15 May, 2013

does it matter if your stewardess is an aunty or a babe?

this morning, i had an interesting conversation with my wife regarding air hostesses, or flight attendants/stewardesses/cabin crew as they are called now-a-days

qualifications: young, beautiful, skinny, unmarried
air india was in the news again, and the beleaguered airline has made it a habit of being constantly in the news. mostly it is negative publicity that it tends to attract in india...that too, without really trying, mainly from indians

the specific topic from which this blog post came about was about the 'aunties' that pass for air hostesses in air india and how the slim and svelte singapore girls score over them. in fact, many times, during discussions about the morass that air india finds itself in, i hear arguments about these 'aunties', as if that alone is a clinching evidence of why air india is loss-making and singapore, one of the leading airlines of the world!

now, i do not want to go into the reasons why air india is losing money. i won't talk of aviation ministers who have stakes in private airlines, or those whose offsprings are married to the offsprings of private airline owners, or about each MD wanting to show a profit on the balance sheet and hence, selling off profitable routes, or landing slots, or about the babudom that interferes in the smallest decisions or the late payment to employees. i do not want to talk about how i have almost always had a wonderful experience with air india, or at least that i have had as many bad experiences with other airlines as i have had with air india. i do not want to talk of the funny things i have heard where the only response is "only in (air) india", or some of the outlandish hyperbole i have heard some indians spout when the subject is the national carrier

"i see, and which hat are you talking through at the moment?"
there is a story (apocryphal, i hope) that some years ago, when the then CMD of air india wrote to the aviation secretary begging for government funding to keep the airline afloat, the aviation secretary wrote back a stinging letter asking him to put his own house in order first and refusing any more support. the punchline to this joke is that the then CMD was also the aviation secretary, and was just using the famed 'different hat' approach that bureaucrats around the world use, to sidestep his responsibilities while creating thick paper files

in fact, this blog post is not about attacking or defending air india at all, though heaven knows it has a lot going for it, and a lot to answer for. this blog post is generally about air hostesses and their specific role in-flight, as well as the public perception about this particular profession

what is the job description of an air hostess? a small search online listed several items. the following paragraph is verbatim from an airline crew website, and is as good a description as any: "The job of air hostess involves welcoming passengers on board, performing all the safety procedures prior to take off, and ensuring that passengers are made comfortable during the flight. The air hostess will often be serving in-flight meals and drinks from a trolley, helping nervous fliers, sorting out seating issues and selling duty free items. Another responsibility is making announcements on behalf of the pilot, and answering passenger questions during the flight."

i can see nowhere in this description, or the hundreds of others that one can find quite easily online, where it requires the air hostess to be pretty, or slim, or young, or unmarried. yes, these criteria exist in the industry, as can be seen in the job requirements, but they are not part of the job description...and herein lies the rub

requirement: must fit in ridiculously small dress
why do we need the person responsible for closing the door of the aircraft properly, making sure we are all secure & know how to use the safety equipment, announcing the destination etc, and serving us our drink/meal to look beautiful, or be young, or be unmarried, or wear heavy makeup or a wig or a revealing dress? and honestly, why would an airline want them to be so?

lest you think this is some kind of ultra-feminist rant, let me clarify: i am seriously and rationally questioning the need for certain parameters that have been an integral part of the job requirements of a certain profession and have not moved with changing needs and times. nowhere do i claim that they must be ugly, out-of-shape, badly dressed, unhygienic or inhospitable. i only question the prevailing requirement to be exceptionally beautiful, skinny, and young

i understand that this is a job in the hospitality industry, and that it is a well-researched and well proven fact that people buy more from other people they consider good-looking, but do you seriously think that when i decide which airline i will buy my next ticket from, i care a damn about the looks of the staff? i will not list all the parameters that go into my decision to fly airline A or B, but i guarantee you that in such a hypothetical list, "how beautiful, young and lissome are the cabin crew?" is a consideration that probably ranks somewhere near the bottom

this picture says: "please read my blog!"
i can understand the requirement to choose a good-looking person over someone less good-looking when deciding on a salesperson. many restaurants and malls use this trick. put a beautiful, young, skinny woman in a revealing dress and heavy makeup, and chances are, sales will rise. some chains, like Hooters, have pivoted their businesses around this. but then, they employ pretty faces (and bodies) at the point of sale, and not where the prettiness of the face or the tightness of the body is irrelevant, like in the kitchen, or accounting

also, people look at the cost of the ticket, convenience of the schedule and location of airport, facilities on-board etc, than the chances of meeting a supermodel on-board. no, really...have you ever met someone who decides which airline to fly based on the looks of the cabin crew? or, looking at it from another angle: would you pay a premium for a better seat? how about excess baggage? late check-in? choice of food? on-time operations? courteous service? cute air hostesses? the answer to all of the above is YES, except the last question, where, i can assure you, not a single ticket-buying passenger would agree to pay a single rupee extra just for a good face to look at during their two-hour flight. i think we can all agree on that

which one would you rather have when you are in hospital?
this is akin to choosing your dentist or your child's school or your car repair shop based on how sexy the nurse, teacher or mechanic is respectively. in fact, even in the show business or the hospitality industry, regardless of all the effort taken by the business to have good-looking people on their staff, only the front-facing, sales-generating employees need have pleasant faces, and that is a far cry from strictly requiring beautiful faces. imagine, for an instance, a five star hotel chain that openly discriminates based on looks. whether in india or the USA, they would soon have their hides sued, and sued successfully at that

given that logic, it is hard to see why airlines across the world make it compulsory, to the point of obsessiveness, that the air hostesses they employ are as close to fashion models as possible. not just this, they spend huge amounts of money advertising, recruiting, training, kitting out and maintaining the cabin crew in this shape and form. of course, it is not a surprise that all of this money is recovered from the travellers

honestly, you only require pleasant looks, which are not outright repelling to the normal target user you service, and more importantly, you require the cabin crew to be fit, well-trained, courteous and empathetic...and there is a HUGE difference between 'pleasant looking and fit' and the kind of requirements airlines impose on their cabin crew

in fact, singapore airlines has something called a 'kebaya round'. this requires some explanation. read more about it here. here is an excerpt of the relevant section (the photograph below is of another such nightmare, from another website):

5. Kebaya/Uniform Test
This was the most egg-citing. Basically about 7 girls go in, and there are kebayas hung on the rack. You’re supposed to find your size and dress up. They set up 3 cubicles without doors.. you just got to change loh. You may not find your size, and it took a lot of negotiating between girls, trying a few outfits etc. If all fails, you can simply wait for other girls to finish the evaluation and change out of their uniforms to get your perfect size.
After you found your perfect uniform, you have to walk towards the evaluators. They will check your hands, and ask you to lift the kebaya skirt to mid calf. And finally, ask you to turn around and she will check your neck area for scars too, then ask you to walk away from her.
This was the round that I thought I might really fail. First, I felt awkward in my skirt, and I was asked to walk twice, just to make them “feel more comfortable [with their decision]” and secondly, she asked if I had sensitive skin when she saw my very dry legs.
can't be an air hostess? try your luck on milan runways. it might be easier to get in
a cousin of mine is trying for this airline, and tells me how she is starving herself and having nightmares about this particular round! she has been an air hostess with a reputed airline for the past 5 years, but is she concerned about her being able to fit into the new employer's culture? about her flight training? about coping with an international clientele? of shifting to a new country? no...what she is mortally afraid of is not being able to fit into their ridiculously tight uniform!

and no, singapore is not the only culprit. every airline has the same rules, some unwritten, some explicit.

namaskar! do my looks come up to your ridiculous standards?
but once again, is this blog about how evil the airlines are? no. my problem is not the airlines. they only do what they think the market wants. my problem is why the market wants something so silly and useless but considers it so important. why, when we speak of air india, instead of the one hundred and ten other more important issues plaguing the company, we talk derisively of the age, size, girth, dress and looks of the air hostesses?

why do we care so much? i'd rather have a well-trained, efficient, courteous, fit, and pleasant looking lady as air hostess serving me when at 30,000 feet than a long-legged, unmarried, young, skinny girl. all i care for is the efficiency of service. why should her looks concern me?

in any case, i would not apply that criteria to decide which airline i shall be giving my business to. what about you?