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Terry Prone: It's a harsh and sad end to the glamour and grace of Aer Lingus hostesses who made each flight a little piece of Ireland

They were the yummiest mummies ever, the Aer Lingus cabin crew, when we were growing up. All of them were women. All of them were glamorous. All of them were slim and well groomed and beautifully dressed.

At secondary school, every other career came second to the idea of being an Aer Lingus air hostess. When they announced they had vacancies, every favour was pulled by mothers and fathers to get their daughter at least as far as the interviews.

When someone we knew was accepted, it was like they'd been assumed into heaven. From then on, they would be jetting around the world, living in hotels and tanning themselves on resort beaches until they fell in love with an Aer Lingus pilot, which in itself was a breathtaking thought, because those lads in the uniform were so gorgeous and well paid and authoritatively casual. When an air hostess fell in love with a pilot, she retired to have and raise kids.

But even the ones who were single were like a cross between a comforting mother and a model. The model bit came in whenever their uniforms were redesigned and they appeared in pictures on the front page of the newspapers, because the redesign was that big a news item.

The comforting mother bit you experienced from the minute you stepped onto the plane. If they'd met you before, they greeted you as an old and valued friend. If they'd never met you before, they greeted you as if encountering you had improved their lives for at least a week.

If you were a child, they dropped to their hunkers and talked to you as if you were the most important person on the flight, before bringing you books to colour and little badges to wear.

Later came equality and male cabin crew, but the ethos sustained, so much so that when passengers first encountered the crew on airlines like Delta, with their brisk, "Honey, that's something I can do nuthin' about. Move along the aisle and find your seat," it was a quite unnerving culture shock.

Aer Lingus cabin crew did something between hospitality and personal therapy. Other airlines provided waiter-service and traffic management and you might or might not get a smile -- it seemed to depend on the day.

When you stepped onto an Aer Lingus flight in New York, you were nearly home when you saw those neat St Patrick's blue uniforms and the big uncomplicated smiles.

Against that affectionate background, many people were taken aback by the events of recent days. First of all, the cabin crew rejected the proposals put to them by the company. That, in itself was a bit of a surprise to older travellers who never thought of cabin crew as particularly militant.

Then Christoph Mueller's lads came out with a cost-cutting plan characterised by voluntary redundancies for the sections among the Aer Lingus workforce who had voted to accept the original deal, but with forced redundancies as well as the voluntary kind for the cabin crew.

"How do ya like THEM apples?" was how it could be summed up.

It went down well with people who understand the figures and believe that strong management of the numbers is all that will keep Aer Lingus in the air. Survival, they say, requires strong management and tough messages to hammer home the realities.

It went down badly with the people who will suffer the forced redundancies, who feel it's them who are being hammered, despite having taken repeated doses of pain over the past couple of years, always believing that each sacrifice would be the last.

It's the new reality. Flying is now a commodity product, not an individualised caring service. A tradition has ended, in a harsh, sad way.