A new year gift that went by almost unnoticed. Air India, our national airline, has finally decided to catch up with the 21st Century and to accept the non-discriminatory provisions in our Constitution that guarantee women equal rights. Incredible as it might seem, it has taken the airline six decades to acknowledge that women can supervise members of the cabin crew as ably as men.

On December 28, 2005, Air India issued a directive stating that women could henceforth be in-flight supervisors. With this, one of the last vestiges of gender discriminatory practices that the airline has continued to hold on to, has gone.


All these years — the airline has been in existence since 1946 — there were different employment conditions that applied to men and women. For example, Air India's female cabin crew were forced to retire many years earlier than their male counterparts. The first age set for retirement for them was 30. Slowly, after many battles it crept up to 50. Finally, some of these women turned to the Bombay High Court in 2003 and won the right to go on flying until 58, like the men. But the victory could not be savoured as within months the Supreme Court overturned the High Court judgment and held that it was not discriminatory to ask women to retire at 50.

The struggle was then taken directly to the Executive and in December 2003, the government of Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Civil Aviation Ministry passed an order asking Air India to allow air hostesses to continue flying until the age of 58.

You would have thought that the matter ended there and that women working in the airline had no more hurdles to overcome. But of course, we were wrong. Air India has been one of the few airlines in the world that has continued to justify different employment rules for men and women, particularly the cabin crew. Indian Airlines, which is also government-owned, treats its men and women equally. In fact, worldwide, cabin crew are referred to as just that and not by gender-differentiated terms — airhostess and purser. Yet, Air India remained insulated from these trends, or refused to acknowledge their validity.

Air India has been one of the few airlines in the world that has continued to justify different employment rules for men and women, particularly the cabin crew.

 •  Air India grounded at 50

As a result, in Air India, regardless of your years of service or seniority, you could never be an in-flight supervisor if you were a woman. This position involves supervising the working of the cabin crew, an important job within the airline. You had the extraordinary situation on flights where a younger man, with only a few years of flying experience, would be made in-charge of the cabin crew that included women with much more experience, only because he was a man.

It is this discriminatory practice that has now ended — we hope. As with other changes, not a single instance of ending gender discrimination has gone through smoothly. And there are no prizes for guessing who has resisted such changes. Once again, one of the unions consisting of male employees is questioning the airline's decision and might even go to court over it.

While Air India's move to end gender discrimination crept in almost unnoticed, one of its decisions that was flashed worldwide in the media was a directive asking the cabin crew to shape up, not in terms of the quality of service they delivered on flight but on their fitness and weight. Of the 1,600 cabin crew in Air India, as many as 10 per cent were considered overweight. The airline sent out a message saying this would not be tolerated. It would be interesting to break this up between men and women as my personal talks with Air India's hostesses suggests that the airline has been far more strict with women about weight than men. Pot-bellied male cabin crew continue without a hitch, get promotions, become in-flight supervisors but women who gain weight, as most women do after a certain age, are usually penalised.

Set an example

Why should any of this matter to women in general? It does because Air India is constantly projected as our "national carrier". It has to set an example and not become the last bastion of gender discrimination.

Also with the exponential rise in air travel — projected to grow to 45 million passengers by 2010 up from the current 14 million — cabin crew jobs will be sought after by men and women. If other airlines do not have discriminatory rules and Air India continues to do so, it will soon be left with a majority of male cabin crew members, as women will now have other options. Even the glamour of Air India being the only Indian airline flying to foreign destinations does not hold good anymore as private airlines and Indian Airlines have ventured outside national borders. So why on earth would a woman want to join the "national carrier"?

In its ruling on retirement age for women, the Supreme Court had held that "pleasing appearance, manners and physical fitness" were needed for crew of both sexes. Yet, we know that even today, the "pleasing appearance" part seems to be applied mainly to women with some private airlines continuing to "sell" their services by advertising their good-looking women crew members. But even this outdated and sexist approach to advertising can be overlooked so long as women's chances of promotion are not judged only by their looks in an industry where the safety of passengers is of prime importance.