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Air hostesses suffer heavy defeat in India PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 07 June 2008

The Times

Air hostesses can be told that they are too fat to fly, the High Court in India has ruled.

Judges in Delhi threw out a case brought by five female employees of Air India who had been grounded by the state-owned carrier for breaching its weight limits.

The court deemed that flabby air crew made for bad business and - in a semantic clarification that may raise some eyebrows - that an employee's physique may be deemed an integral part of their personality.

“In the highly competitive industry of civil aviation, the company has to focus on the personality of its employees,” the ruling said. “By the very nature of their jobs, their overall physical personality is one of the primary considerations.”

Air India has always liked its air hostesses just so: until 1970 their retirement age was set at 30, and married women were barred from service. In the 1960s, J.R.D. Tata, the industrialist who founded the airline, asked them to wear their saris modestly and to avoid in-vogue white lipsticks. “The passenger is not very interested in being served by one who looks like a corpse,” he said.

India's judiciary has traditionally sympathised with the argument that, in the travel business, appearances count. One previous court edict pleaded with air hostesses to “battle their bulge” and to “control their girth”.

There has never been more pressure on attendants to stay trim. Air passenger numbers surged by 30 per cent in India last year, triggering the creation of a host of new carriers that are now being affected by rocketing fuel prices. Several companies have gone bust; the survivors are keen to secure any advantage they can over rivals.

The tactic of pulling in punters with svelte staff has been most enthusiastically embraced by the flamboyant billionaire Vijay Mallya, who owns the upmarket airline Kingfisher and assures travellers that he personally vets each member of his cabin crew before they are offered a contract.

Air India introduced a scale of weight limits - calculated according to an employee's height and age - two years ago. An 18-year-old woman with a height of 152cm (5ft), for instance, is allowed to be a maximum of 50kg (7st 10lb).

At the time the company estimated that one in ten of its 1,600 cabin crew were overweight and told offenders that they faced dismissal if they did not slim.

Angry staff members argued that there was no link between an air hostess's size and her abilities. “There is no connection between weight and performance when one is fit,” Arvind Sharma, the lawyer for the five employees, said.

The court disagreed. “Air crew has to be athletic to deal with any emergency and for that he or she has to be in good shape. That is the reason that not only maximum limit but minimum weight limits are also prescribed,” it said.

Spelling out the limits of the law, Justice A.K. Sikri and Justice J.R. Midha added: “There has been much debate about skinny bodies vis-a-vis healthy bodies, but there is no scope for any debate on overweight people.”

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