Last year flight attendant Esme* was working a long-haul trip when a male passenger took a shine to her. "He'd been drinking a lot and was generally being loud and disruptive during the journey. I had to keep telling him to be quiet," she says. When the plane touched down, the passenger slumped in his seat and refused to disembark. When Esme finally managed to get him on his feet, he pressed her against the side of the cabin and thanked her for giving him an erection.
"It was really disgusting, I was so angry because he completely violated my personal space," she says. "Even worse, when I told the first officer, he laughed it off at first—until he saw how shaken up I was." Esme contacted airport security, who took the passenger off the plane. She also placed a complaint with her carrier. "However, I never heard anything about an outcome."
The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), who represent over 600,000 aviation industry workers worldwide, say the most common complaints they hear from cabin crew relate to "physical contact and inappropriate advances." Most of these are anonymous and don't mention the airline, as many flight attendants are fearful of losing their jobs for speaking out.
In 2014, a survey carried out by Hong Kong Flight Attendants Alliance in partnership with the Hong Kong-based Equal Opportunities Commission found 27 percent of flight attendants had experienced sexual harassment while on duty. Those surveyed came from a pool that included workers from Cathay Pacific, British Airways, and United Airlines. Fifty-nine percent of harassment came from passengers, and 41 percent from their colleagues.
Heather Poole, a flight attendant with 20 years' experience at a US-based company, and the author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, has experienced her fair share of harassment. But says she talks back to them as opposed to making an official report, usually telling them to stop what they're doing and threatening them with a written warning from the captain.
"When a passenger touches me inappropriately, I might wonder if it's worth having authorities meet the flight?" she says. "Wouldn't I rather just get to the hotel and get some sleep instead of sticking around the airport to file an official complaint—or worse, cause a delay for my next flight because I have less than an hour to run to the next gate before boarding? It's easy to brush this off when you think you'll never see the person again. If I worked in an office with the same people every day, I might be more inclined to handle things differently."
Reporting sometimes doesn't even work. "I know a flight attendant who was flashed by a passenger in flight every time she walked past him," Poole adds. "She reported it, but she was told by the authorities [either airport security or the destination country's police] that they couldn't do anything, because she was a flight attendant, not a passenger or a minor. The message is: We don't count."
Kate*, a cabin crew worker in her 20s, was propositioned by a much older male colleague when they were off-duty in the destination country (also known as down route). After she repeatedly rejected her advances, he "touched her inappropriately."
"I was really angry, especially as it happened in front of some of our other colleagues," she says, adding that she eventually decided against reporting him. "I thought it was more hassle than it was worth. I've also not been rostered on a flight with him since—if I was I'd try to swap over to a different shift." Airlines operate on a crew scheduling system. As many have a large pool of workers, you can work with a colleague and never see them again—another reason why incidents go unreported.
Sexual harassment isn't the only problem female flight attendants face. Since Pam Am's heyday in the 1960s, air travel has been presented as a glamorous experience with beautiful women at the forefront. For decades, airlines only hired young, slim, and unmarried females, forcing them to retire in their mid-30s. With the advent of unionization and discrimination laws, the majority of carriers, especially European and American ones, no longer operate on this archaic basis. However, there is still the expectation from both passengers and airline companies that female cabin crew must present a certain image.
People need to remember flight attendants are human too. We're allowed to grow old and get a little bigger.
"At work, I hear comments all the time about flight attendants being old or fat. People get really upset when their crew doesn't look the part," Poole says. A lot of airline advertising and marketing sexualizes women too—you only have to look at the Vietjet ad which featured lingerie-clad models on a plane, or the infamous 2013 Ryanair charity calendar that photographed female cabin crew in bikinis and was banned in Spain. After the ITF complained to Ryanair, company boss Michael O'Leary said: "We note the ITF's objection to the calendar. Rest assured this has encouraged us to produce an even bigger and better calendar for next year."
"You'd be surprised how those sort of ads affect the way people see and treat us," Poole says. "The fact that sex has nothing to do with my job, yet one of the first things strangers ask me when they find out what I do for a living is whether I've joined the mile high club should tell you something."
Uniform is another issue that female cabin crew face. Most airlines have a strict uniform policy, down to what color lipstick or nail varnish a flight attendant wears. Many have to wear skirts and sheer tights—if you've ever been on a long-haul flight you'll know how cold it gets at 30,000 feet. Female British Airways staff only won the right to wear trousers after a two-year battle in February this year—the union Unite said 83 percent of them were in favour of this for "warmth and protection."
"I understand the need for cabin crew to wear a uniform, and it being part of looking professional and polished in your role," Esme says. "But sometimes we can get sent back to the bathroom if we don't have enough makeup on. I don't mind wearing makeup, but it should all be personal choice. Being barefaced won't stop us doing our job properly."
On some airlines, control over what female cabin crew wear, how they behave, and what they can do in their personal life is extended to when they are off duty. Qatar Airways in particular is a prime offender, having been found guilty in 2015 of violating discriminationlaws by the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations body. Female flight attendants were sacked if they married or got pregnant within the first five years of employment. Though Qatar Airways claims they have since removed these rules, the ITF has had complaints from a number of women who have been dismissed without any warning over the past year for these reasons.
Saskia*, a cabin crew member who coordinates the ITF's Qatar Airways campaign, says the company has built a "culture of fear."
"Their workforce of 9,000 is 80 percent female—many sourced from countries like India. The women are often sending money back home and are attracted to the airline by the relatively high salary." When off-duty, they have to live in crew apartments, under heavy CCTV surveillance, which Saskia describes as a "horrible environment."
Last year, the airline's boss emailed a picture of a drunk Qatar Airways stewardess, slumped on some stairs outside the apartment block, to the entire company. At the same time, Saskia says that 'Fly High' events at nightclubs and hotels are advertised with cut-price (or free drinks) for cabin crew.
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"Qatar Airways won't meet up with us, or communicate with us, and keep saying we (the ITF) are lying about their violations," Saskia says. "We won't give up though—we want to help their staff have a collective voice and get as much information as possible so we can change things for them." At the time of writing, Qatar Airways did not respond to requests for comment.
Other cabin crew I spoke to said that most European and US airlines were improving in terms of dealing with women's issues— but there is some way to go. "What would be helpful would be some kind of consent training built in before new starters have their first flight—down route it's common for off duty cabin crew to drink lot of alcohol, and I know female colleagues who have ended up in bed with somebody and it's not necessarily been consensual," Esme says.
"Acknowledging the fact that this kind of sexism is happening is a good start. People need to remember flight attendants are human too. We're allowed to grow old and get a little bigger. Crazy, I know," Heather Poole says. "A lot of the airlines are still trying to sell a sexy vibe—but the reason we are working on a plane is for safety, not to be a bit of eye candy."
* Some names have been changed