During the initial months of the coronavirus outbreak, a post from the Air India Twitter handle went viral. The national carrier posted a letter dated 22 March, 2020, requesting citizens to not harass crew members who were returning home from various AI rescue flights – they were after all working hard to bring Indian citizens stuck in various places across the world, back to the country safely, taking “every precaution” in the face of the virus. They squarely called out citizens who were ostracizing these crew members, termed the resident welfare organizations of localities participating in this as ‘vigilantes’.
Seeing this, netizens were up in arms, and rightly so. But this is just one example of the various aggressions that airline cabin crew members face, just by virtue of choosing the profession that they have.
In the following year, motivational speaker and research scholar Rahul Kapoor wrote in his book Women and Work: The Sky is Full of Sexism, that the effects of their occupational hazards on flight attendants’ lives have not received much attention.
The case of the March 2020 Air India incident went viral given the magnitude of the pandemic, and how it affected the whole country. This was also a case where the employer was standing by their staff. This isn’t always the case however, deeply affecting how the crew members engage with their friends and family, as well as the relationship they have with themselves too.
An impossible balance
There is of course the very nature of the job – of being away from home and family for long periods of time, sometimes as long as three to four months at once. This, especially when not met with understanding and support from those back home, can affect levels of anxiety, insecurity and stress.
“Trust issues often arise and there is a lack of understanding and communication, which I have suffered personally,” says Mohini Dudeja, 24, a cabin crew member with Indigo Airlines.
Neha Malhotra, 37, a cabin crew member with Air India agrees. “Feelings of insecurity begin to creep in the husband-wife relationship,” she says.
On Quora, a community-driven platform to share experiences and knowledge, there are many such stories of flight attendants and how their relationships with their significant others are running into rough weather because of demanding and erratic work schedules. Dudeja notes how the problem gets exacerbated, since a lot of them have to work through holidays and festivals, when most others, and presumably their friends and family too, are on break. Add to this the fact that they are also missing birthdays and anniversaries, and it fuels the perception that for them, family isn't a priority. This causes misery on both sides.
For cabin crew members who are parents, this adds another dimension, with a “nagging feeling that you are not spending enough time with your children,” adds Malhotra.
If parenting guilt wasn’t enough, there is the added layer of stress of weight gain that follows childbirth. Cabin crew members cannot resume flying if their weight is above the ‘acceptable standard’.
“After childbirth, I gained a significant amount of weight. I couldn’t keep the kilos off as I was a breastfeeding mother. It was becoming impossible to make time for the baby and for fitness [to get back to the job],” says one former cabin-crew member, on the condition of anonymity.
Her rush to do so could be chalked up to the fact that the legally mandated maternity leave is only six months long. According to Ridhima Singh, 34, a former cabin crew member of Jet Airways and now mother of two, airlines usually give them two-three months more to shed the weight gained during pregnancy – an impossibly short time that can cause immeasurable stress on a new mother who has already been through immeasurable changes, physical, mental, and circumstantial. Usually, the third month is leave without pay. The failure to maintain weight after the stipulated time may even result in a pink slip, Singh notes.
The person quoted above says she was soon “diagnosed with body dysmorphia and depression,” and had to “quit my job soon after to regain confidence.”
New mothers who cannot or do not want to quit the job however, resort to extreme measures to meet the weight requirement and get back to work.
Body image and the self
Weight checks are also a regular and frequent part of the job, since the profession demands a standard of fitness of their cabin crew who have to be physically able to handle flight emergencies. However, despite the many studies and narratives emerging that fitness and the number on the scale do not necessarily reflect a direct correlation, many staffers resort to unhealthy crash diets and medications to meet the exact requirements of the scale, Singh says, adding that this comes, of course, with its share of side effects.
Anxiety about the job and their families builds up and self-esteem sags. Malhotra describes how her second pregnancy was especially stressful because the slow recovery led to weight gain. She says her body image issues left her perturbed and demoralized.
Ira Mehta, 27, a former cabin crew member, who has worked with both Indian and international airlines like Jet Airways and Swiss International Airlines, states that the stringent protocols of Indian airlines add to this problem. “Make-up, skin, uniform, grooming…all of these have to be on-point. Something as small as a pimple or a scar could get you grounded.”
While their employers frown at their weight, their neighbours frown at them for coming home late. Loose talk spins around the need for cabin crew members to be ‘people persons’, into gossiping about how they may be ‘forward’ or ‘easy’. This further strains the relationships that these women come back home to – whether it is with neighbours, or families, or entire RWAs, or resident welfare associations like the ones that Air India had called out in 2020, albeit for a different kind of ostracisation they’d meted out.
Singh recalls how she faced harassment when she lived independently without her husband, after she managed to get a flat with much difficulty. “The secretary of the apartment would check on my whereabouts with my domestic help. When it was time to vacate the flat, my luggage was held back and they wouldn’t let it load because they wanted to see for themselves what I had in my bags,” she says. Further, Malhotra adds that it is difficult to find suitable marriage alliances too, with ‘well-meaning’ distant relatives also making “veiled remarks on what I do or my late-night job schedule.”
Despite the many challenges that their profession presents them, most airline cabin crew members refuse to be bogged down. “When you look 37,000 feet below you, the sight of clouds make it all worth it and you realise this is your office space,” says Mohini Dudeja, who calls flying an “addiction”. For Neha Malhotra, it is her passion for the job that keeps her going. “This job has given me a 365 degree exposure to the world, along with immense self growth opportunities,” she concludes.