Back in the old days, it was "coffee, tea or me." Flight attendants were stewardesses. They wore sometimes stylish and sometimes just plain bizarre suits or dresses. They were all young and thin and single and definitely not pregnant. That's what male travelers (and most of the travelers were male) preferred.
And that was the argument the airlines made when they got sued for discrimination. They claimed that being young and thin and female was "job related," a business "necessity" even, and they produced all kinds of studies showing that passengers really did feel more comfortable with stewardesses they could flirt with.
The reason the airlines ultimately lost, the reason you see flight attendants who are old and male and feel no need to flirt, is because the courts ruled that making passengers feel comfortable is not the primary job of a flight attendant.
And, by the way, it's also not making sure you get a good dinner or a stiff drink the minute you sit down.
Flight attendants are there for safety. They are trained for the moment no one ever wants to experience, the moment passengers on Asiana Airlines experienced last week at San Francisco International Airport, the moment when safety is all that matters.
In the days since, there has been much talk about the actions of the "flight crew" — including the revelation that the pilot was "training" on the flight.
But there has been nothing but praise for the flight attendants — in the case of Asiana, high heels and pencil skirts and all — who carried people off of the plane, dealt with a chute that had wrongly inflated inside the plane and, in short, did what they were trained to do: save lives, not make drinks.
I fly a lot and have for many years. And over the years, I've seen life get harder and harder for the women, and now the men, too, who "serve" the passengers. They have more of us to deal with and fewer goodies to give us; we are tired and overbooked and cranky. The food is terrible, and there isn't enough of it (to quote Woody Allen), and you have to pay for it, to boot. It takes forever to get a drink. There's no blanket. There's no outlet. The Wi-Fi doesn't work. The seat won't go back. There's a line for the bathroom.
When I was a kid, I thought airports were incredibly glamorous places. I thought flying was exciting. I would get all dressed up to "travel." It would never occur to me to complain.
These days, it occurs to me all the time. Traveling brings out the worst in many of us. I'm guilty, too. Ask my kids.
It shouldn't take a tragedy like the Asiana crash to remind us that airplanes are not hotels and restaurants that happen to have wings, and flight attendants are not traveling waiters and waitresses or front desk clerks at the hotel in the sky.
When lives are on the line, their job is to put us first. That's what the flight attendants on the Asiana flight did, and that's what that overworked man or woman greeting you at the front of the plane or serving you your soda will do if, God forbid, they need to. They will put your life first. Their instincts, honed by training, will be to save you. They are ready to do it every time they get on a plane, and for that every one of us who travels for work or play owes them a debt of gratitude.
So if you happen to be on a plane this week, maybe it's a good time to sit back and thank the flight attendant — not for the orange juice or the pillow, but for being ready.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.