Off-Loading India’s Air Hostesses

There are male flight attendants aboard Air India and Indian Airlines that are so fat that they have got stuck in the aircraft toilets. And that seems to be fine with the airlines. But if you’re a woman, you had better watch what you eat – and then not eat it.

Widespread publicity has been given to a recent judgment of the Delhi High Court grounding airline staff who do not meet weight criteria, bringing into focus a gamut of issues - fat versus fitness, discrimination against air hostesses, and mindsets trapped in notions of glamour and beauty in this service industry.

Flight attendants are still called air hostesses in India, which hasn’t get got used to the gender-neutral counterpart used in the west, and it shows. Stripped of the gloss, women in the industry have had to prove their competence despite their age, not winning the right to fly until age 58 - like their male counterparts - until 2002.

Indian Airlines, the country’s state-owned domestic airline, and Air India, its international flag carrier, were merged in 2007 for corporate purposes but not reflagged7, along with Indian Air subsidiary Alliance Air, which became India Air Regional. The complete transition to the National Aviation Company of India Ltd., under which the merged airlines now operate, will obviously take more time. Despite the new logo and the common nomenclature of 'Air India', service conditions of staff of both airlines are separate and not equal. Representatives of Air India say staff of Indian Airlines enjoy better and less gender-discriminatory service conditions. In the former, they are already fighting for equality in promotions despite the opposition of male cabin crew.

The judgment, by Justices A.K. Sikri and J.R. Midha, is clearly in favour of fitness over fat, stating that there is no scope for any debate on overweight people and that “it is universally accepted that overweight people have a tendency to suffer from diseases.” The judges dismissed a batch of petitions filed by air hostesses and cabin crew of Indian Airlines, who were grounded for weighing more than the limits fixed by the airlines.

As of February, at least 43 of the 2,500-odd flight attendants of Air India, Indian Airlines and Alliance Air had been grounded as overweight, according to a reply given by Civil Aviation minister Praful Patel in response to a question in Parliament posed by MP Rajya Sabhai. Cabin crew undergo periodic medical check-ups and can resume flight duties when they regain their permissible weight limits, the minister added.

Fitness is obviously an extremely important criteria in an industry where a sudden emergency could require enormous reserves of strength and energy. However, the issue is clearly not that simple, according to staffers of Air India and Indian Airlines, lawyers, and women's rights activists. Whether weight can be a sole criterion for fitness is hardly disputable, underscored by the recent tragic death of an Air India flight purser as well as several examples of male cabin crew who may be below the prescribed weight limit, but who may be diabetic, hypertensive or even have heart problems. While no one disputes the need to maintain some fitness conditions, the question is whether the fitness criteria are reasonable and whether these are applicable across the board to all airlines flying staff - the air hostesses and the male cabin crew.

"The cabin crew, male and female, deal with death-defying circumstances and fitness is important. But is weight the only measure of fitness?" asked Nandita Gandhi of Akshara, a women's research centre. Jyothi Mhapsekar of Stree Mukti Sanghatana, a women's organisation. "No one is opposed to fitness but are men also governed by the same criteria and, most important, what about the captain? Are there weight restrictions for (male) cabin crew?"

The answer is an emphatic no. Air India (which, according to the MP’s response, has grounded 16 air hostesses), does not ground male cabin crew who are overweight. Advocate Anand Grover, who filed in the Bombay High Court against Air India for grounding an air hostess, Jennifer Chavan, in 2003, stated that "while Indian Airlines applied its weight criteria across the board, Air India is very clearly discriminatory towards its women staff".

The air hostess's case, which has meandered through various orders, notices of motion and contempt petitions against the airline for several years, demonstrates both the discriminatory aspect of the issue as well as its imperfect logic.

"In September 2002, after a check-up, the air hostess was found overweight and given a verbal instruction to report back after she reached her permissible weight. She filed a petition in 2003 and was granted permission to fly after she got her weight checked in a hospital certified by Air India," says lawyer Susan Abraham, who is assisting Grover in the case.

The case, which is still on, has challenged the discrimination between male and female staff of the airline and has also questioned whether the Body Mass Index (BMI) is a sufficient criterion for fitness and whether other principles of fitness should also apply.

"We have been fighting the discrimination inherent in these medical check-ups for several years now and have pointed out instances of men who are at least 44 kilograms excess; of male cabin crew who are so overweight that they've got stuck in toilets... but Air India is simply not listening," said K.V.J. Rao, general secretary of the Air India Hostesses Association. Rao has been speaking up for his women colleagues and points out that though male cabin crew undergoes medical check-ups, they suffer no punitive action.

Air India goes by a 1962 LIC chart, outdated and based on geographical criteria for different regions of India. Besides, the airline does not provide any specialised medical care for its staffers who are overweight, like surgery for obesity or even a health club!

But what is perplexing for the staffers is that the airline equates weight with fitness, ignoring staffers who may have diabetes, heart problems or hypertension, but who may still be within the prescribed weight, said Valerie Fernandes, a prominent member of the Air India Executive Hostesses Association. "I personally feel some kind of weight restrictions are important, none of us argue against this, but we have to examine all our working conditions and improve them," she added.

The sexist biases that govern public perception of the air hostesses are another bugbear. "I wonder whether the weight issue has something to do with the women being seen merely as decorative pieces," said Sandhya Gokhale, an activist of the Forum against Oppression of Women. Progressive airlines use non-sexist terminology to describe flying cabin crew as 'flight attendants', also ensuring that male cabin crew perform the same tasks as their female colleagues.

Others wonder whether the cut-throat competition with the entry of private airlines has pushed the newly-merged Air India and Indian Airlines to 'trim the fat', both literally and figuratively. Having a 'leaner' crew even for long-haul flights and enforcing policies that edge out the older or the overweight staffer even as fewer margins are provided for corrective measures, are only moves towards a meaner flying machine. Whether this ensures a happier, healthier staff and better service for customers remains to be seen.

Women’s Feature Service