Pan Am was one of the most popular airlines during the “so-called golden age of air travel“, with flight crew responsible for providing world-leading luxury to crew. However, it seems tensions often ran high between pilots and cabin crew.
One former flight attendant has shared stories of “bullying” pilots onboard and how cabin crew managed to get their own back.
As part of his research for the new book Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century: The Pan American Ideal, by Dr Bryce Evans, Associate Professor in History at Liverpool Hope University spoke with a number of former airline workers.
In one of these conversations, a flight attendant explained how she used “eye drops” to seek revenge on one pilot’s “persistent bullying attitude.”
“Many former flight attendants recall the dislike they felt towards pilots who viewed themselves as ‘Sky Gods’ and who would complain and occasionally sulk if they did not get the food they had requested,” explained Dr Evans.
“One remembers being so upset with one notorious pilot’s persistent bullying attitude that she plotted different ways to give him his comeuppance.
“Eye drops were in plentiful supply at the time because when smoking was permitted on aeroplanes flight attendants would have to walk back and forth through a confined space full of thick smoke clouds, which made the eyes burn and made the eye drops a travel essential.
“Therefore, on one occasion, after suffering what she considered an unfair reprimand, she secretly added her eye drop mixture to the pilot’s coffee, which had a strong laxative effect.”
The reason pilots may have behaved in this way could have been down to some of the special treatment they received.
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Pilots were often served specially made meals just for them, which were freshly cooked onboard as per Pan Am’s luxury standards.
All meals onboard Pan Am flights are said to have been cooked to “fancy” “restaurant” standards.
This was not a task taken on by chefs though but by the cabin crew themselves.
However, cabin crew could not serve up both the pilot and first officer with the same meal.
Instead, they had to cook two entirely separate meals for both of them.
According to Dr Evans, though, this was less to do with the pilot’s specific demands and instead was a vital safety precaution.
Mostly, it was to stop both pilots from getting food poisoning – a lesson illustrated by a serious outbreak of food poisoning on board a Pan Am flight between Copenhagen and New York in 1970.
“Everyone got sick from the shrimp cocktail,” said former flight attendant Joan Neil Bernstein.
“Everyone was vomiting uncontrollably – crew, passengers – the entire plane was plastered in sick and the toilets were an absolute mess.”
Dr Evans adds: “The plane was met at John F. Kennedy airport by an array of ambulances and fire engines.
“Thankfully, as per protocol, one of the pilots had not eaten the shrimp cocktail that day.”
This is a rule that is still followed today with many airlines.
“The captain is responsible for ensuring that, wherever possible, the operating pilots eat different in-flight meals,” explained a Virgin Atlantic spokesperson.
“If both pilots request the same meal, the cabin crew must bring this to the attention of the captain who will approve or deny the request.