India - New Delhi




"Air India does not ground male cabin crew who are overweight. Advocate Anand Grover, who has filed a case 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."

By Geeta Seshu

Mumbai (Women's Feature Service) - The recent judgement of the Delhi High Court grounding airline staffers who do not meet the weight criteria has brought into focus a gamut of issues - from fat versus fitness; discrimination against air hostesses; and mindsets trapped in notions of glamour and beauty in this service industry.

Stripped of the gloss, women in this industry have had to prove their competence despite their age, winning the right to fly till the age of 58 - like their male counterparts - only since 2002. Despite the new logo and the common nomenclature of 'Air India', service conditions of staff of both airlines down the line remain separate. Representatives of Air India, the erstwhile national carrier, say that staff of Indian Airlines enjoys 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 complete transition to the 'National Aviation Company of India Ltd., under which the merged airlines now operate, will obviously take more time.

The court's opinion, in a judgement by Justices A.K. Sikri and J.R. Midha, is clearly in favour of fitness over fat (the judgement stated 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 have 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.

Till February 2008, at least 43 of the around 2,500 air hostesses of Air India, Indian Airlines and Alliance Air, have been grounded for being overweight, according to a reply given by Civil Aviation minister Praful Patel, in response to a starred question in Parliament posed by Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament Hema Malani. Cabin crew undergoes periodic medical check-ups and can resume flight duties when they regain their permissible weight limits, the minister's reply added.

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 a moot point, underscored by the tragic death of an Air India flight purser last week 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?" asks Nandita Gandhi of Akshara, a women's research centre. Concurs 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?"

Shockingly, the answer is an emphatic 'No'. Air India (which, according to the aforementioned response of the minister, has grounded 16 air hostesses), does not ground male cabin crew who are overweight. Advocate Anand Grover, who has filed a case 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, that has meandered through several orders, notices of motion and contempt petitions against the airline all these 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, observed 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 felt.

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," felt 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 less 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.

Courtesy: Women's Feature Service



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