The "Pan Am" television series premiered on ABC in late September. It is stylish and even evocative, but it leaves "Mad Men" with little to worry about. I suspect it may end its run before Singapore Airlines Flight 21, the world's longest commercial flight, leaves Newark and arrives in Singapore. So watch it while you can.
"Pan Am" is set in 1963. In the second episode, the crew gets to meet President Kennedy during his time in Berlin. It is all rather fluffy and far-fetched, but it does serve to remind us that Pan Am was a great cultural icon. It represented our country at a time when our other famous export was Elvis. Pan Am was landing all over the globe and, in a way, so was Elvis.
My favorite-ever Pan Am flight was a London-to-San Francisco hop. I was in the process of falling in love with a woman I had met in London, and we got to enjoy a lovely, even intimate, dinner on the 747's upper deck.
I was once asked if I would like to see "Pan Am's top-producing travel agency in the United States." A friend, who was a sales manager for the airline, walked me to a not particularly attractive section of San Francisco to show me a run-down agency staffed by a dozen Philippine agents. They were churning out airline tickets on what looked like the same assembly line used by Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz when they worked in the chocolate factory.
Of course, "Pan Am," complete with square-jawed pilots and blond stews lookin' for love in just a few of the right places, represents an era that pre-empts the notion of women as equals.
Travel + Leisure reporter Aimee Lee Ball wrote an interesting profile on where we have come as a nation of flyers and what we have come to expect in this age of lowered service expectations.
The piece had a great picture of Pacific Southwest Airlines stews getting off their plane in Miami after it had been hijacked to Cuba. Their miniskirts and "pettipants" must have caused the Cubans more than a little distress. It was all so shocking that the National Organization for Women organized a protest directed at the uniform.
Airlines were, it is important to remember, overtly sexist in those days. Braniff asked its customers in ads, "Does your wife know you're flying with us?"
Pacific Southwest actually promoted the benefits of an aisle seat to secure the very best views of their miniskirted stewardesses. Eastern Airlines was so happy to promote the image of attractive and available women in the cabin that it actually provided little black books to passengers to be used for jotting down flight attendants' phone numbers.
What is so fascinating about the imagery of this new TV series is that it took almost 20 years for a major turnaround in attitudes.
A careful look at the history of flight attendants in our country will reveal that they have had to battle in the courts for virtually every right they now enjoy. It was never easy. Nothing was ever given to them.
Think about it. In the halcyon days of Pan Am, flight attendants were told exactly how much they could weigh. They had to be at least 5-foot-2; weigh less than 130 pounds; submit to preflight weigh-ins; and, after meeting all those criteria during their stint as a stewardess, be ready to retire at the ripe old age of 32.
Even the star of "Pan Am," Christina Ricci, wouldn't have made the cut. A check of her official biography reveals that she is 5-foot-1, which is why you will always see her wearing heels in her scenes. Had she really been working for Pan Am in 1963, she would have to retire in a year. Ricci is 31.
So after organized boycotts, legal actions and a change in cultural values -- and 20 years after Pan Am in its heyday -- flight attendants gained the right to put on a few pounds. The current reality is a bit different. Today, the industry standard on height is that the flight attendant must be able to reach the overhead safety equipment The weight restrictions have been generally lifted in lieu of a rule that says that flight attendants must be able to secure their seatbelt in a jump seat without using a belt extender.
Flight attendants have fought for and won the right to let their hair grow gray. They can now get pregnant. They can be men. And, if wool itches, they can wear polyester.
And retirement is no longer mandatory at age 32. Today's flight attendants can continue to work as long as they can meet the necessary health minimums required to operate an aircraft's safety equipment and follow airline procedures.
Of course, other countries are at different points on the flight attendant liberation scale. China Southern Airlines, for example, has designed a reality-show approach to hiring. The job application process features an "American Idol"-inspired judges' panel, and those seeking to fly for the airline must compete for their position by serving the judges various drinks and lifting heavy suitcases.
At the other end of the scale is the world's most liberated airline. It is, I think, the one airline in the world that best represents the attitude of its paying customers. After you finish this piece, I encourage you to Google "Air New Zealand Naked Safety Demonstration."
And if you are lucky enough to be flying one of AZ's domestic 737s, you will likely look up from your iPad to actually watch the demonstration. Every crew member in the video is totally naked and wearing body paint to represent clothing. It's the Kiwi way to get your attention.
I don't know what Pam Am's last chairman, Tom Plaskett, would have thought of Air New Zealand's safety briefing, but I do recall his words following the financial collapse of Pan Am: "The state of our airline industry is a national embarrassment."
That was 1991. Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at email@example.com.