On a recent British Airway’s flight, recently I was reminded that the dawn of luxury air travel for everyone wasn’t that long ago. Glamorous – but incredibly sexist if you’re a female flight attendant.
It is not hard to find evidence of what life was like for female flight attendant back in the day. One, Trudy Baker, even wrote a memoir charmingly entitled Coffee, Tea or Me? – in which she recalled being sexually molested by a passenger during an emergency landing. After complaining to her supervisor, she was told: “You know, Trudy, we can’t have an unhappy, unsmiling stewardess serving our valued travellers, can we?”
This response might seem as archaic as the uniforms, but scrape the surface and the trolley-dolly caricature is still prevalent, thanks in no small part to the aggressively sexualised marketing and recruitment methods used by a broad range of airlines. Garuda Indonesia candidates had been subjected to a “health examination” by a male doctor that involved having their breasts “fondled”. According to a Garuda official, the “hand examination on breast” was necessary to detect implants, which “can have health issues when air pressure falls during flights”. It is not a practice common to other airlines.
Thai airline Nok Air posted a recruitment advert for “beautiful girls with nice personalities” to fill its cabin crew positions; those over 25 were deemed too old.
Air India did follow a similar recruitment policy. And brand-new airline Thai Smile (operated by Thai Airways) recruited a 100-strong cabin crew of women under 24.
The reason for this is simply competition, Airlines want to appear more high-end than their competitors to add value to their service. To do this, they market their product as luxurious and desirable, with youth and beauty effectively transmitting that message. Witness the Air New Zealand TV advertising campaign of 2009 in which cabin crew were photographed wearing nothing but body paint; or the Southwest Airlines planes emblazoned with murals of bikini-clad supermodel Bar Rafaeli. Virgin Atlantic has famously run £6m advertising campaigns featuring its “red hotties” and there is an annual “Girls of Ryanair” pinup calendar.
Aesthetic labour – when employees’ feelings and appearance are turned into commodities – isn’t, of course, a new phenomenon, and is familiar in retail too. For flight attendants, though, who need to provide emotional support – making travellers feel safe and looked after – this “combination of sexuality and emotionality takes place in a contained and often stressful environment.
While a handful of complaints receive wider coverage – such as the allegations that Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexually harassed Air France attendants, or that 25-year-old passenger Katherine Goldberg grabbed a male crew member’s genitalia and demanded sex during a Virgin Atlantic flight to Heathrow – the majority are made anonymously, and often do not name the airline. They are afraid of losing their jobs, which are often payable hourly and on short-term contracts.
The pressure on appearance continues long after the recruitment process, too.
Additionally, most airlines stipulate minimum makeup requirements. Thomson demands female crew wear lipstick, blusher and mascara. Even footwear is proscribed.
Thomson Airways make flat shoes mandatory on the flight but at the end of duty, they put on specially issued shoes with heels to walk out of the airport. In the publicity shots for a lot of airlines all wear similar standard issue heeled court shoes.