Un-PC Thoughts On Stewardesses & Unionization

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 7/24/2009 08:53:00 PM
"THWACK!!!" The lovely Cathay Pacific stewardess had just slapped my hand while I was reaching for a roll in the bread basket on board a flight from the Far East to London, leaving me whimpering in mock pain. As anyone who's been to the Pacific Rim knows, folks from Hong Kong are ultra paranoid about swine flu given their previous experience with bird flu. Hence, it was no surprise to me that throngs of Chinese travelers at Hong Kong's Chep Lap Kok airport had surgical masks on. Sharing their finicky disposition, the Cathay Pacific stewardess served our meals with gloves on and insisted on delivering bread rolls with tongs.

My previous years of study made it more convenient to fly KLM because that airline brought me directly into Birmingham International from Amsterdam Schipol. For reasons I'll share soon, this trip required that I travel to London. Now, European airlines have a mix of younger stewardesses and others who appear--shall we say--more veteran. Thus, European airline travel is more of a hit-and-miss for male travelers bored with being stuck on a flying metal can for hours on end. More recent travel time in Asia has just reminded me of how much I've missed traveling in the rather more unionized skies of Europe. You've probably seen advertising materials in travel magazines full of lovely flight attendants from Asian airlines plying orange juice and mineral water. Thankfully, I can attest that there is still truth in advertising. Fly the aforementioned Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Philippine Airlines, or Thai Airways and you're bound to notice that most stewardesses really resemble women in the advertising literature. They don't usually hire models and feature actual flight crew in ads. More often than not, they have lustrous hair, flawless complexion, and slim, shapely figures.

By now, you're probably wondering, "What does this have to do with IPE, man?" It's simple, really. The onset of commercial flight is now regarded as the golden age of air travel. Countries wanted to put their best face forward to the world by establishing national carriers, and, of course, including comely stewardesses. However, deregulation and unionization have really spelled the death knell for the romance of travel. Don't get me wrong: el cheapo discount fares have their place, but when you're traveling farther distances and paying more, you certainly feel like you're entitled to more of the things from the good old days.

As is usually the case, the Americans are the worst offenders. The not-so politically correct truth is that, to preserve their image, airlines have used age and even weight restrictions for cabin crew. Highly unionized American flight attendants, however, dealt a death blow to these sorts of practices a long, long time ago:
Many flight attendants had never cared for the airlines' long-standing no-marriage rule for stewardesses (no other airline employees were subject to it). Many were also annoyed when airlines began in the 1950s to require them to retire or transfer to a ground job when they turned 32 or 35 years old. Flight attendants' union officials complained about these policies and tried to overturn them through official grievances and collective bargaining, but airlines would not budge.

Then came Title VII. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was mostly concerned with addressing racial discrimination, but Title VII of the Act, which concerned employment, also forbade discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex. For flight attendants, Title VII meant new leverage in challenging airline age and marriage rules in labor relations and in the courts. Though using Title VII would prove slower and trickier than flight attendants anticipated, they eventually forced airlines to drop age and marriage restrictions entirely by the end of the 1960s. In the 1970s and beyond, they used Title VII with less success to challenge maternity restrictions and strict weight monitoring (which, like age and marriage rules, had never been applied to other airline employees).
So there you have the PC version of why American carriers feature decidedly more, er, matronly flight crew than the global norm. This holds to some extent as well in Europe depending on the particular airline, but un-PC Asian airlines are basically not blighted by commie-unionization, hence the difference. While having to remain unmarried is certainly an unwelcome intrusion, the rest is more questionable. At one point or another, major American carriers justly known worldwide for their utter crappiness have been bankrupt, subsidized by the government, or both. The reasons usually given are lousy service, high prices for aviation fuel, fear of terrorism, excessive security hassles, etc. I have always wondered if the real reason behind unprofitable airlines is that half of the passengers long for the days gone by when US flight attendants were still in the business of keeping appearances. Go figure.

When was the last time a US airline has won an international award? In some parts of the world, making money by providing travel services people actually want is not frowned upon, strange as it sounds. The Asian airlines mentioned above rack up all these accolades year in and year out while their US counterparts fill the skies with often surly flight attendants who look like they could beat me to a pulp if they wanted to. To me, crappy US airlines are another symptom of general American decline, plain and simple. If they want to improve matters, it's clear to me where they should start.

Note that I am not being sexist here. Someone thought of coming up with Hooters Air stateside but that has since closed. That is, the hick version of the romance of travel didn't play too well. There is nothing crass about having young, attractive flight crew. In other places of the world, it is an honor to be a stewardess as people will automatically think, "she must be attractive, then." It's an expected norm or at least it was during bygone days--an occupation for young'uns wishing to see the world. Moreover, I don't see anything wrong with giving female travelers hunky flight attendants to even things out who are also booted off the 747-400 when they get too portly or too old. More often than not, money losers look the part. I'll bet that you won't find stewardess dolls at Chicago O'Hare.

Finally, and I should really be returning to more conventional topics, the idea that presenting attractive flight attendants compromises flight safety is utterly absurd. Had a seasoned veteran slapped my hand instead of the lovely but no-questions-who's-in-charge Cathay Pacific flight attendant, I probably would have tried sneaking out more bread rolls surreptitiously to get back at her, swine flu or not. Thankfully, such wasn't the case here. Truth be told, I don't mind being slap...[EDIT: The IPE Zone remains a family oriented blog. The usual Emmanuel will return soon with more hard-hitting commentary on world economy once his newfound hangup with explaining the demise of the airline industry wears off.]

PS: AskMen UK has some good, some daft ideas about this topic.