The View

Airlines shouldn’t be ‘brothels in the sky’

In spite of recent progress, local airlines still need to revamp rules that require air cabin crew to retire years too early

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 July, 2016, 2:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 July, 2016, 11:05pm

Here is a pop quiz. I just flew from Hong Kong to the United States, and more than half the flight crew had grey hair. Which carrier was I on?

The answer is: not an Asian carrier. In this case, it was United Airlines, and despite the Facebook meme “Friends don’t let friends fly United,” the staff were just fine. They were better than fine: they were real. In contrast, on so many Asian airlines the cabin crew is young and comely, as if we are floating along in some 1950s cotton-candy cloud drift. It is surreal. And in demographic and economic terms, it is absurd.

There was a time in the United States when airlines put flight attendants out to pasture at the age of 32, or sooner if they got married. Few questioned the fairness of such policies in the 1960s. Well, paying customers don’t need to see someone old or unattractive, right?

Even the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission thought the airlines’ policy of preferring young, pretty and mostly female flight attendants was justified under the principle of “bona fide occupational qualification,” or BFOQ, which is the same principle that explains why fashion companies are not required to hire 500-pound supermodels.

According to historian Louis Menand, writing some years ago in The New Yorker magazine, a feisty 1960s congresswoman from Michigan, Martha Griffiths, challenged the BFOQ principle as it applied to airline staff.

“Can any Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner seriously believe that the business of the airlines would suffer if all of them hired flight attendants on the basis of their individual qualifications and ability?” Griffiths asked. “Do they really think for one moment that men or women make plane trips for the sole purpose of having a female—or male—flight attendant serve them lunch or give them an aspirin?”

This is not all she said on the matter. She added: “If you are trying to run a whorehouse in the sky - get a licence.”

Airline practises of hiring on looks, singledom and youthfulness were outlawed in the United States in 1970. Just in time for employees like Barbara Beckett, who was a 30-year-old flight attendant in 1970, and looking to get just two more years out of her profession. Instead, she retired just a few years ago, in her 70s.

A 2009 study by the Population Reference Bureau showed that one in five US flight attendants were 55 or older. As late as 1980, nearly 80 per cent of flight attendants were younger than 35, but that had dropped to 21 per cent in 2007. By now, one assumes this workforce is even greyer.

Working for US airlines has been tough in recent decades; the industry has reorganised, shed jobs and automated many roles. But the greying of the flight crew is one positive.

This is not just a positive for those who weren’t booted from their jobs because of a few wrinkles: it is good for all of us, because the sight of older workers normalises the concept.

Surveys show that employers prefer younger workers, even though older workers are productive – indeed they are often wiser and more experienced, as both qualitative and quantitative studies have proved. But more to they point, they still need to eat and pay the rent. Life expectancies have risen, which means retirement ages need to be later.

Less than a decade ago in Hong Kong, cabin crew were required to retire by the age of 45. That is a fine time to look for a new career! For some airlines the maximum age cut-off remains at 45 years old, though flagship carrier Cathay Pacific has increased the age – but only to 55.

Last year, the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation urged the Hong Kong government to legally enforce a retirement age of 65 for all crew members.

Carol Ng, the federation’s Secretary-General, was quoted as saying that forcing experienced crew members to retire years before they reach 65 wastes their talents and turns them into burden on society.

How is this insane situation still in place? Really, Hong Kong, if you want a brothel in the sky, get a licence.

Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong based financial reporter