The Skies Get Friendly Once Again

A hot new reality show, the movie of the moment, Capt. Sully and Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner—can flying bring the sexy back?

By Irina Aleksander

In the opening sequence of Fly Girls, a half-hour reality series premiering later this month on the CW, five Virgin America flight attendants are shown buttoning up white blouses, slipping on pencil skirts and tying ascots to the tune of Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok.” A coquettish voice-over begins: “We jet to the most beautiful places in the world”—actually, Virgin America only travels, well, in America—“get invited to exclusive parties and lead extraordinary lives. And the best part of it is? It’s our job.”

This was the way stewardesses (back when they could still be called that) used to appear: beautiful, independent girls with college educations who were carefully selected to “host” the sort of passengers that had reason to fly and could afford it. There was a titillating factor, naturally, to having a pretty girl in uniform bring you a stiff cocktail. In A Big Life in Advertising (Knopf, 2002), Mary Wells Lawrence, the advertising exec who devised “The End of the Plain Plane” campaign for now-defunct Braniff, described the airline’s stewardesses after Emilio Pucci put them in his colorful designs: “It was wonderful to watch Braniff’s hostesses feel so beautiful and begin to walk like models, one foot in front of the other, tra-la-la, on the planes.” Flying hasn’t been sexy like that for a long time. It is difficult to remember the last time a flight attendant elicited anything but pity—the grueling schedules and security requirements, the bickering with passengers over luggage, the sad cans of sugary soda and stale crackers they serve, demanding small bills for headsets and pillows.

But almost a decade after 9/11 played out our worst fears about flying, there are signs that the romance is resurgent. It began, perhaps, with Capt. Chesley Sullenberger (“Sully”), who landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River last year and subsequently told NBC’s Matt Lauer that this act of heroism led to “rock-star sex” (with his wife of 20 years). Mad Men writers began and ended their blockbuster third season with the main characters escaping stuffy suburban domesticity on planes, and The Bachelor this season is a square-jawed pilot in uniform. Up in the Air, the feature film by Jason Reitman adapted from the 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, is up for six Oscars.

Back in real life, there is the much-anticipated 787 Dreamliner, the name conjuring all the excitement of the 1950s, a fuel-efficient plane with a sleek design and roomy seats, expected to start flying later this year. Even JetBlue, which had suffered in the public imagination in recent years thanks to twisted landing gear and mismanaged delays, has spiffed up with its futuristic John F. Kennedy International Airport terminal, home to manicures, hip restaurants and supersonic Internet access.

As for Fly Girls, it’s two parts MTV’s The Hills (executive producer Colin Nash worked on both) and one part Bravo’s Real Housewives. In the opening, a 26-year-old named Mandalay, the youngest and cutest of the girls, tells her story: “Back in Arizona, I was destined for the white-picket-fence life of settling down, getting married and having kids, but I knew that wasn’t for me. … Now I’m in control of my own destiny.”

The other day, Mandy and her colleagues met The Observer at the London Hotel in New York to sell us on the concept of the new glam skies.

In the first episode, Louise meets a gentleman on a plane whom the girls refer to, giggling, as her “IFB” (in-flight boyfriend). “Usually, he’s also an ABP, an able-bodied person,” said Mandy, meaning he could sit in the exit row.

“But ‘in-flight boyfriend’ can also just mean any person you connect with,” said Nikole, a 31-year-old brunette from Sacramento, Calif., who is cast as the villain on the show. “It could be the guy in 13A that you just laugh with the whole time, so even if I have a boyfriend, my in-flight boyfriend is my boyfriend for the flight.”

Farrah, 33, put in that it is possible to meet an in-life boyfriend in addition to an in-flight one. “If you’re open to meeting people and going on dates, then it happens sometimes,” she said. Sleeping with the flight attendant is a fantasy that still exists, they all agreed.

“But it’s really guys and girls who have fantasies about flight attendants,” Nikole said. “Women always say, ‘When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a flight attendant before I got married and had kids.’”

The Fly Girls agreed that they wish they could still be called stewardesses, with the exception of Tasha, a 28-year-old from Sacramento, whose objection was not that it was offensive, but that the word felt too old.

“I feel like ‘stewardess’ was when people dressed up to go on a plane and drinks were served,” Mandy disagreed. “It’s the romance of flying.”

With the maximized number of seats and the minimized personal space, the constant terrorism threat and minor technical difficulties that always feel like terror but inevitably turn out to be the result of cutbacks and neglected aircraft—could the thrill ever return?

“Air travel has got an erotic component that’s underappreciated,” Kirn suggested by phone as he was traveling (by train) from D.C. to New York last week. “I mean, c’mon, strangers are sitting very close to each other in an environment in which they could potentially end up dying, so it’s got that wartime romance charge to it, and they are taking time out from their lives, so they get to try on other selves. It should be one of the most erotic experiences available—at least as much as going to Whole Foods and sitting alone at the herbal tea bar. And you’re in a fast, phallic machine, dammit!”

The author paid attention to flight attendants while working on his book and still does, he said. “Lately, I’ve actually noticed among flight attendants, male and female, a little bit more flamboyance and fun with the job than I was seeing five or six years ago,” he said. “I think in the way Mad Men has made us conscious of an earlier, slightly more dangerous, stimulating age of business, flight attendants have become self-conscious and said, ‘Hey, wait! We used to be sex symbols, and the men used to be maitre d’s of the sky.’ So I think we’ve been coming to this point.” Kirn suggested that flights should be like international ocean voyages, with legalized gambling and a pornography section for those who qualify. “And you should be able to Facebook-poke your fellow passengers. Like, ‘Hey, 4B! Nice hair. Turn around, let’s see what the rest of you looks like.’ I think Branson is right, let’s bring a little bit of the libido back to flying.”

Sir Richard Branson, who lent his company and himself to the show—he appears in the first episode hosing down a Virgin America plane from a fire truck with Fly Girl Nikole—had an entirely sensible and not uncommon reason for forging a partnership with the CW.

“We can’t afford national ad campaigns, so this could grow awareness of the Virgin brand,” he said.

Branson’s transatlantic airline offers passengers massages, a shoe-shining service, hair dressers and in-flight bars for mingling during the flight. “I have the picture of the world’s first stewardess here in the pressurized plane, and it’s a glamorous picture,” he said.

Back at the London Hotel, Mandy was brimming with optimism about her show and what she argued was a revitalized workplace. “The airports just seem fuller to me,” she said.

The girls told a story of how their passengers have been chatting via the seat-to-seat chat on their screens and sending drinks to one another. Two passengers, Mandy bragged, even got engaged.