For years, airlines have penalized luggage for weighing too much. Now at least one carrier is applying that same logic to its flight attendants.
Air India is grounding about 130 of its flight attendants — mostly women — because they are overweight, the company announced late last week.
The state-owned airline said the decision was based on safety concerns and recent government regulations, but critics said it was “ridiculous” and “shockingly sexist.”
The mass grounding is just the latest in a 10-year-long tug-of-war between the airline and its larger flight attendants. Weight limits for Indian flight attendants date back to the 1980s, when Air India began circulating height and weight charts, according to a 2014 opinion by Delhi High Court Judge Rajiv Shakdher.
In 2006, Air India grounded nine female flight attendants deemed “exceptionally overweight,” the BBC reported. “Being grossly overweight does have a bearing on reflexes and can impair agility required to perform the emergency functions,” the airline claimed. The hostesses sued, but a Delhi court backed up the carrier in 2008. The women appealed, only for the airline to fire them in 2009 as the country’s Supreme Court was still considering the case.
“All efforts to get them to reduce weight had failed,” Air India spokesman Jitendra Bhargava told the BBC at the time.
“It is incredibly upsetting that working women are being targeted,” Sheila Joshi, a 51-year-old flight attendant with 27 years of experience, told the Times of London after the Supreme Court denied her demand to ban the weight limits. “This is not a modelling job; we are not working a catwalk.”
“Now, if you are just 10 grams over, it’s goodbye,” said Joshi, who managed to keep her job after slimming down to less than the 140-pound maximum allowed for her 5-foot-3-inch height. “It’s ridiculous: Weight is not an infectious disease.”
Despite a series of lawsuits from other attendants, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCO) issued guidelines in 2013 requiring flight attendants to undergo routine medical checkups, including an evaluation of their body mass index, or BMI.
Air India followed suit but met resistance. Flight attendants refused to take the test, demanding the airline first pay for gym memberships and arguing that Air India had agreed to ban BMI back in the 1990s, according to the Times of India.
In 2014, after Justice Shakdher ordered Indian Airlines (part of Air India) to reinstate three hostesses fired for gaining weight, the government updated its guidelines once again. Under the current guidelines, “unfit” crew members with high BMIs are given six months to slim down or face grounding.
Air India tested 3,500 employees and determined that 600 were overweight or obese. They were put on a regimen of diet and exercise before being reassessed.
“About 130 of them failed the reassessment,” an Air India official told the Telegraph. “We are now declaring them permanently unfit for their job as flight attendants.”
“People who are fitter can respond quicker and more efficiently in case of any untoward situation,” another airline official said.
But Air India’s new policy has plenty of critics.
‘The guidelines are arbitrary and discriminatory,” an official from the All India Cabin Crew Association told the Daily Mail. “They just can’t wake up one fine morning and make some crazy rules citing flimsy reasons.”
Flight attendants and aviation experts have called the policy “shallow” and an underhanded way to screen out talented but less attractive employees, according to the Telegraph.
“This move to impose a certain BMI, ignoring experience and other performance parameters, is immature, misogynistic and shockingly sexist,” aviation industry consultant Mark Martin told the newspaper. “We seem to have lost the plot on what is needed from flight attendants.”
Weight was once a consideration for airlines in the United States, as well, but then a series of weight-discrimination lawsuits forced carriers to scrap their guidelines, according to CNN.
Part of the problem seems to be that the state-owned airline is in a race to compete with newer private companies whose employees are often younger and thinner.
Air India has made a number of moves in recent years to catch up to its competitors, including scrapping its sari-only dress policy earlier this year. More controversially, however, the airline has openly admitted that it is trying to up its aesthetic standards.
“Looks matter in this line of work,” personnel manager Meenakshi Dua told the BBC in 2004, “and therefore we are giving it a lot of importance.”
“When we review a candidate, we look at the skin, teeth and height,” she said. “There should be no scars, acne, or any major marks on the face.
“The candidate should have a pleasing personality, should be able to carry him or herself with confidence and be ready to serve others. After all, that is the job of an air hostess and a male steward.”
The company has also been sued in the past for allegedly barring women from supervisory positions.
When it comes to weight limits, at least, Air India isn’t alone. Sometimes, sexism can cut the other way. In 2013, rival Indian airline GoAir said it was hiring mostly women because they weighed less than men, according to CNN. Thai Airways has also imposed weight limits on its flight attendants, grounding several dozen — most of them men — for their bulging waistlines back in 2011, also according to CNN.
More recently, Chinese company Qingdao Airlines was accused of grounding or firing employees due to their weight. A Qingdao spokesman told the South China Morning Post that the airline did, indeed, have stringent weight requirements, but denied any employees had been grounded or sacked.
Back in 2009, however, an Indian judge had another idea for improving airline performance.
“You should focus on how they serve passengers, their good conduct instead of their weight,” Supreme Court Justice Tarun Chatterjee told Air India’s lawyers. “Weight is no criteria to determine competence.”
“You tell me the mantra on how to lose weight,” Chatterjee added. “I haven’t been able to lose weight.”