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August 10, 2020

The Glory Days of Air India: 18 Vintage Photos of Indian Air Hostesses From the 1970s and 1980s

Some people called them “glorified ayahs,” while they were patronizingly referred to in Hindi as hawayi sundaris. Yet, in the 1970s and 1980s, Indian air hostesses were also envied as glamorous, elite women who looked like film stars, jet-setted across the world, and enjoyed exotic holidays that few others could afford.

In September 1986, when 23-year-old Neerja Bhanot died trying to save passengers of the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73 from the bullets of hijackers, Indians saw—perhaps for the first time—that an air hostess could also be a hero.

Being an air hostess in the 1980s was, in many ways, vastly different from being a flight attendant today. It was an era of fewer airlines, more luxury, and greater glamour. Despite the alarming number of aircraft attacks and hijackings taking place through the 1970s and ’80s, it was an age far less obsessed with security than the post-9/11 world.

“When I started out, we were trained to focus on service, not safety and security,” said Elfin Fernand, a Mumbai resident who joined Air India as an air hostess in 1974 at the age of 21. “We had to know our wines and cheese and how to look after the passenger’s comfort. Today’s flight attendants have to be constantly alert, so even while talking to a passenger their eyes dart all over the place.”

Fernand’s career took off at a time when the perception of air hostesses had rapidly begun to change in India. Earlier, the women almost always came from Anglo-Indian, Catholic, or Parsi families. In the rest of Indian society, flying, serving passengers, and working with men was not looked upon as a respectable profession for a young woman.

“Many of the Hindu girls who came for air hostess interviews in the 1960s and early ’70s either had to fight with their parents or lie to them,” said Mahrukh Chikliwala, a veteran Air India flight attendant who flew from 1969 to 2009, and retired as a trainer for younger staff. “But many people also envied our work, because it didn’t need a lot of educational qualifications but paid very well.”

By the time women like Bhanot,joined the field, young girls across India were dreaming of a life as an air hostess. One of them was Suneeta Sodhi-Kanga, who wanted to be an air hostess since she was six and was actively encouraged by her family.

“I was always fascinated with the glamour of flying—the elegance and charm of the well-groomed hostesses, their confidence, and the prospect of traveling the world,” said Kanga, who worked with Air India from 1988 to 1996. In 1989, after Kanga won the Miss World Airline pageant held in Paris, she became the face of Air India at various cultural and publicity events.

Air India was founded by J. R. D. Tata as Tata Airlines in 1932; Tata himself flew its first single-engine de Havilland Puss Moth, carrying air mail from Karachi to Bombay's Juhu aerodrome and later continuing to Madras (currently Chennai). After World War II, it became a public limited company and was renamed as Air India. On 21 February 1960, it took delivery of its first Boeing 707 named Gauri Shankar and became the first Asian airline to induct a jet aircraft in its fleet. In 2000–01, attempts were made to privatise Air India and from 2006 onwards, it suffered losses after its merger with Indian Airlines.



















(via Quartz)




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