Wistfully watching the ads for Pan Am, one can’t help but wonder, who are those beautiful girls, garbed in blue and bandied about in the ads for ABC’s Pan Am, airing Sunday, September 25?
Turns out, two of my best friends once flew for Pan Am, the glamour airline. When I met them in the mid-70s (yes, we all were a bit younger then), they were a cut above: a few pounds slimmer, make up a bit more perfect, hair exquisitely coifed, even amidst New York City’s infamous humidity. Poised, smart, sophisticated— is it any wonder that no matter where we went, men hovered over them?
Shannon Nolan (nee Logan) was one of them, and 30 plus years later, she still has it. Whenever she flies, she’s the first to admit that the experience now is a different ballgame.
She grew up in Lakeville, FL, earned a fashion merchandising degree from a local college, and had the choice to start at the bottom as a buyer for a NYC department store or to fly. It was a no brainer, and an even easier decision was which airline to choose, since they all pursued her. Pan Am had the glamour and prestige, and the opportunity to live a luxury life, all expenses paid. Although the salary was low, the perks were great— meeting glamorous people, flying to exotic places and working a mere 15 days a month. What’s not to like?
“On one trip, we spent 5 days in Tahiti waiting for our plane, and when it arrived, empty, we flew back to NY—just the crew,” she remembers. “Pan Am was all about perception—people believed it was the best, so it became the best”, she recalls. “Pan Am bought the best food for the flights—specialty cheeses from Nice, meats from up-scale chaucuteries—and all was individually served on a tray for each passenger.” In today’s budget-conscious, no-frills flying, where a purchased package of pretzels is de rigueur, it’s hard to imagine that once the stewardesses (as they then were known) were gracious, smiling and kind while they catered to your every whim.
Shannon once spent two months in Tehran (before the Shah’s overthrow) with stints in Jeddah and Mecca. “Muslims would charter a Pan Am flight to transport them for the Hadj. I saw parts of the world I’d never even dreamed of seeing,” and met fascinating people, to boot. One, the very Lawrence Rockefeller, told her how to save money on a taxi by standing a block away from Pan Am’s Intercontinental Hotel. The rich are different, aren’t they?
Back then, planes were not equipped with television or Internet access. Passengers either read or slept. On long hauls, the rich and famous were only too eager to engage in conversation with a pretty stewardess. “I actually had a conversation with Arthur Burns, the head of the Federal Reserve. Pretty heady stuff for me,” Shannon remembers.
Getting hired wasn’t easy. The year she joined, “there were 300,000 applicants, and I was one of 300 chosen. Everyone had to speak a foreign language, and fortunately for me, my high-school French was enough to pass the test.” Pan Am also appealed to girls whose foreign heritage and accents may have gotten them snubbed in high school, but now were in high demand. Comeuppance in any language sounds sweet.
The stewardesses received discounts at Vidal Sassoon and Kenneth in New York, the tony salon made famous by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. They worked at staying in shape, a requirement strictly enforced then. “We were proud of our image, and we all worked hard to preserve it.” They also had some special benefits. “We had access to great tennis clubs, and I went to Wimbledon every year,” she recalls. “Wherever we were, we were invited to the best clubs and parties. Rolex gave us discounts so we would wear their watches on flights.”
I personally had another connection to Pan Am—the company was a significant client when I had my own financial services company. Once, the president of the company, grateful for my portfolio advice, orchestrated an upgrade for me to first class on a flight to Paris. Unfortunately, while I was there, he was recruited to another company, so I found myself back in coach on the return. It definitely was not the same.
Flying then versus now is like a time warp. But, there is a good explanation. When planes were small, holding just 143 passengers, Pan Am had a captive audience. However, in 1970, with the introduction of the 747 airplane, Pan Am soon began to struggle to fill the plane that could carry more than double that. At the same time, the economy began to slow, so fewer people found themselves flying. Cost cutting was inevitable, and Pan Am never fully recovered. No frills airlines were launched, and competition increased for foreign gates. In the airline industry, if you can’t get gates, you can’t fly.
How else is flying now different? As any one of us knows, there is little legroom. And the food – there is none to speak of, and what there is, the passenger must pay for. Pan Am also hired the best pilots, many who had flown in Viet Nam. Now, few pilots have military experience. Domestic airlines are still feeling their way into serving the international market, whereas back then, Pan Am had a lock. If you flew beyond our shores, Pan Am was the only way to fly (pun intended).
Susan, another flight attendant who flew for American Airlines, recalls that the Pan Am stewardesses “definitely were a cut above. They also were a bit snobby—they all had college degrees, were gone for five or six days at a time, and enjoyed two to three day layovers. Pan Am treated them very well, even picking up their expenses for dry cleaning and laundry. They had one-month’s vacation, when the rest of the world had but two weeks. Their worst day had to be better than flying the LaGuardia-to-Detroit route in the dead of winter, or laying over in Syracuse!”
Millie Norton Sellers, a stewardess with American Airlines, was hired right out of college in the late 1960s (photo below). She felt a certain camaraderie with her Pan Am counterparts, often comparing notes on restaurants while they were checking out and she was checking in to the same hotels. Millie attended American Airlines’ “Stewardess College,” the first of its kind in the business; she was one of 50 stewardesses in her class, recruited from over 50,000 applicants. Her employment contract required her to retire at age 32. Stewardesses at AA also had to maintain a proper weight for their height and were measured and weighed every two to three months. All this for a salary of $315 per month.
Florence Brown, who flew with Pan Am from 1967-1984, told of being smack in the center of current events: flying Viet Nam troops for R&R, flying out of Beirut the day before it was engulfed in war and being in India and Pakistan when the two countries were embattled. “I was a small-town girl who got to see the whole world,” she remarked. “The people were fabulous, I made great friendships— the crew was like family. I got to celebrate my 25th birthday twice—once in Tokyo, then, when we crossed the international date line, again in Alaska. We all had special bonds of friendship. It was the most incredible job you would ever want to have!”
Joan Koehler Santini took a different path to Pan Am. Originally hired by American Airlines, she got lucky when Pan Am was under the gun to hire more U.S. stewardesses (previously, they recruited mostly internationally because of the language requirements). A pretty, petite blond, Joan promptly was hired, but only after promising to learn French. Both she and Pan Am let it slide once she was on board. On one flight, she talked to Princess Grace, but in English, not in French. “There was nothing like putting on that beautiful blue uniform, heading to the airport and flying to Germany, Beirut, Thailand, and India and then flying back home. I loved it.” Although not quite enough to keep her flying—she quit to get married, since the only stewardesses then were single.
Did the stewardesses and pilots become “more than friends?” Carefully trained to respond diplomatically in any situation, another former Pan Am stewardess responded delicately: “Whatever happened, it was discrete. There were long layovers, meaning the captive crew was sort of on holiday, staying in wonderful places, at the best hotels, all expenses paid. Sure, things happened. But, most of the stewardesses were looking for wealthy husbands, so pilots weren’t necessarily the best prospects. The Swedish girls, in particular, had their sights set on meeting doctors, or other men with serious money and social status. The pilots were fun, but these girls were looking for bigger fish.”
What does she miss the most? “It was a club feeling—we worked sometimes a month with the same group of people, so we developed close friendships. Wherever we went in the world, someone in our group knew the area. We even went to Paris for the Hermes sale every year in February. That doesn’t really happen now.”
She still stays in touch with former Pan Am stewardesses through the World Wings Club. She makes the effort to attend its annual convention to maintain ties with the friends she has from that glamorous time.
What one experience does she cherish? “I once saw a complete rainbow flying over the Pacific Ocean. We had taken a group from Jakarta, stopped in Karachi for fuel, and then flew on to Jeddah. We had 10 days off, so we stayed in Borneo. Heading home to Los Angeles, the rainbow welcomed me. I’ll probably never have that same experience again.”
Pan Am is scheduled to air on ABC on September 25.