calls “the coffee, tea or me days.”) These ads, he says, are the “then” and “now” of airline-industry deregulation.

During the ’60s and ’70s, the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board set the routes and fares for all American carriers, creating a protected environment that limited competition and guaranteed profits. “Since one carrier couldn’t undercut another’s fare,” says Herbst, “they competed on customer service—’We have better food, we have prettier flight attendants,’” etc. Note how United’s “Friendly skies” included a chef in the ad here.

The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act ended that era. It also left domestic carriers with but one way to market themselves: ticket cost. “Our industry has become a low-fare, mass-transit system,” Herbst says. For today’s airline marketers, “price is the only game left to play.”

Meanwhile, foreign fleets began swooping in. And because carriers like Cathay Pacific hail from countries where “gender equality” isn’t in the dictionary, the marketing department can commoditize attendants as much as it wants—like the ad opposite does.

Meet Grace Hui. She likes to help people before they even ask. At least she’s not wearing a “Fly me” button.