Thin Air

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When I was in college in the early 1980s, one of my work-study jobs was in the Labor-Management Documentation Center at Cornell University’s Martin P. Catherwood Library. I often summarized and filed union arbitration materials, and I remember reading a lot about flight attendants who got fired for being “over weight.” In 1993 Anna Quindlen published a column in the NYT entitled “Public & Private; In Thin Air.” Here are a couple of excerpts:

Flight attendants still have weight limits on many airlines. If you are fat, you get fired. Only what passes for fat is average to you or me.

Sue Liebling of Seattle is 44 yea old, stands 5 feet 4, weighs 144 pounds and wears a size 10 dress. Each year she has to complete an emergency training course, keeping current on all those crash contingencies we passengers don’t like to consider at 30,000 feet. But if she doesn’t get back down to 135 on schedule, 24 years of experience at United Airlines is down the drain.

Barbara O’Brien of Eugene, Ore., just got suspended without pay, even though she recently dropped 28 pounds, baby weight from her second pregnancy. When she flew to San Francisco last week to work a United overseas flight, she was still 12 pounds over her maximum of 133, and they sent her packing.

This small cul-de-sac of institutional stupidity reflects a larger problem with consumer services in America: they are behind the learning curve of consumers. This is how Detroit continued to turn out big pig cars for some time after gasoline had gone on the gold standard, and how manufacturers of women’s apparel took it into their heads to bring back hobble skirts at a time when women are on the move. …

…The official United explanation for weight limits has to do with “professional appearance.” In other words, svelte equals professional. So much for telling girls not to put their fingers down their throat to bring up lunch, that it is performance and not appearance that counts. Some flight attendants make weight in the same way bulimics and anorexics do: laxatives, diuretics and purging.

But those who work within the flight attendants’ unions think the restrictions have an uglier purpose, that they combine a yen for the “Fly me” era with the more contemporary corporate yearning to junk older, more experienced workers for younger, less costly ones. Recently one flight attendants’ union filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging that the United policy “perpetuates a sex-based stereotype that female flight attendants must be slim-bodied, attractive women, rather than competent employees.” …

The suit that Quindlen is probably referring to, Frank v. United Airlines, began in 1992. It was brought by experienced flight attendants who had attempted to lose weight, but were disciplined and/or terminated for failing to comply with United’s maximum weight requirements, as an employment discrimination class action. They lost in a district court but won in the Ninth Circuit. The suit was finally settled almost twelve years later, on February 11, 2004, but ten years earlier the litigation had persuaded United to abolish its weight requirements.

I bring all this up, because via this post by Samhita at Feministing, I learned that Delhi’s Supreme Court is currently hearing a dispute concerning whether Indian Airlines, the state-owned air carrier, can fire its flight attendants for being too heavy. An article in the UK Guardian reports:

…Eleven employees, recently grounded for putting on too much weight, claim that the airline has changed its vision of the Indian feminine ideal – abandoning the more buxom prototype in favour of a more westernised, skinny model, which staff see as ‘unattainable’.

Indian Airlines will argue that this is a case of selecting the ‘best ambassadors’ to represent the national airline, and the country as a whole, and will also claim that thinner employees are more agile and better equipped to tackle terrorist incidents and other emergencies.

‘They want to discard the heavier women and bring in newer, thinner models,’ said Sheela Joshi, an air hostess who was grounded after a spot weigh-in found she was 1.9kg over the prescribed limit for her height.

Distressed at the prospect of losing her job after 25 years with the company, she went on a crash diet, and now eats only one meal a day to try to keep within the limit. She has been allowed to fly again, but describes the process as demeaning. ‘This is our national carrier and should represent the dignity of Indian culture. These new policies are humiliating to women.’

An internal memo earlier this year warned cabin staff they would be banned from flying if random weight checks found them to be over a fixed weight, set out in a company chart. Although weight guidelines have always been in place, previously they were not rigorously enforced. Lawyers for the cabin crew unions say that around 130 members of staff have been temporarily suspended without pay for putting on too much weight, although most are now back at work.

The court will rule this week on whether the airline is within its rights to stop paying staff, grounded because of their weight, and lawyers will decide whether it is a breach of constitutional rights to discriminate against overweight staff. …

I hope the flight attendants get justice.

–Ann Bartow

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0 Responses to Thin Air

  1. Joseph Slater says:

    I knew some of the lawyers working for the Flight Attendants’ Union that won the case you cited, and it really was amazing to hear the stupid arguments the airlines put forward. And of course, related to this issue are the Title VII BFOQ cases rejecting the claims of airlines that they needed to hire only women to be flight attendants. There’s a good history of the profession, although it’s too old to cover these cases, called From Sky Girl to Flight Attendant: Women and the Making of a Union (1982), by Georgia Panter Nielsen.