Farewell, my fragrant hostess

As Lisa Leeson takes to the air, Jim White mourns the loss of glamour among her colleagues
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Lisa Leeson's first day at work made it to News at Ten on Wednesday night. There she was posing in front of her new workstation, smiling gamely. She is, Trevor McDonald told us, to be an air hostess, employed by Virgin Airways, a company which presumably gave her the job out of a sense of humanity and without a thought to the publicity generated by employing the wife of the biggest swindler since Robert Maxwell. Even in the 30 seconds of news-space devoted to the stunt, however, it was made clear that Mrs Leeson had taken the job because it entitled her to free flights to Singapore, where she can visit her imprisoned husband regularly. The implication was that there had to be an ulterior motive: no one would want to be an air hostess these days without good reason.

No wonder. Who, for instance, wants to spend all their working lives handing out free copies of the Daily Telegraph, asking russet-faced executives if they require any beverage at all, sir, and spending a stop-over night in the Forte Crest, Manchester Airport, with an all-inclusive breakfast buffet of tinned button mushrooms? All this while pressed into a uniform apparently designed solely to keep the man-made fibre industry in business. Well, nobody, really, unless their old man is banged up overseas and it is the only chance they get to see him and talk about offshore bank accounts.

How things have changed. In the Sixties, next to dating George Best, working as an air hostess was the most glamorous employment open to a young woman (though generally the two were not mutually exclusive). Back then air hostesses looked like Princess Grace and smelt like Mary Archer. They always had, ever since the job description was first forged by United Airlines in the Thirties, when they kitted out their hostesses in nurses' uniform. An appropriate touch, that: the two professions share a propensity for waking you up at some unnatural hour against your will to administer food you don't need.

In truth the job was a drudge then, wheeling a trolley up and down the aisles, giving out sick bags to wobbly first-time flyers, mopping up when they missed. But back then your friends and neighbours didn't know that you were a sort of in-flight Mrs Mop, a tea-lady, a trolley-dolly, because so very few people ever flew. The very act of being in an aircraft endowed cabin staff with the glamour of differentness.

Moreover, back then the perks were worth having. The mechanics of flight meant that everything took longer. A flight to Australia would last about 48 hours, with three stop-overs. At each one the staff would swap, which gave the hostess a chance to be in Cairo, in a top hotel, at the company's expense for three or four days at a time; and this was at a time before gay men had colonised the cabin, so there was always a chance of romantic action. And the free flights that staff were given had a much greater monetary value: in 1960, a ticket to Nairobi cost over pounds 2,000 in today's money; in 1996, a bucket shop can supply you with a return for less than pounds 400. The consequence was airlines could pick and choose their staff, and use their workers' loveliness as a sales tool.

They still can in the Far East, where anti-discrimination laws are less than rigorous, and air travel still carries sufficient pull to attract the young and beautiful. But no more in the West: it is competition that has finally killed off the glamour of the hostess. In America, the epicentre of flight, the cut-price war among airlines leaves no room for frills like service, no time to say "Hi, I'm Mandy, Fly Me". On Crash-Air USA ("nobody does it cheaper") the hostess collects the tickets, hands out the fruit juice (no coffee, it might spill, scald and thus land the airline with a massive legal suit) and then cleans the plane after landing. And the only people who seem prepared to put up with such conditions are those whose lack of sense of humour is only matched by the lack of vodka in the bloody Marys they supply. Why they don't even have the chance to do any of that synchronised arm-waving to show off the safety procedure anymore: it is all done by video.

Maybe Lisa Leeson, Virgin's own Singapore Girl, will lead a single-handed revival in the art of hostessing. Remember Lisa, next time you check whether a club-class drunk is in the upright position, do it like Liz Hurley. Not Mavis Riley.