Doors to manual, but new series avoids reality of cabin crew life


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Settle back with a cocktail and meet the chisel-jawed pilots and glamorous trolley-dollies ready to fly the skies with Pan Am, the glossy new series which starts on BBC2 tonight.

The US-made drama, set in 1963, recalls an era when jet travel represented the height of luxury and the impeccably-groomed Pan Am stewardesses, strutting through arrivals, were considered the most desirable women in the world. The "Mad Men with wings" series stars Christina Ricci as an ambitious stewardess who secretly studies Marx and Hegel. Pan Am may have it half right, says Sarah Jinks, a stewardess with a number of charter airlines who became a purser with BA: "It is most definitely a champagne lifestyle – but on lemonade money." Ms Jinks, who recently gave up her cabin crew post to become a police community support officer, said: "For the first few weeks when you're tottering on your heels you feel special.

"But when you're on the Friday night Ibiza flight and someone is throwing up over you and someone else is smacking your backside, you know that the glamour stops."

Cabin crew pay varies by airline. According to Civil Aviation Authority figures, British Airways flight attendants can expect a healthy £29,900 a year average salary, with easyJet and Flybe employees not far behind in the pay scale. But Virgin Atlantic pay just £13,300 a year on average. Ryanair and easyJet offer perks such as childcare vouchers, in return for sacrificing a portion of their salaries, to save on tax.

Those seeking an "exciting" career with Ryanair must be spectacles-free and be of proportionate weight to a minimum height of 5ft 2in. Training costs are deducted from the salaries for those sold on the chance to "fly abroad on your days off. Rome for lunch!" That being said, cabin staff are now more likely to have qualifications in languages, teaching or nursing, but that still isn't the first requirement at interview.

Clare Stevens, who flew long-haul for a Middle East-based airline, said: "I was told, 'Stand up, turn around', and I ticked the box. You weren't allowed to be married because they didn't want girls with families.

"You had to remain the same weight when you joined, so there was panic before each weigh-in. They didn't want to pay for new uniforms if it no longer fitted." During one flight, Ms Stevens claims, a Lebanese lawyer got drunk, stripped to his underwear and began groping members of the cabin crew. He eventually had to be placed in restraints. She recalled: "The Captain wanted to press charges. But the lawyer was connected to some Sheikh so nothing came of it."

The male star of Pan Am, self-assured womaniser Tom Vanderway, is a type that today's stewardesses will recognise. Now, as then, an overnight stop-over is often used as an excuse for a boozy party. Ms Jinks said: "At first you are a little starstruck by the pilots. When the captain knocks on the purser's doors at an overnight stop, everyone is expected to go down to the bar. I've seen captains take their wedding rings off in the bar, but you think, 'I wasn't born yesterday. I saw you wearing it on the flight.'"

Even though the romance of the Pan Am heyday is gone, most cabin crew say they wouldn't swap the experience. "I thought I'd do it for six months but it turned out to be five years," said Ms Stevens. "I was 24, it allowed me to go to lots of brilliant places I'd never have gone to."