Sexism in the Aviation Industry

A Blot on Rights of Women


Gender inequality is one of the prominent manifestations of inequality in society. It affects each member of the society at large, and it shapes the foundation of a society, so the problem of social inequality in the society is the immense significance and huge repercussions enveloping an all-encompassing and infinite campus. Inequality faced by Women in various fields has affected several dimensions of women’s lives from job growth & there has been advancement in mental health problems.

Right to Equality, given under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution[1] guarantees Equality before the law and Equal protection of law to every person, whether citizen or non-citizen of India. It states that No one is above the law. Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. There are many laws in different countries talking about the perspective of Equality. In reality, the laws have only touched the ground through various feminist revolution, but the sky is still untouched by this progression. The Females are still battling the unconscious Bias.

History and Responsibilities of Flight Attendant

The role of Flight attendants is derived from that of similar positions on passenger trains or passenger ships. But flight attendants have more direct involvement with the passenger. Their duty revolves around the safety of the passengers to a greater extent than those in similar staff on other forms of transportation. The primary role of a Flight attendant is to provide routine services to the passengers and to respond to the emergencies to ensure the comfort and safety of airline passengers.

In 1912, Heinrich Kubis was the world’s first flight attendant[2]. He first attended the passengers on the board of the DELAG ZEPPELIN LZ 10 Schwaben. The first female flight attendant was a 25-year-old registered nurse named Ellen Church.[3]

Biasness in the Aviation Industry

The aviation industry seems to keep its head in the clouds, while women are fighting for Equality in the workplace. Air India wants its flight attendants to be dressed sharply in their uniforms with a pleasing smile on their face, having a pleasant appearance is the first choice by the industry. For a job whose primary work is to undergo rigorous preparation and training for various scenarios like emergency landing in oceans as well as for terrorist attack. But most of the emphasis is led on looks rather than capabilities.

Air India in 2004 rejected applicants for the position of female attendants as the women had pimples on their face. In 2009, about 10 female were dismissed due to the criteria of weight[4]. Having extra weight as well as having blisters on the face doesn’t affect the ability of a female flight attended to be alert in a critical situation whereas to be polite and good to the passengers. Some Airlines gave justifications about their concern over the weightage of their employees. The airlines claimed that the extra weight cost the airlines in economics terms, and to reduce air travel expenses thin flight attendants are hired.

Matters relating to the age of retirement had also raised various questions on the airline industry. A grievance doesn’t end over here for the women’s even they have to submit a four-year moratorium to get married. In contrast, a male flight attendant can marry at any time they don’t require any special permissions[5].

There is a significant question to be answered that, Why looks are considered to be one of the cardinal requirement in the aviation industry?

The Appeasement of Male Gaze

Male has learned how to fly, but they are still to unlearn their discriminating ways. The Wright brother in 1903, gave mankind its wing. Since then, the ground has seen a feminist revolution and demands for various equal rights, equal pay and end of discrimination for the women, but it seems that the sky is still untouched by such progression.

One of the primary criteria for the recruitment of Air attendant is -the female flight attendant must be attractive. The word ‘attractive’ in the aviation industry is basically based on the western notion of attractiveness which is thin, tall & fair. The Aviation Industry traditionally has the history of being sexist, and of appeasing the gaze of male passengers and provide ‘pleasurable’ travel experience. During one of the instance use of flight attendants to attract passengers reached its peak when Vietnamese airline, Vietjet, decided to dress its flight attendants in bikini and made them dance in the mid-flight. Age limit is also one of the factors that worry when one talks about Equality for women. For Female flight attendants, the retirement age was fixed at 35, and also they are required to take a few years off In case they become pregnant. For the male flight attendants, the retirement age is fixed as 58. The emphasis laid on age and for good appearance and unmarried women should be cross-checked by the airlines as the main work of the air attended is to navigate as well as safeguard the passengers[6].

Case Laws

Air India vs Nargesh Meerza[7]

The first phase of the struggle of air hostess was marked by the case of Air India vs Nargesh Meerza.

Article 46 & Article 47 of the Air India Employee Service Regulations were challenged in the present case. The service regulation led to an amble amount of disparity between the promotional avenue of male & female and a significant amount of disparity in their pay scale. According to the designation used by the Air India, the male cabin crew were referred to as “Air Flight Pursers” whereas female cabin crew were referred to as “Air hostess”. Under Regulation 46, the retirement age for the Air Pursers was 58 whereas for air hostess it was fixed as 35 or on their marriage(if they marry within four years of the service joining) or even on their first pregnancy, whichever occurs earlier. Regulation 47, talks about extending this period, under the absolute discretion of the managing director.

The first round of litigation under the present case took place before two tribunals. They upheld the regulation and observed that having “young & attractive” air hostess as a necessity to deal with temperamental passengers. The case was finally referred to the Supreme Court. It upheld the regulation, struck them down in part as well as modified them in part.

Before the Apex Court, Article 14 (equality before law), Article 15 (non-discrimination on the grounds of sex) as well as Article 16(2) (non-discrimination on the grounds of sex in public employment) were the Constitutional provisions that came to review in the context of the present case. The Supreme Court held the clauses regarding pregnancy & retirement as unconstitutional and thus ordered them to be struck down holding it in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution of India. A similar fate was received by Regulation 47, wherein the Court found it to be holding excessive delegation of powers without any reasonable guidelines.

However, about the claim regarding the disparity in retirement age of air hostess and male crew members the Court rejected the claim on account of nature of work, safeguarding the health of women as well as on account of conditions of work.

Air India Cabin Crew Association vs Yeshaswanee Merchant[8]

The rights that the global west achieved a decade ago, women in many countries were still seen fighting for their rights. Air hostesses in the middle of their hectic shift and in the course of managing their personal lives, took out their time to continue their fight for Equality in work.

In one of the case by the Bombay High Court delivered by Justice AP Shah, it was held that the service conditions between female and male cabin crew were discriminatory based on their sex and it was the violation of Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Indian Constitution.

The Court, in this case, held that the most of the female air attended fell into the category of ‘workmen’ and their terms and conditions of services which include the settlements and agreements govern the age of retirement. These terms and conditions are as per Industrial dispute law. It further upheld that the salary structure and age of retirement for male and female employees in various Air India were based on their different conditions of services, and they cannot be called discriminatory.

All India Cabin Crew Association v. Union of India [9]

After the judgment in Yashaswanee Merchant case, the Government of India issued a directive negating this order of the Supreme Court and asked for all directing allowing policies to be made for equal treatment of female cabin crew. Following this directive, Air India issued an order to bring up the age of female cabin crew to bring up at par with male cabin crew. The order also asked the in-flight service department to assign flight duties to those Air Hostess who were grounded at the age of 50. Air Hostess was then allowed to be in-flight supervisors as well. An In-flight supervisor is the boss-in-charge of all the cabin crew on-board, i.e. female cabin crew or air hostesses, flight pursers as well as male cabin crew. Once on-board the aircraft, everyone whether flight pursers or air hostess all are under the direct supervision of an In-flight supervisor.

Until 2005, only men were allowed to be In-flight supervisors by Air India. From December 2005 onwards after the order passed by Air India both the gender had equal opportunity to be an In-flight supervisor.

The male Flight Pursers then challenged this decision of Air India before the Delhi High Court, and they claimed that the position of In-flight supervisor was preserved only for men by an agreement between their union and Air India. They also claimed that the Supreme Court of India had also recognized this Right.

The Delhi High Court dismissed their appeal and held that the post of In-flight supervisor was a description of job function, and it was not a post exclusively reserved for male cabin crew. Also, the Court held that the removal of ‘only men’ tag from the position of In-flight supervisor by the Air India was in pace with keeping with the mandates of Articles14 and Article 15 of the Constitution of India. It was also in support of international obligation under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

An Appeal was filed again against the Delhi High Court Judgment in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the High Court and sided with the decision of Air India to treat male and female cabin crew at par with each other. The Court noted that Air India was at absolute liberty to revise and make new policies for the benefits of its employees.

The Supreme Court’s confirmation of Delhi High Court order had led to an important milestone to the female employees of Air India in the fight against discrimination. It took Air hostesses over three decades to achieve Equality at their workplace while having all the resources and privilege available to them.


In a society which likes to call itself advanced, and in some senses it is true, the discrimination and the oppression that is being faced by half the population is truly saddening. In our generation, the word feminism is thrown around like confetti, but it took those flight attendants more than three decades to get that level of respect and rights, what their male counterparts ’didn’t even have to lift a finger for.

The plight of the female flight attendants has been unfair.  The fact that more than half of the airlines around the globe still consider their primary duty to look presentable and appease the male gaze is oppressing and revolting. It is a sector, where such sexist rules need to be abolished, and the need for reforms is dire.


Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What are the responsibilities of an Air hostess?
  2. How are female facing various inequalities in society?
  3. Describe inequality faced by women in the aviation industry?
  4. Describe various case laws relating to the inequality faced by women?







[7] 1981 AIR 1829

[8] (2003) 6 SCC 277

[9] (2012) 1 SCC 619

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