Now Reading: Working the Skies, by Drew Whitelegg

It was interesting to juxtapose a book about the ideals of a profession (See: Now Reading: A Fortunate Man) with one about a profession in transition. “Working the Skies” is about the world of the flight attendant, and in contrast to “Femininity in Flight,” is more about the contemporary world of flight attendants, told from their perspective.

That story is one about a job that was created as a temporary assignment and then grew up to be a profession in an industry that has both high emotional significance to society, and that struggles every day.

The concept of flight attendant “professional” wasn’t created intentionally, it just happened. If anything, forces existed that kept it from becoming one, such as mandatory retirement policies based on age, marital status, pregnancy, and physical attributes. The book talks about what happened when many of the policies were lifted, and it was possible to pursue a 20-30 year career as a flight attendant.

On the one hand, there are still indirect pressures on women in this career as they age. On the other hand, there is a powerful (yet, the author points out, eroding) seniority system that encourages flight attendants to continue their craft, to gain more control over their time, and, the author asserts, “space.” This includes the creation of space between a person’s daily life and their service life and between their real persona and their uniformed one.

There is discussion throughout about airline company policy and behavior that is unanswered by actual airline leadership in the book. This includes the marketing of airline travel based upon flight attendants’ sex appeal (see these links for more), and in ongoing understanding and communication between these workers and management. For aficionados of LEAN, there’s an allusion to Gemba Tours by supervisors that don’t quite achieve their purpose, because the trips that they choose to understand the passenger and staff experience are the easy ones. Many of the challenges faced by these individuals are shared in other industries, such as pilot/flight attendant communication, culture of safety, and respect and support for staff to perform well for the customer. This leads one to ask if there is a clear understanding of the value stream for the customer in this industry (as many do in health care).

The pictorial of advertisements shown in the book reminded me of a full page ad I saw recently by a defense contractor advertising its services in health information technology, with an image that very clearly delineated gender roles in the hospital. It is worth asking whether these are the types of images that are reassuring to patients of a health system or customers of an airline.

The stories are candid and I think the author does a good job of portraying this group of women as a group grateful to have this career experience, and interested in supporting safe, affordable air travel. At the same time, it raises important questions about the environments that surround other professional/service industries, like health care.

Are we making every idea of every team member count in improving our patients’ health? Do doctors regularly shadow nurses, and not just on the “easy trips?”

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