Why is it that our national carrier continues to have separate rules for men and women who work as flight attendants?

“AI may go for younger cabin crew to lure flyers”, read a headline on September 12 (Times of India). The first paragraph of the story could not have been more blatantly sexist: “Flight attendants on Air India could soon stop reminding you of the elderly and portly headmistress who rarely smiled at you in school. And they could be more nattily dressed.”

So while the rest of the world moves ahead, our national carrier remains stuck in a time warp. At a time when it cannot pay its 30,000 employees their salaries on time, when the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) has castigated it for going ahead and ordering additional aircraft when it carried an incredible Rs. 40,000 crores debt burden, Air India believes that nicer looking ‘air hostesses' — a term that Air India continued to use long after the rest of the world had adopted the gender neutral term, ‘flight attendant', will somehow make thousands of passengers rush towards the floundering airline.

Persisting story

The story of the ‘Maharaja' and its women employees is an old one.  Ever since Air India became India's national airline in 1953, when the airline owned by the Tatas since 1932 was nationalised, women flight attendants have had to fight against the different set of rules applied to them.  From a time when they could be employed only up to the age of 35, and would have to quit if they became pregnant, it has been a long and tough journey to get the airline to acknowledge that there is something called gender equity. The legal battles have raged over decades, making their way up to the Supreme Court. Some were won. Some lost.

Whatever one might think of Air India, its service, its performance or its crew, the gender battles in the airline illustrate the struggle women in the service industry have to wage to be recognised as equals. For instance, in Air India, while women had to be a certain weight for a certain age, the same rule did not apply to the male employees. Why? Women, regardless of the years of service they put in, could not be promoted beyond a certain point. Men could. Why? Women had to retire at a certain age or take up ground jobs while men could continue to serve in the cabins up to the age of 58. Why? These are some of the questions that were at the heart of many of the battles fought within Air India.

Performance, not looks

And most of all, why do those who run airlines believe that their airline will be considered more attractive if they have pretty women serving the passengers? People's choice — and now in India we have a choice — of the airline they fly depends most of all on the airline's safety record, then its on-time performance, the cleanliness of the craft, the comfort of the seats, the quality of the food served and, of course, the quality of the service on board.  Is the crew responsive, efficient, kind to older people and children and trained to deal with emergencies? How they look is the last on this list.  These criteria apply equally to the men and women who work as flight attendants. Yet, only women's looks are constantly emphasised. 

What are the attributes needed to qualify for the job of flight attendant? Here is a description posted on a job website:

“The aspiring candidates should have a few exceptional qualities within them — sense of responsibility, pleasing personality, presence of mind, initiative, good physique, patience to work long hours, systematic approach towards duty, good appearance, communication and interactive skills, language proficiency, pleasant voice, team spirit, positive attitude, sense of humour and so on.” And, “Apart from the physical and other attributes mentioned above, the candidate should also have a lot of stamina, patience, common sense, presence of mind and the strength to keep her poise in the face of a crisis. An outgoing personality and a bit of luck always help.”

The majority of the requirements have to do with attitude and with qualities such as “patience”, “systematic approach, “positive attitude”, “sense of humour” and “pleasing personality”. In the middle of all this is also “good physique” and “good appearance”. In fact, behind the glamour, the job is a hard grind and requires a high level of fitness. But should this be translated into every candidate for the job, particularly if she happens to be a woman, looking like an aspiring model?

In 2004, when Air India decided to recruit 400 new flight attendants — and 32,000 people applied — those with pimples or scars on their faces were turned away and not given a chance to prove that they might have “a pleasing personality” or even common sense and patience. Two years ago, when Air India dismissed 10 women flight attendants for being “too fat to fly”, according to a newspaper headline, one of them, who had worked for 27 years with the airline pointed out, “This is not a modelling job; we are not working a catwalk” and added, “weight is not an infectious disease”.

Furthermore, no matter how good-looking your staff, your company cannot survive just on that. This too should be obvious, particularly in the case of Air India. It is not the weight or looks of its cabin crew that have steered it into this current crisis; it is the quality of management that has. Indian Airlines, before it merged with Air India, had the same rules for men and women. And regardless of the age of its crew or how they looked, the airline remained afloat.

Looking smart and having a “pleasing personality” are necessary requirements for anyone who is in the service industry, including those who manage front offices and have to deal with people. But none of this means there should be separate sets of rules for men and women. Air India needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com