The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

(Updated) The surprising ways in which some flight attendants are still made to live in the 1960s

The new Airbus A 350 of Qatar Airways coming from Doha, Qatar, approaches the gate at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Update (2/16): On Monday, we received a statement from Qatar Airways defending the company's employment practices, saying they're different from what's described in this post.

The airline said that it does hire cabin crew members who are already married. It also said that single employees do not have to ask the airline for permission to marry.

“Qatar Airways flight attendants do not have to be, or remain single,” Rossen Dimitrov, Qatar Airways Senior Vice President Customer Experience, said in the statement. “Many of our cabin crew are in fact married.”

The airline said its cabin crew do have to notify the airline of pregnancies, as mandated by Qatar’s civil aviation authority, “for health and safety reasons.” If employees cannot fly because of pregnancy, they are “assisted with finding suitable ground positions.”

Qatar Airways was not immediately able to say when these policies took effect. Last March, Reuters reported on an event in which the airline’s CEO, Akbar al-Baker, defending a set of restrictions on flight attendants — including a contract stipulation preventing marriage in the first five years with the company.

The International Transport Workers' Federation, which has published the alleged findings of standard Qatar Airways employee contracts, said last week that the airline has made no progress in its treatment of flight attendants. “[Qatar Airlines] contracts bar female workers from marrying for five years,” the federation says. “Even after that period they must seek the airline’s permission to marry.”

We have asked Qatar Airways for further details and will update as more information becomes available.


Over the last 20 years, Qatar Airways has undergone a remarkable transformation. Backed by tiny Qatar’s government riches, the airline has added routes to every populated continent, soaring from the 90th-largest international carrier to the 10th. Its prices on flights to D.C., New York, Miami and Dallas are cheap enough to pose a major challenge for U.S. carriers, who are trying to fight back.

But there’s just one problem with an airline that says it has one of the "most modern" fleets in the skies: Qatar’s flight attendants live under rules of an earlier decade. A way earlier decade. Like, one without international labor standards or women’s rights.

According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a major trade union group, female flight attendants can only be hired by Qatar Airways if they’re single. They must remain so for five years after starting work. If they want to marry, they have to ask the airline’s permission. If and when they get pregnant, they must notify the airline as soon as they know. Even though pregnancy is a breach of contract and can lead to firing.

In this case, getting fired often means deportation: Some 90 percent of Qatar’s staff are from other countries, allowed to live in Doha because of their jobs.

Clearly, the evolution of the flight attendant isn’t complete. In fact, depending on where in the world you live or fly, you might think the evolution hasn’t started at all. Though Qatar’s restrictions rank among the most severe, other airlines still maintain practices that might have felt more familiar to Pan Am travelers of the 1960s.

In much of Asia, airliners use majority-female — and young — cabin crews, and their roles fall somewhere between cheerleaders and brand beauty symbols. China Southern Airlines holds an annual, televised American Idol-style competition for its potential female crew that includes a swimsuit pageant. VietJet, a Vietnamese low-cost carrier, three years ago held a bikini contest of its own — while on board a flight.

The women of Asiana Airlines, headquartered in Seoul, face guidelines for nail length, makeup color and hairstyle — a bun with two bobby pins max, if you were curious. Only two years ago, after some complaints by South Korea’s national human rights commission, were the Asiana flight attendants freed from a skirts-only dress code.

Then there are the women of Singapore Airlines, whom the airline actually describes as “Singapore Girls.” They wear designer sarongs and are the “epitome of Asian grace and hospitality.” Also, they appear in ridiculous ads.

For American travelers, this might feel pretty backward. But it wasn’t always the case.

According to the book “Working the Skies,” by Drew Whitelegg, U.S. stewardesses of the 1960s faced a no-marriage rule and age restrictions. The average job tenure was about two years. As airlines grappled for market share, the stewardesses became, as Whitelegg calls them, “sex objects in the sky.” On international flights, TWA had its flight attendants dress up in the costumes of the countries to which it was flying — think togas and Olde English costumes. Braniff, a big carrier at the time, gave its flight attendants eye-catching outfits and ran a print ad saying: “Does your wife know you’re flying with us?”

More recently, overt sexism is far more unusual. The greatest exception to that is in the Gulf, Gabriel Mocho, civil aviation secretary at the International Transport Workers’ Federation, told Reuters last year.

"The treatment of workers at Qatar Airways goes further than cultural differences,” Mocho said. “They are the worst for women’s rights among airlines.”

Qatar Airways on Friday did not respond to phone calls or an e-mail seeking comment, but its chief executive, Akbar al-Baker, has in the past defended the airlines policies, saying that the terms of employment are clearly stated, and that “mature” individuals who accept them shouldn’t complain.