Christina Ricci, left, stars in the 'Mad Men with wings' series Pan Am

A drama about 1960s air hostesses is set to be the sexiest thing on TV. The modern reality is considerably less glossy

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. But don't leap to the conclusion that that's what life in the air is like today, in the age of mass tourism and budget airlines. Modern cabin crews are more likely to be cleaning up vomit and fighting cuts to their terms and conditions than enjoying an exotic lifestyle.

The US drama, set in 1963, recalls an era when jet travel represented the height of luxury and the impeccably groomed Pan Am stewardesses were considered the world's most desirable women. 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 former British Airways purser: "It is definitely a champagne lifestyle – but on lemonade money."

Ms Jinks, who recently gave it all up 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 the airline. According to Civil Aviation Authority figures, BA flight attendants can expect £29,900 average salary, with easyJet and Flybe employees not far behind in pay. But Virgin Atlantic pay a measly £13,300 a year on average.

There is little glamour for stewards with Ryanair or easyJet, who instead are offered perks such as childcare vouchers in return for sacrificing a portion of their salaries, to save on tax.

Aspirants seeking an "exciting" cabin crew career with Michael O'Leary's budget airline must be spectacles-free (contact lenses are acceptable) and be of proportionate weight to a minimum height of 5ft 2in. Training costs are deducted from the salaries for those who are sold on the chance to "fly abroad on your days off. Rome for lunch!"

But the ultimate perk for Ryanair staff has to be the chance to appear, bikini-clad, in the airline's annual pin-up calendar – all for charity, of course.

The pre-feminism Pan Am girls were expected to endure with a coquettish smile the amorous advances of pilots and playboy passengers. Today such activities are defined as assault, and women, too, can be the perpetrators. Earlier this year, a female executive pleaded guilty to groping a male flight steward and demanding sex while drunk on a Virgin Atlantic flight.

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 said, 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.

The male star of Pan Am, womaniser Tom Vanderway, is a type that today's stewardesses will recognise. Now, as then, an overnight stopover 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. There are happily married pilots but some are bored. There is a lot of alcoholism."

Stopovers are an issue for the Unite union, which represents 24,000 cabin crew members. A spokeswoman emphasised the skills crew members need: "They aren't trolley dollies. They are taught how to diffuse arguments, to deal with children, drunks and administer CPR to ill passengers."

The union represented staff in the dispute with BA over terms and conditions as the company sought to restrict travel perks and reduce staff on long-haul flights. But Unite praised BA for employing older staff and dropping its "Willie Walsh cheapest crew business model", in favour of high-quality cabin service.

Yet 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."