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Why all airlines should have mixed cabin crew

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-04-2017 Tarun Shukla

New Delhi: The policy of some Indian airlines to recruit only female cabin crew might be reinforcing gender stereotypes and should keep pace with international trends, experts say.

Airlines like IndiGo and Vistara that make up about 43% of the domestic market have only female cabin crew in their flights, while airline firms like Air India Ltd, Jet Airways Ltd and SpiceJet Ltd have mixed crew.

“Only women serving is a very traditional role and is very problematic. It seems to be an extension of the role they do at home—just that they are paid well there,” Ranjani K. Murthy, a Chennai-based researcher on gender and development, said.

Airlines also advertise the need for a certain kind of female crew. “Many airlines want fair and lovely cabin crew. It is very colonial,” Murthy said. “That is also something you have to break.”

Murthy said while Air India’s all-women crew operating the world’s longest flight was commendable, ideally, there should have been a “role reversal”, with female pilots flying and male crew serving the passengers.

IndiGo, run by InterGlobe Aviation Ltd, declined to comment on the subject.

Vistara, owned by Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines (famous for advertising “Singapore Girl” as a benchmark in service standard), said it does not rule out including male crew in future.

“Vistara is an equal opportunity employer, and we do not discriminate. While as of now we have an all-female cabin crew, we do not rule out hiring male crew at an appropriate time,” Vistara said, adding it feels handling unruly passengers was “not gender-dependent”.

Globally, the subject has evolved over the years.

Many years ago when commercial aviation was taking off, there were only female cabin attendants as only affluent people, mostly men, could afford to fly in those days and liked to be surrounded by pretty girls, said New York-based former Jet Airways chief executive officer Steve Forte.

Through the early 1960s there were rules for hostesses that placed restrictions on age, weight, appearance, marital status, among others. For example, it was common for the women to quit when they reached 35 years of age (even less for some airlines), or if they got married, or if they got pregnant.

There was also a preflight inspection by supervisors to insure correct appearance, proper hair length, proper rapport between weight and height, proper wear of the uniform, proper grooming, etc.

Male cabin attendants started appearing in the West around the late 1950s and early 1960s. Eventually most nations in the western world passed anti-discriminatory laws and the previous restrictions became illegal.

“That is why today in western airlines you see some old and overweight cabin attendants, long hair or strange hairdos, uniforms worn with some liberties, etc,” Forte said. “Under western culture it is considered discriminatory to restrict the hiring to only females and, such practice could be construed as demeaning to the female gender. One has to remember that passengers regard the role of cabin attendants as servers. We, in the industry, know their real purpose is to provide the safety of everyone on board in case of emergencies. Everything else they do is secondary.”

Safety indeed is the primary reason for a cabin crew to be on board.

“There have been instances where hostesses have been unable to take out the life rafts kept in overhead bins. A male crew member may help enhance safety,” said Mohan Ranganathan, a Chennai-based air safety analyst, backing the idea of mixed crew.

In one instance, he recalled when flying as a SilkAir captain in Singapore, the female crew could not take out the dinghy for inspection and the co-pilot had to pitch in to help.

During actual evacuations, like in cases of an engine fire, every second counts as passengers scramble to evacuate with their baggages (which are not allowed).

Also, during medical emergencies where medical equipment or the passenger needs to be physically moved, having both male and female crew helps, said a senior former Air India official, on the condition of anonymity.

In fact, a mixed crew on board helps bring in unsaid discipline in the cabin, the former official added.

“With increasing number of incidents of unruly behaviour of passengers on board, sometimes a brutal force need to be exercised to contain such passengers from harming themselves & others. In certain cases the presence of male crew can become a deterrent for such passengers,” the Air India official said.

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