Air India Hostesses Vindicated: Press statement by Air India hostesses

It’s been a long struggle for Air India hostesses who have been fighting for the basic right to be treated equally with their male counterparts. What follows is  a press statement they issued after finally having won the right to be considered for appointments to the position of In-Flight Supervisor, the person in charge of all the cabin crew. It is shocking enough that Air India maintained a system where only men could be appointed to this post until December 2005, when a Delhi High Court decision finally permitted women to be considered for the post. Even more disturbing is the fact that the union claiming to represent the ‘workers’ of Air India, the Air India Cabin Crew Association, chose to contest this decision, as if the women employees of Air India are not as much ‘workers’ as the men are.

When Air India took the decision to act in accordance with the 2005 Court decision,  Flight Pursers filed a petition in the High Court challenging its decision, which was dismissed in Oct 2007 by a judgement of   Justice Muralidharan.  In November that year, Flight Pursers challenged this decision in the Supreme CourtLast Thursday, the 17th of November 2011, the Supreme Court finally rejected the appeals of the  AICCA and upheld the  2007 decision of the Delhi High Court rejecting their petitions.

The 2007 judgement   was written by Justice S Muralidhar, and it evaluates the concerns of all parties in the context of the Constitution’s commitment to equality.

PRESS STATEMENT

A Supreme Court bench of Justices Altamas Kabir and Cyriac Joseph on November 17, upheld Air India’s 2005 decision to abandon its policy of reserving the In-flight Supervisor designation to its male cabin crew. An In-flight Supervisor is the boss-in-charge of all cabin crew on board a flight –  female cabin crew or Air Hostesses, as well as male cabin crew or Flight Pursers. Once on board the aircraft, all cabin crew, whether Air Hostess or Flight Purser, are under the direct supervision of the In-flight Supervisor.

Until 2005, only men were designated by Air India as In-flight Supervisors. This meant that male Flight Pursers who were appointed In-flight Supervisors would supervise the work of all Air Hostesses, including those who were many grades above them and many years senior to them.

In December 2005, Air India decided to end this blatantly discriminatory practice, announced that In-flight Supervisors will be appointed from among both genders, and designated 10 women Senior Managers (each of whom had more than 30 years of flying experience), as In-flight Supervisors. This decision of Air India was challenged by the male Flight Pursers before the Delhi High Court, claiming that agreements between their union and Air India preserved the position of In-flight Supervisor only for men, and also claiming that the Supreme Court of India had recognized this right.

On 8 October 2007 the Delhi High Court dismissed the Flight Pursers’ petition, holding that it was unable to discern in any of the agreements between the union and Air India, any assurance or promise to the male cabin crew that a female colleague of theirs will never be asked to perform the function of an In Flight Supervisor. It took note of the irony that although many of the Air Hostesses had trained the flight pursers to perform the functions of In-flight Supervisor, they were themselves excluded from performing the function. The High Court held that Air India’s removing of the ‘men only’ tag from the position of In-flight Supervisor was in keeping with the mandates of Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution of India prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sex, as well as binding international obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Air India, the High Court held, had enabled its female cabin crew to break the Glass Ceiling and there was nothing unreasonable in male cabin crew being asked to serve on a flight which had their female colleague as an In-flight Supervisor.

The Flight Pursers challenged the Delhi High Court judgment before the Supreme Court, and in November 2007, the Supreme Court directed status quo, which meant that Air India was unable to implement its decision to bring about equality. By its judgment on Thursday, the Supreme Court dismissed the petitions and upheld the Delhi High Court’s decision, recognizing Air India’s right to place an employee in a position where she would be best able to contribute to the Company.

The Supreme Court’s confirmation of the Delhi High Court judgment is an important milestone in the fight against discrimination by Air India’s female employees. Importantly in the present airline scenario, it is also a matter of sound business sense that the most experienced and the most capable are placed in positions of responsibility and that women are not kept from such positions on account of their gender.

Air India’s air hostesses welcome the recognition of their equal worth.

(End of statement)

The sexism underlying the job of the air hostess is undeniable. Private airlines dress their female employees in little skirts with full make-up as they carry out work that is unrelated to how they look, and Air India’s idea of matching the competition is to match their sexism.   

In 2009, ten air hostesses employed by Air India were dismissed for being overweight.

Sheila Joshi (51), an Air India hostess with 27 years’ service who lodged an unsuccessful petition with the Indian High Court to declare the airline’s weight policy unconstitutional, said: “It is incredibly upsetting that working women are being targeted. This is not a modelling job; we are not working a catwalk.”

Though Air India periodically sends the male pursers for weight checks, these are not stringent. There has never been a case of grounding of male flight pursers due to overweight, in the history of Air India.

The Hindustan Times justifying the decision commented :  “On a long-haul flight, do you really want to see more spare tyres than required on an airplane?”

As for private airlines, the working conditions of their employees is not even up for public scrutiny.

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