As a woman who used to love high heels but, thanks to a dodgy back and a bout with the joint-attacking virus chikungunya, can no longer wear them, a snippet in the Business Section of the Houston Chronicle with the headline “Flight attendants protest high-heel policy at El Al” caught my eye. These ladies of the sky object to being told to wear “presentable shoes” during boarding, which is apparently the standard aviation practice worldwide. I went to the Jerusalem Post for more information and learnt that once passengers are aboard, the attendants are at liberty to change into flats.
The whole shebang, or should that be ‘shoebang’, got me thinking about flight attendants in general, and that sent me in search of my British Overseas Airways Corporation Junior Jet Club Log Book. My first flight was taken on the 29th June, 1958 on a Stratocruiser from London to Rome, then on to Kano in Nigeria, a total of 3,084 statute miles which took 13 hours and 50 minutes. I was 29 days old, so can be forgiven for not remembering what footwear the air hostesses wore. However I do vividly remember many subsequent flights, and by the time I was ten I had flown 56,765 statute miles for a total of 134.35 hours. Not a lot by today’s standards but in 1968 it was; bearing in mind my inaugural flight was only six years after BOAC launched their first commercial air travel by jet on the 2nd May, 1952. 36 passengers flew from London to Johannesburg with stops at Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe, and Livingstone. The flight took just under 24 hours with the de Havilland Comet cutting flying time almost in half, and I would bet my bottom dollar the air hostesses wore heels all the way.
So yes, I remember when flying was gracious; when air hostesses were creatures of glamour and allure, polite and friendly; when every young girl’s dream was to become one of those intelligent, fluent, well-travelled women. When passengers were welcomed onto the plane with a pleasant smile and an offer to help, when heels were worn, hair was tied back, and a glass of water, or wine, was not seen an an infringement on their time.
In 1972 Singapore Airlines came into being. With an island nation to maneuver into a world destination, Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew decreed Singapore Airlines would be the face of Singapore, but warned the fledgling airline, “we should have no compunction in closing a service down.” It was Ian Batey, of Batey Inc., who came up with Singapore Girl, the iconic image of style, serenity and service. They kept their uniform of sarong kebaya, though updated by Pierre Balmain, from their Malaysian-Singapore Airline days. And the air hostesses signed on to the rigid standards, still in force today, set by the airline. Mr Lee went on to say, “The future of Singapore Airlines depends more on the reality Singapore International Airlines leaves behind on their passengers than on their advertisements.” It is no surprise they are the world’s most awarded airline. Singapore Airlines flight attendants are expected to wear heels to greet their passengers, but for take-offs and landings must wear safety shoes or covered sandals, they may then change their footwear again, to flat batik slippers.
El Al is probably the world’s most secure airline. No one is going to mess with them, and if flat heels means flight attendants are ready to spring into action in defense of their passengers, akin to crouching tiger, hidden dragon mode, well, that’s good I guess. However from the article it would appear their complaint is to do with their own health and safety.
Perhaps El Al should get in touch with Dolly Singh, the entrepreneur who claims she has, along with a British orthopaedic surgeon, a rocket scientist, an astronaut and a fashion technologist, come up with a formula to make high heels comfortable. The shoe is designed to distribute the wearer’s weight from heel to toe, and are made from high-tech plastics and polymers, with aerospace-grade foams to reduce impact by up to 50%. A limited edition of 1,500 shoes, each signed by a guest fashion designer, will be on sale for £610 ($965), with shoes for the likes of you and me, ranging from £200 ($316) to £600 ($950).
But, whatever flight attendants wear on their feet, give me service with a smile any day. It at least makes the unpleasantness of flying nowadays, squashed into rows of seats rubbing thighs with strangers, slightly more bearable. Singapore Airlines brands itself around the crew, not the aircraft. They have been accused of portraying women as subservient, but we need to understand to serve is to provide a service, which is not the same as being subservient or submissive.
I stopped counting my flying miles at the ripe old age of fifteen, when I deemed it very uncool to have my flight log signed. I was up to 142,618 statue miles. I wonder what they are now. Perhaps I should try tracing my flights across the world over the last forty odd years. Oh, never mind. I must order my new high heels!