When the first commercial flight took off in 1914, in-flight service was minimal — the focus was on getting from point A to point B without so much as a packet of peanuts thrown in. But over the past century, the concept has shifted dramatically. Here's how the role of flight attendants and the services provided during the in-flight experience have evolved from helping passengers fly safely to becoming a constant source of innovation.
The first-ever flight attendant (then called "courier") was Heinrich Kubis, who began working in 1912 aboard the German passenger zeppelin LZ 10 Schwaben. Kubis was actually aboard the Hindenburg when disaster struck, and he helped passengers off the burning zeppelin before escaping himself.
The first female flight attendant was registered nurse and pilot Ellen Church, who, in 1930, led a crew on a 20-hour flight from the Bay Area to Chicago. This flight required 13 stops, and the Boeing 80A only had a maximum cruising speed of 125 MPH. Onboard amenities were far and few between during these early days of air travel — entertainment options consisted mostly of counting the many takeoffs and landings.
Even in the earliest years of commercial aviation, airlines were experimenting with advancing the concept of in-flight service. On one of the first passenger planes in 1919, luxury seating consisted of a row of wicker chairs — hardly a comfortable way to travel, but creative nonetheless. That same year, the first in-flight meal was served: a pre-packed lunchbox for passengers on a flight from London to Paris. In-flight entertainment began around this time, as well. The first in-flight movie, Howdy Chicago, was shown in 1921 on a small plane that flew around the titular city.
By the 1930s, onboard kitchens were being installed on airplanes, allowing flight attendants to serve passengers hot food and a variety of beverages. Commercial flights were expanding their routes at this time, which required further advances in in-flight seating and comfort. Onboard sleeper berths arrived in 1934, first utilized on a biplane that took 24 hours to fly cross-country. Today, first-class passengers flying Emirates are treated to amenities like in-flight showers, private suites, and fully reclining beds — things that passengers of the past could scarcely have imagined.
The airlines reached a gilded age of glamour in the 1950s. In this "golden era" of flight, stewardesses were expected to pamper their high-paying guests and look good doing it. Flying had become an event and passengers paid a premium to be treated exceptionally, with table service, linens, and silverware used for onboard meals. If it sounds like a luxury from a bygone era, there's still four-star dining to be had in the skies. Emirates' in-flight food service models itself after this time: Those in first class may enjoy offerings like wild Iranian caviar, smoked tangerine chicken, and a bevy of complementary cocktails. Even economy feels like a gourmand's dream, with dishes including lamb brochette and sticky date pudding.
By the time the 60s rolled around, it was clear that flight attendants were expected to please their passengers beyond providing meals. Their uniform design was focused more on fashion than function — some even wore paper dresses for a short time. Flight attendants also had to weigh in before flights and meet a plethora of grooming standards while vowing to remain unmarried through their tenure. All of these restrictions were lifted by the 90s, when airlines, pilots, and passengers began to realize the value flight attendants were capable of providing.
Today, pilots are no longer permitted to leave the cockpit during the flight, giving flight attendants the responsibility of keeping the peace in the cabin. They're also trained to lead in all sorts of emergencies, medical and otherwise. But it's not all work and no play: Emirates flight attendants, for example, are multilingual, which allows them to interact with passengers from all over the world. They also get to help kids have a smooth ride thanks to Emirates' Young Flyers program, which offers giveaways, stuffed animals to squeeze during takeoff, and food for every age and preference, in case you've got a 5-year-old vegetarian on your hands.
Commercial aviation has gone through an amazing evolution over the past 100 years. Developments in technology, gender equality, and customer expectations have brought about huge changes for in-flight services and the role of the flight attendant. Emirates continues to be a leader and innovator in this world, proving that an airline can get it right by focusing on the details.
Jonah Flicker is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY covering food, drink, music, film, and lifestyle.