As the American Airlines flight swooped in over the New York Harbor on its way into La Guardia Airport one evening last month, Joe Howell grabbed the microphone and began his tour.
“For those of you on the left-hand side just off the wing, you’ll see the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island,” Mr. Howell began, his baritone carrying all the authority of his 44 years as a flight attendant. “The Statue of Liberty opened originally in 1886. Grover Cleveland was the presiding president.”
This went on for several minutes. Against a smattering of groans, he offered details of the statue’s copper plates (there are 500, handmade), the birthplace of the designer (Alsace) and Liberty Island’s original name (Bedloe’s Island).
“Now if you look on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge along the East River,” he added, “that is the South Street Seaport!”
Unlike checked bags and exit-row seating, the aerial tour was free.
Mr. Howell’s routine is a relic of a bygone age when air travel was something anticipated, not endured, and flight attendants did more than look out for safety and delivered more than peanuts and tomato juice. They used to think of themselves, according to those like Mr. Howell with long enough memories, as hosts and hostesses of an exclusive party.
But in today’s age of consolidation, when even the uniforms have lost their élan, much of that individual charm has worn off.
Still, some flight attendants are not going gently. They are still doing what they can to keep passengers entertained or informed beyond pushing a button to play the video recordings of the in-flight safety videos.
Consider Jack Sullivan, a Southwest Airways flight attendant who impersonates Elvis, complete with the sunglasses and scarves.
Or the Spirit Airlines flight attendant who has taken to singing safety instructions to the tune of John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
But few can match the worldwide appeal of Marty Cobb, a 10-year Southwest Airlines flight attendant, after a video of her comedic spinoff of the mundane safety directions spread quickly online in 2014.
It has since been viewed on YouTube more than 22 million times and led to appearances for her on national television, including this season’s “The Amazing Race” on CBS.
Ms. Cobb said the video was nothing out of the ordinary for her.
“I always like to make people laugh and smile,” she said in a telephone interview. “It just made it a lot more fun for me and our crew and everybody else. That really and truly is sort of old-school Southwest.”
But she acknowledged that others are not as willing to showcase their personalities, for reasons that often boil down to not wanting to offend a few customers. Not her.
“The good outweighs the bad,” Ms. Cobb said. “Not everybody is going to think I’m funny. That’s just the way it is. I think some people are afraid to do that because they don’t want to cause any attention and they’re afraid they’re going to offend somebody.”
Not all airlines are so enamored of such displays of personality. Delta and American (which declined to make Mr. Howell available for comment) said in statements that the airline appreciated it when flight attendants humanized their interactions, but that flight attendants are reminded that less is more when it comes to in-flight announcements.
Translation: Stick to the script.
And never has it been easier to ensure uniformity with many announcements made by video or automated technology.
Kara Mulder, a flight attendant with Norwegian Airlines who runs a popular blog, TheFlightAttendantLife.com, said there seemed to be a cookie-cutter mentality in air travel today, which is why recordings have replaced some of the more personal touches.
“A lot of the legacy carriers don’t want the liability of differences,” Ms. Mulder said. “They want it to be a certain standard. And an easy way to make it the standard is to automate everything.”
There is little disagreement that a flight attendant’s primary focus is on safety. To some, that leaves no room for shtick.
“I wear a uniform for a reason,” said Heather Poole, a flight attendant and author of “Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet.” “Passengers need to know I work for the airline, they need to know who to go to when there’s a problem, and they also need to have confidence that I can handle an emergency.”
Still, in the view of some airlines, flight attendants can do their job and express themselves.
Paul Berry, a spokesman for Spirit, said the airline encouraged its flight attendants to use their personalities as much as possible, as long as they covered the mandatory information. The no-frills airline caters mostly to leisure travelers. Few of its customers are the corporate business travelers who “tend to get annoyed with the fun announcements,” Mr. Berry said.
“We ask our flight attendants to gauge the passengers and the cabin, and make a decision if that particular flight would be more accepting of fun announcements, or not,” Mr. Berry said. “If the cabin seems like they are up for some fun, they’re encouraged to go for it.”
A spokeswoman for Southwest also said that the company considered its crew to be its in-flight entertainment and that it hired flight attendants primarily because of their attitude.
That was certainly the case with Mr. Sullivan, Southwest’s Elvis, who did, in fact, begin his entertainment career as an impersonator on the Las Vegas Strip. When he applied for a job with Southwest eight years ago, he decided to keep his résumé vague.
“I thought they were going to think they’ve got some nut flying around,” Mr. Sullivan said.
Nonetheless, Southwest apparently loved Mr. Sullivan’s act, and he has been singing Elvis tunes like “In The Ghetto” on flights ever since, with crew members as backup dancers.
Like Ms. Cobb, Mr. Sullivan fretted that such a mentality was disappearing from air travel, as more airlines favor professionalism over high jinks in the cabin. But, he said, he keeps letters and emails from passengers over the years who have appreciated his attempt at lightening up a stressful flight.
One of his favorite stories, in fact, took place when a traveler started eyeing him while he was in the middle of a rousing rendition of “Viva Las Vegas.” Finally, she took out her phone to show him a picture.
“She found a picture of her standing with me back when I was performing in Vegas in my Elvis costume,” Mr. Sullivan said. “I thought, ‘O.K., I’ve made it.’ ”