- 27 октября 2011, 23:30
A new TV drama aims to show us the era of 'glamorous' air travel. The reality was blatant sexism about female staff. And, sadly, not much has changed …
Much excitement ahead of Pan Am, the latest retro drama to follow in the wake of Mad Men. It is to be screened on BBC2 next month fresh from its US airing, and the channel is promising to fly us "back to 1963 and the dawn of a glamorous new era of luxury air travel". Glamorous – and incredibly sexist.
It is not hard to find evidence of what life was like for female flight attendants at the time. One, Trudy Baker, even wrote a memoir at the close of the decade – charmingly entitled Coffee, Tea or Me? – in which she recalled being sexually molested by a passenger during an emergency landing. After complaining to her superviser 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. In August, a would-be flight attendant who applied to Garuda Indonesia told a local newspaper that she and her fellow 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.
In July this year, 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. Last month, a report in the Times of India accused Air India of following a similar recruitment policy. And brand new airline Thai Smile (operated by Thai Airways) is currently recruiting a 100-strong cabin crew of women under 24, ready for its launch in 2012.
"The reason for this is simply competition," explains Bev Skegg, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths and author of Formations of Class and Gender. "Airlines want to appear more high-end than their competitors to add value to their service," she says. "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.
Indeed, when the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), which represents 600,000 aviation industry workers, complained to Ryanair three years ago about the calendar, the airline's chief executive, Michael O'Leary promised: "We note ITF's objection to the calendar. Rest assured this has encouraged us to produce an even bigger and better charity calendar for next year."
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", says Skegg. "That combination is explosive."
Indeed, according to Gabriel Mocho Rodriguez, civil aviation secretary at the ITF in London, the most commonly reported complaints made by cabin crew "relate to physical contact and inappropriate approaches".
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 last month 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," explains Mocho Rodriguez.
The ITF has an ongoing campaign called Tales of Harassment, which logs all such complaints. They do not make comfortable reading. In one, "A passenger pinched the flight attendant's bottom when she was passing his seat, touched her breasts while she was serving his meal and, later, stood up behind her, grasped her hips and simulated sexual intercourse." In another: "A male passenger touched my behind. I told him, 'You do that again and I'll slap you.' I asked other passengers to witness the behaviour … you get afraid that you might lose your job."
For those in the industry, fearful of their job security and entrenched in these sorts of behaviour, it is only on finding a new career that the scale of the intimidation and harrassment becomes clear. Ruth Walford was a flight attendant for Thomson Airways in 2007 and now works as a speech therapist. "Looking back, I'm disgusted, but when you're in that environment, you barely notice," she admits. "One time I was giving a pilot a lift home and he made it clear he expected us to sleep together, even though he'd talked about his fiancee during the journey." She is adamant that this is commonplace. "Back then, I thought little of it, but if someone treated me like that in my job as a speech therapist, I'd be deeply offended."
The pressure on appearance continues long after the recruitment process, too. "Putting on weight is a huge deal," Walford says. 'When my friend from another airline went from a size 10 to 12 and requested new uniform, someone from the administration office left a Slimming World leaflet in her pigeonhole."
Additionally, most airlines stipulate minimum makeup requirements. Walford says that Thomson demands female crew wear lipstick, blusher and mascara. For Aviation Australia, the minimum requirement is foundation, eye-shadow, mascara, blusher and lipstick. Its handbook even stipulates specific rules for women: "Have a trim every four to five weeks ... Use a good quality shampoo ... Use eye-shadow to emphasise your eyes … Choose tones that complement your eye colour." Even footwear is proscribed.
"Thomson Airways made us wear flat shoes on the flight but at the end of duty, we had to put on specially issued shoes with heels to walk out of the airport," says Walford. "There was no sense to it. They just wanted passengers to see us tottering around." Proof indeed that not enough has changed since 1963: in the publicity shots for Pan Am, Christina Ricci and her co-stars are all wearing similar standard issue heeled court shoes.