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Southern Cultures 11.4 (2005) 7-27

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From Smiles to Miles

Delta Air Lines Flight Attendants and Southern Hospitality

Your hospitality showed me that you cared!
"Southern Girl," Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly, from Joy and Pain (Capitol, 1980)

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Figure 1
"Delta garnered the reputation for being a service-oriented southern airline with all the graciousness the term 'southern hospitality' implied." From Delta Digest, May 1965, courtesy of Delta Air Lines.
[End Page 7]

Delta Air Lines played an important role in the development of the modern South, and for much of the airline's history, a strong regional identity was the foundation of its corporate image. "Born and bred in the South," Delta "best knows the South's needs," claimed the Selma Times-Journal in 1955. From its founding in 1940 into the next century, concludes one airline historian, "Delta . . . garnered the reputation of being a service-oriented Southern airline with all the graciousness the term 'southern hospitality' implies." The "Delta Spirit," the airline's brand of southern hospitality, became an effective marketing tool throughout the airline's postwar expansion and the foundation for Delta's workplace culture. With its "nice guy" family image, Delta fostered labor relations that were the envy of strike-ridden rivals such as Eastern. In 1982 workers registered their appreciation by buying the airline's first Boeing 767, raising $30 million among themselves and presenting the aircraft, appropriately named The Spirit of Delta, to the company. The aircraft is still in regular service.1

Of all the airline's employees, Delta's flight attendants were its frontline ambassadors, charged with delivering the company brand. "You never get a second chance to make a good impression," a September 1971 issue of Delta Digest, the company's house journal, reminded them. At thirty-five thousand feet, they embodied southern hospitality, with its stress on home, family, and womanhood. "We like to think our stewardesses personify the spirit of Delta," declared one commercial in 1966.2

Delta's family rhetoric, in particular, was consistent with other southern industries, from early textiles to Wal-Mart, where it served both as a motivational tool and a bulwark against unions. Some flight attendants adopted this rhetoric wholeheartedly, guarding company policy as effectively as upper management. In later years, this group would be known internally as "RDs," or "Real Delta," southern-based and proud of their "family." (This term also distinguished them from workers joining the airline through acquisition.) Despite several bitter campaigns, Delta remains the only major U.S. carrier with nonunion flight attendants. Their nonunion status made them highly flexible employees and conformed to a wider group of southern workers identified by historian James Cobb as a major regional selling point after 1940.3

Although they acted the role of southern ladies, Delta's flight attendants were in many ways the image's polar opposite—mobile, autonomous, and in control. They could be directly compared to Scarlett O' Hara, capable of manipulating as much as being manipulated, and all the while embodying the southern belle. Ironically, in putting women in the sky—albeit as southern ladies—Delta was in fact augmenting wider forces of industrialization and globalization that rendered stereotypes of southern womanhood increasingly obsolete. In turn, Delta's success, in which its cabin service played a major part, produced an international airline [End Page 8] where southern hospitality appeared quaint and parochial. Eventually, as its flight attendant workforce became increasingly heterogeneous and the airline acquired nonsouthern carriers, the complicated weaving together of family and the Delta spirit began to unravel. Even before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 rocked the industry and bankrupted major airlines, Delta was struggling with its identity. Today, its very future is uncertain.

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Figure 2
"We like to think our stewardesses personify the spirit of Delta," one of the airline's commercials declared in 1966. Reunions like this one, the year before, showed the changes in the uniforms used to help portray the "Delta Spirit." From Delta Digest, May 1965, courtesy...


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pp. 7-27
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