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The origins of Aesthetic and Emotional labour in the role of Cabin Crew leading to the present day and how it still shapes the job role

The origins of Aesthetic and Emotional labour in the role of Cabin Crew leading to the present day and how it still shapes the job role
Author: Ashleigh Herbert
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The following conference paper will consider Aesthetic and Emotional labour within the role of Cabin Crew. A literature review and interview with a former flight attendant have been conducted to offer an understanding of where these concepts begun and how they have developed since the early days of commercial air travel through to the present day.

Keywords: Aesthetic Labour, Emotional Labour, Flight stewardess, Cabin Crew, Golden Era, Competitive advantage

The term Aesthetic Labour is based on the idea that employers are increasingly looking for employees to look and sound a certain way to be successful in certain job roles, specifically in the service industry where customer interaction is vital. For example, employers looking for personnel to fit into uniforms as envisioned by management. Emotional Labour is a term describing the way employees interact with their customers through body language, for example, by smiling and managing feelings of disapproval in unpleasant situations. Both terms have appeared in journals and books relating to the airline industry.

Aesthetic and Emotional Labour dates to the early days of commercial air travel in the 1930’s when Ellen Church became the first female flight attendant who was also a registered nurse, the motivation behind this being the expected care and concern nurses would hold for passengers new to air travel but also as a business decision by airlines, hoping to offer assurance to potential customers. This conference paper considers various journals and articles in the literature review, most of which refer to the earlier days where Aesthetics of flight attendants were a priority for airlines, cabin crew were required to be around 20 years of age, height between 5.2 and 5.9 and weight between 105-135 pounds, they were also required to be single until many years later when the marriage ban was abolished (The Travel Academy, 2015). Airlines hiring young and single woman added to the glamorous and sexual perception many had about flight attendants, heightened through airline advertisements. For example, National Airlines ‘Fly me’ ad. Advertisements would often suggest a smiling, caring and attractive woman which Baum (2012) proposed added to the general attitude of airlines ‘use them until their smiles wear out and then get another bunch’.

Moving forward to the 1970’s and onwards when the airline industry faced many changes including deregulation, this attitude continued. Airlines were faced with a new business environment and looking for new ways to gain competitive advantage, which was to be founded through image. Academics have suggested that flight attendants were considered as symbols of the organisation, adding value and differentiation to the business (Witz et al, 2003).

Much has changed in the present day, therefore an interview with a former flight attendant for the well-known airline, British Airways was conducted to offer an up to date analysis on if and how the concept of Aesthetic and Emotional labour is still present in the role of cabin crew. The interviewee suggested through various comments that Aesthetic and Emotional labour is still occurring within the role. For example, the pressure to look a certain way was discussed with reference to the way the uniforms fitted and the way the interviewee would feel walking through the airport and seeing Cabin Crew from other airlines, which led to stresses surrounding her weight. There was also reference to a time when the interviewee received managers feedback on how nice her lipstick looked whilst she was on shift, demonstrating the significance of Aesthetics to the airline. When discussing emotional labour, the interviewee communicated how difficult it could be to have to smile and not show how tired she was feeling to the customers, even in instances when she was dealing with unpleasant customers, the interviewee stated that cabin crew were often reminded how much customers paid for their flights therefore they were required to always go the extra mile for their customers. The interviewee spoke of how she went through 6 weeks of training with British Airways, 2 of which were spent on emergency training, whilst the other 4 weeks on customer service, indicative of the importance of emotional labour within the role. Furthermore, she revealed how the pressures on male flight attendants were just as dominant.

It was established when writing this paper that there was a gap in academic’s literature around the current role of cabin crew and how aesthetic and emotional labour influences the job title in the present day, however from the interview conducted it is evidently still a concern, yet presented in a subtler way, likely due to being less socially accepted. For example, the term professional is often used in job descriptions for cabin crew, however Hochschild (2012) suggests that the term professional with regards to cabin crew describes someone who has completely accepted the rules of standardization. Therefore, it is suggested that further research is conducted, including how aesthetic labour fits into the role of male flight attendants in the modern day.


Baum, T. (2012) Working the skies: Changing representations of gendered work in the airline industry, 1930 – 2011. Tourism Management, 33(5) 1185-1195 [Accessed 06 May 2018].

Hochschild, A. (2012) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkley: University of California Press.

Witz, A., Warhurst, C. and Nickson, D. (2003) The Labour of Aesthetics and the Aesthetics of Organization. Organization, 10(1) 33-54 [Accessed 06 May 2018].