Air India Sacks Overweight Flight Attendants Over Safety Concerns

In the US there are no age or weight restrictions for flight attendants, which is certainly a source of laughter for many who criticize the US airline industry. I’ve had an 80+ year old flight attendant, and while she was absolutely delightful, there’s something a bit odd about us being conditioned to believe that flight attendants are actually “flight safety professionals,” when some of them can barely walk down the aisle anymore.

Meanwhile at some non-US airlines, the requirements are quite the opposite — there are height, age, weight, and even appearance requirements. Cabin crew are basically hired as “models” who just happen to provide service as well.

And then there are some airlines which have policies somewhere inbetween. Specifically, Air India is taking a lot of heat after firing 130 cabin crew for being overweight. Admittedly Air India isn’t exactly known for being the most glamorous airline out there, which is why these layoffs are puzzling to some. Air India is claiming to be sacking the crew over “safety concerns.”

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This isn’t a new battle for Air India, as they’ve been going back and forth with laying off overweight flight attendants for about a decade now. Via The Washington Post:

The mass grounding is just the latest in a 10-year-long tug-of-war between the airline and its larger flight attendants. Weight limits for Indian flight attendants date back to the 1980s, when Air India began circulating height and weight charts, according to a 2014 opinion by Delhi High Court Judge Rajiv Shakdher.

In 2006, Air India grounded nine female flight attendants deemed “exceptionally overweight,” the BBC reported. “Being grossly overweight does have a bearing on reflexes and can impair agility required to perform the emergency functions,” the airline claimed. The hostesses sued, but a Delhi court backed up the carrier in 2008. The women appealed, only for the airline to fire them in 2009 as the country’s Supreme Court was still considering the case.

Given Air India’s history of laying off overweight flight attendants and the court battles which followed, the airline didn’t fire the last set of overweight crew overnight. Instead, they identified 600 overweight flight attendants (based on their BMI), and put them on a regimen of diet and exercise for six months, at which point they were once again assessed:

“About 130 of them failed the reassessment,” an Air India official told the Telegraph. “We are now declaring them permanently unfit for their job as flight attendants.”

Do I support firing flight attendants based on their weight? No. Is it “unsafe” for flight attendants to have a high BMI? Assuming they pass their medical exam otherwise, I don’t think so.

At the same time, is it reasonable for there to be some restrictions from a comfort perspective? The reality is that aisles do keep getting narrower. Have you tried squeezing through the aisle in 10 across economy on a 777 lately? It’s tight. And if you’re a flight attendant you don’t just have to squeeze through the aisles, but actually have to provide service there, which requires even more space.

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I’m a bit surprised Air India keeps picking this battle, given that they already get so much bad press and no one is flying them because of their great service. This seems to land them in court every time, so I just have a hard time imagining this is a battle which is worthwhile for them to pick.

What do you think? Is it reasonable for an airline to fire overweight flight attendants over safety concerns? Or what about on other grounds?

Comments

  1. I always believe Air india is a crap airline company in terms of customer service & they always suck!
    But on this, i strongly agree and supporting firing any overweight flight attendants.
    The planes are becoming narrower & narrower by the day. In case of emergency exits these overweight crews will be useless.Look at the flight attendants on many asian airlines. They are not just attractive, they are so fit for their job and not over weight and never rude & condescending like the 60 & 80 year old American & United flight attendants. Remember the Asiana plane accident in SF & how those young ladies performed their duty? They were superb!

  2. Jeeze Lucky, you keep missing the point where India is concerned. There is always money involved somewhere when the goverment or one of its controlled entities makes a decision and you need to examine it from that angle. It’s maximizing opportunities for corruption not your standard is this right or not

  3. This really has nothing to do with India as a country (as Marcus suggested) as much as it has to do with the general lack of political correctness in Asia. Singapore Airlines, for example, only recruits flight attendants from Singapore’s three main ethnic groups, outright refuses to recruit non-Asian (i.e. white) flight attendants, and is very fastidious when it comes to issues like weight, appearance, and so on. If an American carrier decided to follow Singapore Airlines’ rule book, they would be sued out of existence by the next business day.
    The same could be said for most Asian airlines, as Lucky is aware, and Air India only just seems to be catching up.

  4. Each kilo of extra weight costs more money to fly, whether it’s luggage or bodies. Airlines usually don’t charge passengers by body weight because in the tradeoff between charging accurately vs. respecting each member of the public as equal regardless of size (or appearing to do so), the latter wins for most (but not all!) airlines.

    In the case of employees, the both the same concerns apply. But the cost concern becomes more important, relatively—after all, FAs have to be hauled through the sky day after day after day, and that extra weight doesn’t fly free. Assuming the cumulative cost is non-trivial (which seems reasonable?), this question becomes one of whether employers should be required to accommodate employees with expensive and work-detrimental special needs. It isn’t surprising that, across all countries and airlines, some say no to that question.

    Of course, in the U.S. state I live in, people can be fired for any non-federally-protected reason at all, including being fat, perfectly legally. It seems weird that India would protect overweight people in a way that the U.S. doesn’t—it isn’t India that has epidemic obesity rates.

  5. There have been calls to privatize Air India since it is a big loss for taxpayers every year but politicians / bureaucrats never do that because they travel for free with their families. I am sad to say but this airline is a failure of Indian system.

    These kind of actions are taken by the management just to show that they are taking actions to improve. Beyond that, nobody cares if the actions were of any use.

    According to Wikipedia, their net income last year was $320 mill loss, a big burden for taxpayers of a developing country.

  6. Air India sucks – let’s get that out of the way first. However, having said that, I do find that the service on both intercontinental and domestic is great. In fact, considering the type of equipment that they’re on, and the types of customers they deal with, I would say that their service is pretty fantastic.

    For example, on our last trip, IFE didn’t work both legs. For entire sections of the plane. For 15 hours. Flight attendants should be given a medal of honour for being able to smile and continue service when having to deal with that many irate customers.

  7. may be it’s just me but food tastes better when the server is an attractive young female than old fat cow.

  8. I think there should be some limit on the size of flight attendants. On the last flight that I had on Southwest, there was a large male flight attendant, and every single time he went past me in the aisle, he bumped me. I don’t mean a little tap or a brush, but literally a push to get down the aisle. You could see everyone leaning in when he walked by. It was very uncomfortable and I couldn’t wait to get off that flight.

  9. Not trolling, I genuinely don’t see the problem with using attractiveness as a hiring criteria for flight attendants any more than I would for a waitress or any other customer-facing job. Pretending it’s safety related is more ridiculous IMHO.

  10. good on American Airlines for recognizing that older people also need jobs and good on Grandma for her tolerance of such rude, presumably young, people.

  11. Absolutely. Maybe America wouldn’t be getting as fat if there were consequences to getting fat. Good on you Air India!

  12. Agility should be tested as it’s acire requirement that it is, but it’s not, as evidenced by the unsafe flight attendants that ply the skies in the US.

    Unfortunately some of us passengers will have to die before the Air India / Asian / ME standards (or a surrogate thereov) are adopted worldwide.

    So sad. Lives could be saved and they’re not.

  13. I have read everyone’s derogatory comments on the flight attendants fired for being overweight. I give Air India credit for having given these flight attendants a chance to loose weight or more importantly, I would have hoped that their agility and ability to meet safety standards for passengers could have been assessed in case of an emergency. Let’s be compassionate, and hopefully Air India made a wise decision. As an Indian women, I have known Indians to be cruel to their own people. I hope that this is not the case.

  14. If you genuinely believe it’s a safety matter (I tend to) then let’s make it simple: if you don’t pass the firefighter PFT, you don’t work. That’s rational, objective, and demonstrably job-related. (Or the Army PFT if you want to be generous.)

    Otherwise, let’s just get the Tilted Kilt hiring managers to pass/fail the FAs.

    I’d be okay either way.

  15. I had once on Air France flight attendant that was really owerweight. She was bearly squiezing trough aisle in economy. And I was supprised to see her compared to other FA on that flight. However she was very polite and helpful, a complete oposit to others which in AF tend to be quite rude and bit**y….

    We can think that she would be a hazard in case of emergency, but on the other hand how often does this happen? I belive she would be hazard only for herself. So… No, it should not be a problem if FA is owerweight as long as she can pass trough aisle with no problem. Otherwise airlines should forbid travel to owerweight passengers too

  16. The situation is never as simple or straightforward as a newspaper article makes it out to be. This isn’t a case of Air India making up regulations unilaterally or “firing” crew. It is a case of the national aviation regulator (DGCA) having specified that anyone who continuously maintains a BMI in the “obese” range is not eligible to receive medical clearance to be a flying crew member. None of the crew were being terminated outright but were given the option to transfer to ground duties instead (as they no longer met the regulator imposed medical standards to continue flying duties), which they declined. The matter has been reviewed by courts multiple times and the courts have effectively ruled now that the regulator has the authority to regulate health standards and that all airlines under its purview must comply with these. Air India is not alone in having to comply with these actions, but as a state-owned carrier it is required to comply with more onerous regulations and processes with regards to staff hiring and firing. Private carriers in India all have the same policies, but their employment contracts have provisions built into them that permit them to terminate staff who fail to meet the regulatory medical standards – a luxury Air India doesn’t have.

    Every aviation regulator in the world sets standards for medical certification of personnel – and standards vary from country to country. Airlines who operate under the regulations of those countries must comply with the regulator’s requirements. If Air India didn’t ground these crew, the headline would scream “Air India permits crew who failed medical checks to continue flying”. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  17. @Sean M

    BMI is a poor measure that is designed for statistical population analysis, not determining whether an individual is obese. It doesn’t distinguish between muscle and fat, for example, so an athletic or muscular person could be obese on the BMI scale while appearing quite trim.

  18. @Red – I won’t pretend to know more than you on the health aspect, nor to argue that point. The courts in India also didn’t address that point. What the court ruled is that the Government aviation regulator (DGCA) is entitled to set medical standards for crew members so long as those standards do not discriminate unfairly, and that requiring crew to maintain a certain BMI is not discriminatory.

    The issue is not that Air India is trying to be “glamorous” (to borrow from Ben’s words), but rather that Air India has no choice but to comply with the regulator’s requirements. It is no different than US air carriers requiring pilots to retire at age 65. They do that because the FAA has decreed that (arbitrary) standard to be their limits and as the aviation regulator, they have the authority to do that.

  19. Even the older or fatter FAs are usually more appealing than the typical pot-bellied, red-nosed, cell-phone yakking businessman in an ill-fitting suit who is sitting in a premium cabin.

  20. On one flight, there was an FA that was so wide, she couldn’t walk down the aisle straight, she had to turn sideways.

  21. Firstly,
    I disagree with this sensational headline! They didn’t fire them outright. They had a choice of working as ground staff too.
    Also, they were given a chance to reduce their weights, which I find completely acceptable for a flight attendant to do. I don’t think I will feel safe during an emergency at 30,000 feet if the FA is “obese” and runs out of breadth immediately or isn’t as quick as an FA should be.

    Yes Air India isn’t the best airline, or even top 20, but people just somehow love to thrash them. Whatever Air India does, suddenly everyone in the world will have an opinion about it. I am sure most of them haven’t even flown with them but they just have a preconceived notion that they suck and lets write bad about them regardless of how much Air India tries to get better.

    I fly to India often, and yes Air India isn’t my first option, but it is definitely way way way better than American, Delta and United COMBINED. Atleast they smile, talk politely and not rudely *insert United employee*, serve a decent meal unlike 10 peanuts or 3 pretzels on these pathetic US carriers, and have an IFE on most of their fleet. Even though the selection is mediocre, there is something. American flies decades old flights to Europe, 8-9 hrs flights without any entertainment!
    Look at the fleet, Air India has more than 20 787s in their fleet, how many MDs, 717s and 757s does Delta have? Heck, Delta has 717s on order!
    And these US3 carriers are the ones making billions of dollars of profits! Go figure!

    There is so much politics and bureaucracy around Air India. If removed, it actually has a huge potential of becoming a profitable and a good airline considering its wide network and alliance. I am not saying they are good, I am not even speaking for them or justifying them. In India I’ll probably not even fly with them, but please guys they are better than many!

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