"Come Fly With Me" was the openly sexist slogan of airline advertisements in the past that blatantly used pretty "airhostesses" to sell the airline. No word on safety, or comfort, or efficiency — the criteria that usually make passengers decide between airlines. We do not see such ads anymore. Their demise has come even as the world over, airlines have accepted that there should be no discrimination between the service conditions and pay scales of the men and women who work in the cabin. Thus the "cabin crew", the gender-neutral term in currency to describe this category of airline workers, are hired under identical service conditions, including the age of retirement. And efficiency, kindness and compassion towards passengers are emphasised rather than looks.

But this applies to every country except India, where we still choose to refer to women cabin crew as "airhostesses". By doing this we ensure that their roles remain confined to the imagery that this term invokes — of pretty women "serving" passengers. The criteria used to assess their fitness for the job are based on superficial attributes such as height, weight and looks. Ramp models can be judged by these criteria but why cabin crew? Also, the same criteria are not applied to "airhosts", male cabin crew. It is enough if a man is well turned out and efficient: it does not matter if he is balding and pot-bellied.

India's national carrier, Air-India, has determinedly stuck to this differential categorisation of male and female crew members. And instead of accepting the far-sighted Bombay High Court judgment that merged the two categories and ensured that they had the same service conditions, it chose to go to the Supreme Court in appeal. The apex court has now ruled that there is nothing discriminatory if the airline insists that women crew members retire from flying at 50 and opt to work as ground staff until 58 while the men can continue to work as cabin crew until they are 58.

The court has stated, "Air-India is a travel industry. Pleasing appearance, manners and physical fitness are required for members of the crew of both sexes". If these are the criteria, then both men and women should be tested and if either fail, they should be reassigned to ground duties. Are all men over 50 fitter, more "pleasant" looking, than women crew of that age? If not, then why is this argument being used only to restrict women?

The Air India case illustrates how difficult it is to establish the principle of gender justice in employment. Employers get around it quite easily.
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The airline has succeeded in claiming that it is not discriminating against women by keeping women crew members in a different category than the men. Thus, "airhostesses" in Air India have different conditions of service than their male counterparts even though the work they do is identical, or should be as it is in other airlines. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), "Discrimination in remuneration occurs when the main basis for the determination of wages is not the content of the work to be performed, but rather the sex, the colour or other personal attributes of the person performing the work." Thus, keeping them as a separate category is discriminatory given that the content of the work is the same as the men. Furthermore, by insisting that their flying days are over once women hit 50, the airline is denying them the chance to earn more through the additional allowances given to cabin crew. Surely, this is discrimination by another route.

What is ironical is that in the other government-owned airline, Indian Airlines, there is no such discrimination against women. The women cabin crew can work up to the age of 58, as do the men. They can become supervisors, depending on their seniority. And as seniors they are expected to supervise the work of men and women on the aircraft. Although some of the private airlines have a lower age for retirement, they also hire men and women as "cabin crew" and not as pursers and airhostesses. So why does Air India continue to be caught in this time warp? Women working as cabin crew in Air India have had to fight long and hard for every single concession that was automatically granted to their counterparts in Indian Airlines. Incrementally, over the course of the last two decades, they have successfully raised the retirement age from 30 to 58. They had to fight to continue to fly after they got married; they had to fight for the right to continue after they had children. In each instance, there were negotiations and most often court cases.

Not all the women in Air India were united in this fight for non-discriminatory working conditions. A section of them joined the Cabin Crew Association, the management and the Union government in appealing against the Bombay High Court judgment. Yet, if these women wanted the option of ground duties after the age of 50, surely the airline could have given them that choice while accepting the principle of parity between men and women as laid out by the Bombay High Court judgment.

The Air India case illustrates how difficult it is to establish the principle of gender justice in employment. Employers get around it quite easily; by creating different categories, they can argue that the working conditions and remuneration can be different. In fact, a recent ILO study, "Time for equality at work" singles out India as one of the countries that has used the tactic of classifying work as skilled and unskilled to discriminate against women workers. Women's work is deemed unskilled "irrespective of the content or skill level of the job", thereby justifying a lower remuneration.

The Supreme Court judgment has affected some 80 women in Air India. Perhaps that seems like an inconsequential number. But it is the principle reinforced by the judgment that will be a problem for women in many other professions. Sadly, instead of moving towards a more gender-just society, we in India seem to be galloping backwards.