Building a Brand: Gender, Service, and the Emotional Labor of ‘Selling’ Commercial Aviation at Pan American Airways and Air France, 1940-1950

Emily K. Gibson

In 2012, the mostly female flight attendants of Cathay Pacific Airlines made headlines when they threatened to stage a “no-smile-strike”—indicating their preparedness to withdraw customer services such as inflight meals, verbal pleasantries, and even smiles in order to agitate for higher wages. Despite rising fuel costs, Cathay Pacific partially acquiesced to the cabin crew union in an effort to stave off the slow-down and product devaluation that would ensue. Making use of an unconventional labor strategy, the “no-smile-strike” reveals the often-obscured economic value embedded in such emotional work that comprises most service jobs. With service work being harder to quantify and often categorized as un-skilled labor (yet increasingly crucial in the post-industrial, service-centered economy), a growing body of scholarship has begun to explore the gendered patterns of employment in service work and the various social and iniquities these patterns perpetuate.

Taking Pan American Airways and Air France as case studies, this paper will explore the role of gender, technology, and business in the commercialization of aviation. In order to more fully interrogate the gendered economic inequalities embedded in the present, the time is ripe to explore the historical development of women’s employment in service work as well as their roles within various corporate structures and marketing strategies. This paper will examine the explicitly gendered process by which commercial airlines developed notions of customer service and public relations within their firms during the 1930s and 40s in an effort to market aviation as a safe and reliable mode of transportation. A comparison of French and American airlines offers an interesting transnational perspective on the roles of gender and technology in shaping corporate strategy. Through an analysis of employee publications, internal documents, training manuals, and marketing pamphlets, this paper will examine the gendered development of notions of customer service and the management of emotional labor within the commercial aviation industry.