Sweeping cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s reshaped the airline industry.
More people began to fly, and air travel became less exclusive—for some.
America was undergoing rapid social change in this period. Between 1955 and 1972, passenger numbers more than quadrupled. By 1972 almost half of all Americans had flown, although most passengers were still business travelers. A small percentage became repeat travelers, or "frequent flyers."
The nation was also becoming increasingly homogeneous. Retail franchises were eliminating distinctive regional characteristics. Television reached into most homes. The automobile was transforming cities, and suburbs were consuming huge expanses of rural land. The interstate highway system was spreading across the nation, and a growing web of jetliner routes linked the country. Traveling from coast to coast now took as little as five hours. Perhaps most importantly, people were fighting for equality.
African Americans could choose to fly, but few did. Many airport facilities were segregated and discrimination was widespread. While the airlines themselves were not legally segregated, airports often were. Throughout the South, inferior airport accommodations discouraged African Americans from flying. Complaints to the airlines about discrimination proved fruitless. The airlines didn’t control the municipally owned airports they served and did not wish to get involved for fear of losing white customers. Until the Civil Rights movement began to bring about change, air travel remained mostly for white people.
Efforts to desegregate airports began as early as 1948. United States Representative Charles C. Diggs Jr. of Michigan supported a bill in Congress to desegregate federally owned Washington National Airport. The bill did not pass, but it encouraged others to take action.
To many critical observers such as Rep. Diggs, it seemed absurd that travelers who were en route to enjoy the most modern means of transportation – the airplane – had to subject themselves to the humiliating experience of having to pass through segregated terminals.
Washington National Airport, like many southern airports, discriminated against African Americans. In December 1948, after a direct appeal to President Truman by a member of his Committee on Civil Rights, the airport’s restaurant was finally desegregated. Slowly through the 1960s, the other segregated airports followed suit, after succumbing to legal and political pressure.
Airlines wouldn’t employ African Americans as pilots or cabin crew until the 1960s. The exceptions were Perry H. Young Jr., (left) who first flew helicopters for New York Airways in 1956, and Ruth Carol Taylor, who first served as a stewardess for Mohawk Airlines in 1958.
Race-based discrimination at the major airlines was successfully challenged only in 1963, when Marlon D. Green won a suit against Continental Airlines to become a pilot. His victory opened commercial aviation to many. However, the first African American woman would not he hired as a commercial pilot until 1992—when Melissa “M’Lis” Ward was hired by United Airlines—nearly 30 years after Green won his case.
Read Their Stories
Women in the Workforce
While women joined the ranks of airline professionals as flight attendants as early as 1930, the first woman would not pilot a commercial airliner until 1973. Moreover, even though women made up the majority of the flight attendant profession in the 1960s and 1970s, airlines often used them as a marketing tool—attracting passengers by dressing flight attendants in fashionable, though often revealing, uniforms.
In 1994, Clarke-Washington became the first African American woman to serve as a captain for a major U.S. airline. Patrice Clarke-Washington worked as a captain for the United Parcel Service, better known as UPS. UPS is one of the air express carriers specializing in rapid delivery of high-priority packages which rose to prominence after deregulation in the 1970s. One of her uniforms from 1998 resides in the museum's collection.
Flight attendants were one of the first groups to file a case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made biased hiring practices illegal. As social attitudes evolved, they challenged biased rules through the courts. They argued for their rights as women, against age, race, and marriage restrictions. By 1967, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had ruled against all of the airlines’ discriminatory hiring practices. This opened airline career opportunities to all Americans.