When did travel become so… unsexy? Aviation experts and flight attendants spill the tea

By Fleurine Tideman

Published May 31, 2024 at 12:33 PM

Reading time: 6 minutes

You’re in your best outfit, sipping a cocktail as a pilot winks at you in passing. The loudspeaker announces that your flight will soon be boarding, so you take your suitcase and head to the gate, knowing that you’ll have your hand luggage stowed away soon, another drink and a snack in hand, and endless options for in-flight entertainment.

However, this simply isn’t the case anymore, as we’ve passed the ‘golden era of travel’ and landed in whatever fresh hell this is. Anyone who has taken a Ryanair flight at 5 am and had someone recline their seat all the way back into their face will be able to attest that the glamour of travel is well and truly extinct.

A friend of mine recently shared how she struggled to explain this to her grandmother. “In her final years, she told us she wanted to fly to London again. It wasn’t about visiting London but rather the flight there, as she remembered it to be this luxurious experience, something special only a few get to experience. I didn’t want to tell her that even if we got her on the nicest British Airways flight that wouldn’t be the case anymore,” 26-year-old Sophie told me.

In an attempt to properly articulate this phenomenon, SCREENSHOT spoke to aviation experts, flight attendants, and travel influencers, and we’re all in agreement: travel is no longer the sexy and luxurious experience it used to be.

Are cheap flights to blame?

These days, you can get a flight for as cheap as £10 now. However, it might not be going anywhere you’re actually interested in going to. While, at times, any other place feels better than the one you are currently in, these cheap flights come with plenty of hidden costs, and I don’t just mean £20 for hand luggage or a soggy £7 croissant.

I spoke to Anthony Radchenko, the Founder & CEO of AirAdvisor, a claims management company that fights for air passenger rights. Radchenko told me: “Travel has become less luxurious because more and more people are travelling these days. The glamour in the travel industry was based on limited access to this formerly exquisite and high-end service on offer. However, with the advent of social media, exposure to such offerings has increased substantially. As a result, demand has shot up, and the percentage of people wanting to access such services is higher than ever.”

Many of us accept this as simply the way it is now. We don’t want our flight to Barcelona to cost as much as our Eras Tour ticket, so we put up with shrinking seats, overpriced snacks and wearing half our luggage under our jackets. However, Radchenko believes we shouldn’t: “Cheaper flights come at the cost of compromised customer service, which is bad. It costs absolutely nothing to treat the passenger right but airlines have the excuse that they’re offering cheap tickets, so they’ll do the bare minimum. There’s an increased focus on volume and less on providing quality flying experiences.”.

Rebecca Crowe, the face behind the website Wandering and Wine, believes lowered prices have caused us to travel too much. “I think travel has become a lot more accessible which is why the no-frills airlines have gotten bolder and bolder. An annual holiday feels like a right to a lot of us now rather than a special thing you save up for. Whether that’s a cheap break to Europe or a bucket list trip, we all tend to go away a lot more often. It’s now more about the quantity of experience rather than quality,” Crowe explained.

The content writer believes we should move towards the more traditional annual holiday to combat this. Should we travel less? Sustainability speaking, we definitely should. Or we should look at taking trains or other more eco-friendly forms of transport. But while Boomers are quick to blame us for taking too many trips, I don’t think we should be as hard on ourselves, and some of the experts agreed.

Gavin Lapidus, Company Director at travel consultancy company eShores, said: “The beauty of travel is discovering new places. I think that’s reflected in people choosing to take more holidays a year over spending their money on one luxurious one.” Maybe the loss of luxury is a conscious sacrifice to see more and do more.

The realities of being a flight attendant

From Pan Am to the pits, the reality of being a flight attendant has changed greatly in recent decades. Firstly, there’s the fact that we now refer to them as ‘flight attendants’ rather than ‘air hostesses’ or ‘trolly dollies’ (a delightfully sexist term I learned about in interviews). Flight attendants used to be the ultimate sex symbol and it’s still frequently pitched as the dream job. But does the reality match the stories we’ve been told? I spoke to several flight attendants to find out. All of whom understandably wished to remain anonymous.

My first interview subject, who I will refer to as C, has been a flight attendant for two years now, originally seeing it as a great way to earn money and travel more. The travel perks are what she expected, but not the job itself. “It’s less glamorous than I thought it would be. It’s a lot of physical labour and cleaning up after people. You’re always on show as the face of the company, so you [need to] hold yourself to a high standard without getting the treatment to match it,” C explained.

I had imagined C to be pouring a dirty martini and winking at a sexy Daniel Craig type in a business suit, but she clarified that this wasn’t the case. “It’s mainly grunt work. People hold out their trash, like snotty tissues, without even looking at you. They definitely don’t thank you. People often grab your attention by snapping their fingers.”

“One guy called me a stupid fucking whore. He was so aggressive, and we were worried he would attack one of us or another passenger. It’s not the only time someone has sworn at me,” C told me during our interview.

@leyshaa

It’s true when they say it’s a lifestyle. You either love it or hate it. #flightattendant #flightattendantlifestyle #flightattendantlife #traveltok #worktok

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@flaviabenko

As the industry picks back up BE KIND #FLYING #cabincrew #CREWLIFE #reality #fyp #viral #dreamjob #exhausted #bekind #flightattendant #heathrow #crew #travel

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Why do people seem to lack the basic manners they possess in daily life as soon as they step on board a plane? Is it the lack of gravity, flight anxiety, or the fact that their flight might have been cheaper than a Nandos meal for two? C explained that she feels it is the anonymity of it; she never sees the same face again.

My other interviewee, M, who works for a different airline, mentioned the poor treatment she receives from the company itself. “You belong to the company. You’re just a number to them. You live in fear of a complaint from a customer, as no one will defend you.”

So, not only have passengers lost their etiquette when it comes to staff on cheap flights but the parent companies definitely have as well. M also mentioned that the company monitors their weight, and if they ever gain weight, they have to speak to a nutritionist. They can get smaller uniforms, but never larger ones—yep, you heard that right. Despite the era of Pan Am being behind us, it’s clear that flight attendants are still treated like walking runway models, just on a very different kind of runway.

How do we make travelling sexy again?

Just to be clear, when I say ‘let’s make travelling sexy’, I’m not talking about the mile-high club. I’m all for a sexy holiday adventure, but the only things touching me on a RyanAir flight are my sleep mask and AirPods. Instead, I want to know how we bring the luxury and excitement back into travel.

Well, first of all, we could opt for the scenic route with some train travel. Flights are proving to let us down, so maybe we need to Murder on the Orient Express-it, only without the death part. For this, I chatted with Iain Griffin, the CEO and co-founder of Seatfrog, a train travel app. Griffin explained that the issue is that flights still tend to be cheaper than train journeys for the same distance, an insane thought when you consider it.

“We need the train travel experience to outweigh the plane experience so that we’re not just getting people from A to B, but we’re taking away travel anxiety and adding joy to the journey too,” Griffin shared.

For train travel to thrive and win over air travel, trains need the same level of competition. You could make an endless drinking game out of naming all the aviation companies, but you’d be pretty sober if you tried the same for train companies. “When you just drive down the price, you are less likely to innovate and improve the actual experience,” Griffin explained. “The problem is that airlines and train lines are trapped in the pursuit of shareholder value, not customers. Airlines and train companies operate off tiny margins. So there’s no room for error—which means many don’t have any money or inclination to innovate and instead become fixed on data, not experience,” the CEO continued.

Self-service aspects of travel could otherwise improve our experience flying or checking into accommodation, but it would also remove the personal touch of it. This may reduce costs, but given the power of the tax-free aviation industry, I wouldn’t count on it.

When it comes down to it, perhaps the de-sexification of the travel industry is indeed a necessary compromise on the part of the consumer, but it feels like we’re the only ones compromising here. For the travel industry, it’s less about compromising and more profiting over lowered expectations, including with their own staff.

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