When flying was glamorous: The life of a 1970s 747 jumbo jet flight attendant

Next time you are on an international flight, jammed in economy beside an unwashed, barefoot bogan, close your eyes and imagine you've teleported to a time when even back-of-the-bus passengers had a sense of occasion. It was the age of the jet set, the heyday of the plane known as the Queen of the Skies. It was also the plane that made affordable air travel possible because it was the first to carry hundreds of passengers. Cheaper, yes, but the Boeing 747's early life in the 1970s was a more glam time in the skies.

Former BOAC (now British Airways) stewardess (now known as a flight attendant), Pamela Kamula, remembers it fondly.

"Air travel was a bit more special and people treated it that way. In those days, people dressed up for their flight," says Kamula (nee Kinmond, as she was then), who was with the British carrier for four years until 1973 and who has since lived in Australia for decades. The 747 jumbo entered commercial service in 1970, about the same time Kamula did. Currently, many airlines are retiring 747s due to their high fuel consumption and obsolescence. Qantas is among those who still have the aircraft in service.

Even so, the 747 of today is not the 747 Kamula knew. For a start, space between seats has shrunk. And they no longer have ashtrays in the armrest.

"It's so hard to believe now, that there was the smoking and no smoking areas of the aircraft," she says. "All that smoky air …"

But she also feels life in the skies was more convivial than it is now. She recalls "the sun shining in" – no immediate shutting of window shades to make digital screens viewable – and no screens for that matter, bar the big movie projector set ups that "didn't work half the time. Passengers didn't have iPads and things to keep distracted, so they were more likely to be social and walk around and chat to each other. I recall chatting and laughing with passengers. It was such fun."

Fun was the operative word for flight attendants then. "I think we got the best time, treated so well, like models are treated today. Doors opened, if you were a 'hostie' as they called us. It was a time when everything was starting to happen in international travel, people were starting to fly and we were part of the excitement.

"I have fond memories of driving out to the airport from my home in Earls Court in my Morris Minor, parking in crew parking, and thinking, 'Where am I going today? Somewhere lovely'."

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For the travel-loving Kamula, the kangaroo route was a favourite. It would be a three-week round trip from London to the Middle East – Bahrain or Tehran – then Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok before on to Sydney or Melbourne "and sometimes Darwin" and vice versa.

"The pay was good. I didn't save a lot because I had a really good time," she laughs, "but it was excellent pay and the allowances were good. Each city allowance was commensurate with the price of meals at your hotel. But, of course, we went around the corner to the local caf' and pocketed the rest."

She recalls loving Tehran "exotic and different and interesting, the bazaar and market, and once we all took a taxi into the mountains and went skiing. Skiing in Tehran, sailing in Hong Kong, water-skiing off Singapore – I did find a lot of crew, especially the stewards who had been working for years, didn't stray far from the local area of the hotels. But because I loved it, I would go off and do things.

"When we would stop over in Bahrain, the sheik would have spies at the airport to check out the girls. They would invite the blondies to beach parties at his beach house. Once I was there when he invited the whole crew and sent limos to pick us up for this amazing party ­– beautiful rooms and top-shelf booze. There was a 22-year-old BOAC stewardess who was driving around London in a pink E-Type Jag thanks to the sheik," she laughs.

But for Kamula, it was all hands-off.

"The uniforms were short and you just had to be a bit careful reaching up to luggage racks. I remember one passenger slapping me on the bottom and I turned around and nearly slapped his face. I gave him a dressing down. I think it happened occasionally to everyone, but they were mostly people, who, after a couple of drinks, tried it on a bit."

Sexism still reigned behind the scenes, though. The Elizabeth Arden make-up lessons, hairdo directives and weight and height restrictions for female cabin crew – all still in force today on some of the world's top airlines – are perhaps the most benign of the rules.

The stipulation of wearing a skirt to the interview, and women crew being forced to leave at 35 or if you got married – rules that did not apply to men – was just the way it was. "Some were married but they hid it," says Kamula.

But the perks, including those aforesaid allowances and rock star treatment, were plenty.

"Meal service was very similar, just pushing trolleys up and down," she says. "Though drinks were served in mini bottles of whisky and whatever and we did a drinks service where passengers paid for drinks. On the bar, there was a cash box and a list of prices, a little chart showing them in various currencies so we could quickly look that up. And because it was cash, people often gave you tips. It was quite lucrative."

Before joining BOAC at 24, Kamula had been an au pair in Paris, had spent two months on an Israeli kibbutz, two months on an archaeological dig in Spain and done a stewardess stint with BEA, British European Airways, whose merger with BOAC brought her into the latter's fold.

It was, in the end, only that extraordinary wanderlust that saw her leave the airline. She wanted to travel freely, ending up in Australia, where she took a job in marketing with the then new Hilton Sydney and settled into building a life here. But she still travels a lot, and was, at the time of writing, in France for a friend's 70th before a niece's wedding in England.

"My closest friend, who lives in Australia now, we met on the BOAC training course," she says, "and if we'd said to each other, we'll still be great friends and we'll be living in Australia, we'd never have believed it."

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