Virgin’s relaxation of its policy on tattooed employees marks a significant shift in an industry that has long had strict criteria on who is fit to be cabin crew and what they should look like.
In the beginning, flight attendants were often the sons of businessmen who had funded the airlines.
The first was Heinrich Kubis, who in March 1912 handled passengers on DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft) LZ 10 Schwaben zeppelin flights from Berlin to Freidrichshafen. He had previously worked as a waiter at the Hotel Ritz Paris and the Carlton Hotel in London.
It took another 18 years before the first woman was named. Ellen Church, 25, a registered nurse and qualified pilot, wanted to fly commercial planes, but women were banned. She petitioned Boeing Air Transport urging them to hire nurses as flight attendants to help convince passengers the flight was safe. Its first flight took off on May 15, 1930.
Other airlines soon followed suit. It was one of the few jobs open to women at the time. More than 2,000 of them applied for the 43 positions offered by Transcontinental and Western Airlines in December 1935.
An article in the New York Times in 1936 said that women were selected based on their physical characteristics.
“Girls who qualify for hostesses have to be short; weight from 100 to 118 pounds; height 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches; age 20 to 26 years old. Add to that the rigorous physical examination that everyone must undergo four times a year, and you are assured of the flowering that accompanies perfect health.
The demands persisted. A 1966 advertisement for Eastern Airlines flight attendants listed these requirements: “A high school graduate, single (widowed and divorced without children considered), 20 years of age (19½ year old girls may apply for future consideration). 5’2″ but no more than 5’9”, weight 105 to 135 in proportion to height and have at least 20/40 vision without glasses.
Even today, many airlines impose physical requirements. The UK government’s National Careers Service says: “There are rules about height and weight – these vary from airline to airline. As a general rule, most are looking for people between 5ft 2in (157cm) and 6ft 2in (188cm) with weight commensurate with height.
Earlier this year, Spanish airline Iberia told women working for the airline who had challenged the rules that they could wear trainers in the air, but still had to wear high heels in airports and on of boarding.
In the United States, United Airlines recently relaxed its rules allowing all genders to wear “natural-looking” nail polish and makeup. Additionally, male-identified cabin crew can now have long hair, and all are allowed to wear visible tattoos as long as they are no larger than the employee’s work badge.
In 2015, a survey found that a fifth of all UK adults were tattooed, with 30% of 25-39 year olds having at least one tattoo. In 2016, a US poll found that 29% of people had a tattoo, up from 21% four years earlier. Forty-seven percent of millennials — people born between 1982 and 2004 — said they have one.