Why Cathay Dragon flight attendants are right to oppose skirts-only rule

Yonden Lhatoo calls out Asian airlines for objectifying their female flight attendants to sell tickets as Cathay Dragon cabin crew challenge rigid uniform rules requiring them to wear skirts on the job

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 March, 2018, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 7:20pm

Should female flight attendants be allowed to wear trousers? I’m amazed it’s even a valid question in this day and age, but here we are.

Cathay Dragon’s flight attendants union raised the issue with management this week, seeking some flexibility in their rigid uniform code.

They listed several reasons why they should not be forced to wear skirts, starting with how downright impractical it was in their tight fitting uniforms to do physically demanding work. Not being allowed to cover their legs on winter flights to freezing destinations was another legitimate gripe.

They also suggested it would help reduce their discomfort over male passengers perving on them and avoid unpleasantries such as upskirt photos.

I don’t know how sincere the airline’s bosses will be in handling the flight attendants’ request, but a good start will be to ensure that only female executives are involved in making any decision in this regard. It’s as simple as that. Men have a clear conflict of interest here and should leave the room.

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The way female flight attendants are expected to dress and look is clearly dictated by men running the aviation industry, and women executives doing nothing about it are either too cowed or complicit.

For millennia, women have had to conform to men’s standards of beauty and “proper” attire. They’re still doing it, even though there is far greater awareness and advocacy of equal rights. And for some reason, the airline industry in particular seems to get a free pass when it comes to misogyny and sexism at the expense of cabin crew.

No wonder that even in this #MeToo era, airlines have to be called out for under-reporting in-flight sexual harassment and inappropriate advances towards stewardesses, responding only when the occasional victim takes her case to social media to name and shame the perpetrator or enabler.

Shouldn’t the whole business of in-flight services be about service instead of sex appeal? Strictly speaking, it should make no difference whether passengers are served by monkeys or models, as long as nuts, drinks and meals are delivered on time.

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And yet airlines sell tickets by objectifying their frontline female employees. The message is literally, “Come, fly with us, we have hot chicks.” Carriers in this part of the world, including Hong Kong’s flagship Cathay Pacific, which owns Cathay Dragon, ramp it up with the docile Asian women stereotype and undue obsession with age and appearance.

Some can take it to extremes, like Vietnam’s biggest budget carrier, which recently caused a scandal by staging a catwalk for bikini-clad models while flying the national under-23 soccer team home from a tournament in China. Watch the video of the misguided PR stunt – even young men whom you might expect to enjoy such bawdiness seem to be embarrassed by this one.

VietJet ended up getting fined by the aviation authority, while the airline’s CEO, who ironically happens to be the country’s first and only female billionaire, had to make a public apology. See what I mean about women themselves being complicit?

Not everyone is still living in the dark ages, however, and it’s encouraging to note that carriers such as Korean Air and Asiana Airlines are flexible about female flight attendants swapping skirts for trousers. What’s Hong Kong’s excuse?

Don’t forget Cathay Dragon’s union has made it clear that it’s a matter of choice for flight attendants who prefer to carry on wearing skirts. If women feel more attractive or empowered in tight skirts and stilettos, more power to them. Like Queen Latifah said, “I am a strong woman ... with or without these tight pants.”

“Women hold up half the sky,” Mao Zedong once declared. While they’re at it more than half a century later, if women want to wear the pants in the flying family, I say let them.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post.