A long time ago, when the Hula-Hoop was young and suits ruled the Earth, the fantasy job for girls was stewardess.
There were myths and legends about stewardess life, many of them abetted by airline advertising campaigns: perfect hair, great travel and a handsome frequent flier at the end of the rainbow. Really the end, because on some airlines you couldn't stew after 32 or after "I do." Of course, no one talked about the low pay, long hours and high turnover rate.
The world has changed in a hundred ways since that beauty queen-cum-geisha fantasy, since Continental's slogan was "We really move our tails for you." They're flight attendants now, of both sexes, and most people seem to understand that they are safety, crowd control and passenger service employees, not ersatz dates.
And yet there remain vestiges of the old ways. Flight attendants still have weight limits on many airlines. If you are fat, you get fired. Sue Liebling of Seattle is 44, stands 5 feet 4, weighs 144 pounds and wears a size 10 dress. Each year she has to complete an emergency training course, keeping current on all those crash contingencies we passengers don't like to consider at 30,000 feet. But if she doesn't get back down to 135 on schedule, 24 years of experience at United Airlines is down the drain.
Barbara O'Brien of Eugene, Ore., just got suspended without pay, even though she recently dropped 28 pounds, baby weight from her second pregnancy. When she flew to San Francisco last week to work a United overseas flight, she was still 12 pounds over her maximum of 133. They fired her.
This small cul-de-sac of institutional stupidity reflects a larger problem with consumer services in America: They are behind the learning curve of consumers. This is how Detroit continued to turn out big pig cars for some time after gasoline had gone on the gold standard, and how manufacturers of women's apparel took it into their heads to bring back hobble skirts at a time when women are on the move.
If airlines talked to their customers about their concerns, I suspect the size of the flight attendants would be far less important than the size of the seats, which are puny to the point of invasion of privacy.
And some other things:
* For many of us, the most attractive kind of flight attendant is one who can get you on that inflated slide and out of the airplane fast if it's on fire.
* The figures an airline should be weighing more carefully are these: on-time departure, on-time arrival, number of flights canceled because the equipment conked out.
* If the airlines are really concerned about calorie consumption and flying, they should do something about the food.
The official United explanation for weight limits has to do with "professional appearance." In other words, svelte equals professional. So much for telling girls not to put their fingers down their throat to bring up lunch.
But those who work within the flight attendants' unions think the restrictions have an uglier purpose, that they combine a yen for the "Fly me" era with the more contemporary corporate yearning to junk older, more experienced workers for younger, less costly ones. Recently one flight attendants' union filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging that the United policy "perpetuates a sex-based stereotype that female flight attendants must be slim-bodied, attractive women, rather than competent employees."
Times have changed since Sky Girls first signed on in the 1930s, trained nurses whose work rules included: "Keep an eye on passengers when they go to the lavatory. Be sure they do not go through the exit."
More than a few frequent fliers are women on business trips, and it sure is nice to meet older flight attendants, pregnant flight attendants, male flight attendants, attendants who look more like us than like Barbie. Above all, attendants who can deliver the goods in an emergency. That's all I ask for. Pound for pound, it's competence, training and experience that count.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.