Last month, I read a CNN article that made me ponder once again on the different standards that countries have on flight attendants. I know I’m making a generalization here, but from my personal experiences, on most Asian-owned airlines, the flight attendants are overwhelmingly young and well-groomed ladies. However, in the US, I see many more older, more seasoned flight attendants who may not necessarily wear much make-up or have their hair pulled back in a tight bun like their Asian counterparts.
As much as we all hate to admit it, appearance matters – but it should only matter to a certain degree. What many airline executives in Asian countries believe is that customers prefer younger, more attractive flight attendants – which would, in turn, boost sales. So even though most large-scale, international airlines no longer have explicit criteria for flight attendant selection that is based on physical appearance, one’s height, body-weight proportion, and age are still open rules that restrict many hopefuls from even being eligible. According to a Business Insider article, the selection process for flight attendants at China Southern Airlines has become an “American Idol-type reality TV show” where 98% of applicants don’t make it past the first round of interviews. Oh, and don’t even think about it if you can’t pass any of the following criteria:
- Women must be 25 or younger
- They must be single
- They must be between 5′ and 5’9″
- Their legs cannot be “X or O shaped”
- There are also restrictions on their weight-to-height ratio
- No glasses or visible scars
These rules don’t look that different from those of Pan Am back in the days:
- Mandatory retirement age is 32
- Women could not be married or have children
- They must be at least 5’2″
- They must weigh no more than 130 pounds
In other words, it means that Christina Ricci, who starred in the cancelled “Pan Am” series would not have been able to be a stewardess due to her height and age either back then during the heyday of Pan Am or today with China Southern. Although most of these rules would now be considered illegal hiring discrimination in many countries, they are still reportedly unofficially taken into account during the selection process. It is disappointing and frustrating to see that the perception of flight attendants as young, beautiful ladies are still taken to such extreme and unfair levels, especially in this day and age. I personally don’t believe that the physical appearance of flight attendants affects my inflight experience as much as their customer service, food quality (if there’s any), my own physical comfort, and who I’m sitting next to. Granted, it is ironic that US-based airlines, which strictly adhere to equal opportunity hiring practices, rarely makes it to the top 10 of the World’s Top Airlines Awards. But that has less to do with the flight attendants’ physical appearance, and more to do with the management style, incentives, and unionization of cabin crew on US carriers. Click here if you are interested in learning more about why US airlines are low on customer service ratings.
I understand that all companies seek to present their best image to lure consumers. But at the same time, they need to be aware of the notions that the particular image perpetuates, and how that may translate into discriminatory hiring practices that border on labor and human rights violations. Here is a short clip featuring former American Airlines stewardess Dusty Roads who fought against discrimination in the 1960s:
Now watch this Korean Air’s promotional video and see for yourself why people’s perceptions of the ideal flight attendant have not changed all that much since the 1950s:
Now, that had more of a subtle message. But Ireland-based low-cost carrier Ryan Air and Thai-based Nok Air opted to be much bolder:
Yes, these publicity stints grab consumers’ attention, but what else do they do? They reinforce a hypersexualized image of female flight attendants. And it’s unclear whether they actually boost sales.
Although changes are slow to come, it is encouraging to see other cabin crew members, such as those of Korean-based Asiana Airlines, fight back to long-standing rules that limit women to wearing skirts uniforms, in addition to other ridiculous standards.
There is no doubt that Asian airlines consistently dominate in terms of providing the best cabin service, as recognized by the World’s Cabin Staff Award year after year. However, it is important to keep in mind that behind that prestige lies a harder reality based on appearances and impressions that dictate the career trek of both current and aspiring flight attendants.
To end on a brighter note, click here to watch a video featuring an American Airlines flight attendant who retired earlier this year after spending over half a decade with the company.