Does appearance still matter for women cabin crew? / BBC/ABC/Sony Pictures Television Inc

Travel View

The American drama Pan Am, which hit our TV screens last week, is surely this winter's guilty pleasure, with its glamourous tales of life in the skies in the 1960s, when girdles and personal weight limits were regulation.

True, flying was for the few then. Many more of us can now travel the world, not least because of the rise of no-frills flights. But who won't watch the show and wonder at the width of those aisles and the capacious leg room, when today's flying experience often involves sitting hugging our ears with our knees.

Pan Am's portrayal of the treatment of female cabin crew has been its biggest talking point. This was a time when women had to resign to get married, and sexual assaults were expected to be sorted out with a handshake.

Of course, such discrimination would be illegal these days. As a spokesperson for British Airways confirms: "A person's looks have no bearing at all on recruitment. We have set uniform standards policy. There are make-up guidelines, but you don't have to wear it. It's about being smart and respectable."

Yet, I was interested to hear from my sister-in-law, Mel, who used to work as cabin crew for a major airline, about how important "looks" still were when she was flying just 10 years ago.

"A good friend of mine was dying to fly but she knew she wouldn't make cabin crew because she was about a size 20," Mel told me. "Over the years since, she's lost all that weight. Now she's cabin crew, flying long haul."

And it wasn't glamour all the way either. Mel did get to see many top cities, but she often found herself twiddling her thumbs at airport hotels. And the rigours of frequent flying took their toll on her body. "I lost loads of weight. My appetite reduced significantly. Everyone said I looked ill." When she realised the irregular hours were leaving no room for her to build a personal life, it was time to quit.

Still, Mel doesn't regret her time as cabin crew. "I saw a friend the other day and she told me an airline was recruiting," she tells me, "and I thought, you know, I never got to do long haul ...." There's something very seductive about life in the skies, even in 2011.