By Bob Schulman
At last, a flight where businessmen can stretch out, put on a pair of slippers, light up a stogie, browse through the latest issue of Playboy, catch up on the market, enjoy a steak dinner and then light up again for a game of poker with the guys. And all without any of those pesky women around, except for the stewardesses (as flight attendants used to be called).
Such were the wonders of United Airlines’ men-only “Executive” flights. They debuted in 1953 and flew on and off for the next 17 years. Operated on prime business routes such as Chicago-New York and Los Angeles-San Francisco, the womenless hops were flown at first with Douglas DC-6 and DC-6B four-engine prop planes, and later with 64-seat Caravelle twinjets.
The planes were typically all-first-class seating with one or two lounges, one usually featuring a table for card-players.
The slippers were free, ditto for Playboy and the steak dinner. The cigars were comped, too. Sometimes, United even threw in a couple of free drinks.
Wow, after a tough day of cutting deals in New York, who wouldn’t like to zip back to Chicago without having to listen to gabby gals and screaming kids? So busy businessmen packed the men-only flights. So what if it cost a few bucks more, their companies were picking up the tab.
The flights, usually operated twice daily on weekdays on each route, were so popular that United reportedly filled between 80 percent and 90 percent of its seats on its hops through the manly skies. That’s a real jaw-dropper, because back in the 50s and 60s airline execs jumped up and down with delight if they could score “load factors” (the percentage of filled seats) of anything above 50 percent.
For instance, in 1969, the two dozen or so U.S. airlines made $110 million with a load factor of a shade over 50 percent.
So what happened in 1970 to put all those guys in grey flannel suits on co-ed flights? Put simply, wide-ranging cultural changes of the era – sparking reforms in everything from civil rights to gender equality – made it no longer hip for men to fly around in what amounted to man caves.
In a popular song of the times, reggae great Bob Marley urged people around the world to “Get Up, Stand Up (for Your Rights).” And women did.
In the ongoing shockwaves of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, women’s groups such as the National Organization for Women (founded in 1966) launched hard-hitting legal and PR campaigns – sometimes featuring mass bra-burnings -- calling public attention to the need for gender equality. The groups found a catchy slogan to brand men who thought of women as second-class citizens as “male chauvinist pigs,” or MCPs.
Oddly, “chauvinist” came from Nicolas Chauvin, who a couple of centuries ago was a much-wounded Napoleonic loyalist in the French army. The term originally meant “excessive and unreasonable patriotism,” but over the years it somehow morphed to mean someone believing in the inferiority of women.
In 1970, being an MCP had become a dirty word for men and also for companies who failed to recognize women’s equality. Clearly, it was time for United to dump its men-only flights (especially when NOW threatened a national boycott of the airline).
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