Saturday, 2 April 2016

Article Review: From Smiles to Miles: Delta Air Lines Flight Attendants and Southern Hospitality

Title: From Smiles to Miles: Delta Air Lines Flight Attendants and Southern Hospitality
Author: Drew Whitelegg
Citation: Southern Cultures, Volume 11, Number 4, Winter 2005, pp.7-27

As a recently transplanted southerner, I thought an article about the impact of regional expectations on an airline company would give me some more context for the people and the materials that I am working on.

From its inception Delta Airlines flight attendants were the brand. Although they were trained as, and expected to act as true Southern belles, their real lives represented a departure from the static and subservient existence of the prototype. In the early days, Delta's flight attendants were trained nurses to inspire confidence in the passengers, they also knew about local sports in order to carry on an intelligent conversation with the mostly male clientele. Other requirements from their small Southern town recruits, included being unmarried, not having children, and as nurses became scarce due to World War 2, at least 2 years of college. Delta billed the flight attendants as “Scarlett(s) in the Sky” alluding to Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara, they wanted the women to embody her behavior, appearance, and autonomy. 

Rather than choosing standard beauties, the company preferred women who were gracious, well-groomed, and well-mannered, positing that these attributes have translated as beauty in the South. The flight attendants were there to meet consumer’s expectations of Southern hospitality and treat passengers like guests in their homes. This was a strong contrast to Pan-Am, whose flight attendants were pretty and sophisticated and an even stronger contrast to hyper sexualized flight attendants commissioned by Braniff, National, and Southwest in the 1970s. For its role in the conflation of sex and flight attendants, Delta quietly embraced the matchmaking between their single female flight attendants and male bachelor passengers, as well as editions of their magazines that featured Delta beauties pictured in more revealing clothing than their conservative uniforms. 

Delta gave small town Southern white women an opportunity to make a living wage, see the world, and command increasing power in the workplace – for these reasons it was hard to get them to unionize. However as the workforce began to change as a result of new laws (anti-discrimination and integration), corporate mergers (PanAm), increased pressures of globalization, and 9/11; rifts began to arise between the original brand of Delta employees and the newcomers. These factors ultimately led to a loss of identity for Delta Airlines by 2001.The article ends with an admission that all good things must come to an end.

I wonder if the story of Delta could be a precursor to the consistent buzzing I hear about the coming of the New South?

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