Immaculate-looking flight attendants who appear unruffled by the demands of a life spent in the air are part of the slick image sold by carriers — but Hong Kong-based workers are increasingly hitting back against sexual harassment.
Female cabin crew told AFP of how they had been harassed not only by passengers but also by colleagues. While they say carriers have made some steps in the right direction, they argue airlines still lag far behind in the #MeToo era.
Venus Fung, whose experiences drove her to join and lead the Cabin Attendants Union of Hong Kong, says airlines must teach workers on how to deal with harassment.
Fung, 29, said the issue was never raised in her company training.
The Hong Kong-based attendant told AFP she had been physically picked up by a pilot who touched her chest, waist and bottom, commenting she had a nice body, when she was new to the job more than two years ago.
“At that moment I was really angry, but I was mostly also panicking and afraid. My mind went completely blank — I had no idea what to do or how to react,” said Fung, who works for a European airline which she did not want to identify for fear of recrimination.
The cabin manager who witnessed the incident did not intervene, Fung added, instead threatening to report her for wearing a skirt that was “too tight”.
As a result Fung stopped wearing skirts at work for more than a year, opting for trousers instead.
She has since been training colleagues on how to report sexual harassment and seek help, but said long-term cultural changes are needed.
“When a flight attendant comes out it looks very fancy with the uniform, heels and makeup. There are fantasies around this industry and it’s hard to change public perception but it absolutely cannot be an excuse for bad behaviour,” Fung said, calling for an awareness-raising campaign.
“Education is key to changing people’s attitudes. It’s difficult to carry out overnight, it takes time, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do these things.”
The airline did not respond to requests by AFP for comment.
The complaints from attendants like Fung come as demands for change grow worldwide.
The US-based Association of Flight Attendants last year called on American airlines to “renounce the past objectification of flight attendants”.
Vietnamese budget carrier VietJet, which has staffed some of its inaugural flights with bikini-clad attendants and publishes a calendar featuring scantily-dressed models posing on planes, has sparked criticism for its marketing ploys.
Owned by Vietnam’s only female billionaire, the airline had to apologise for sending lingerie models to join the country’s under-23 football squad on a flight home in January after a social media outcry.
Some airline staff in Hong Kong told AFP the perceived glamour attracted many women to the job — there are popular makeup tutorials on YouTube by flight attendants from Dubai-based airline Emirates on how to achieve their look.
But others say some of the industry’s grooming standards are outdated.
Staff at Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific must wear eyeshadow, lipstick and nail polish in specifically approved shades and check it at regular intervals, according to an official handbook.
Male staff are also under scrutiny — banned from wearing make-up but told they must “maintain a clear complexion at all times”.
Cathay’s cabin crew representatives say they will push to make nail polish optional in talks with the company next year.
The airline announced in March it would introduce a trouser option for female attendants, ending a 70-year skirt rule.
But Dora Lai, Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants Union leader and a cabin manager, said that while the move was a step toward gender equality, it would do little to end sexual harassment without a shift in public and staff awareness.
Lai said many airline advertisements deployed beautiful women to sell the industry’s “sex appeal”, rather than the practical skills of the job.
“We are there to provide a service and to bring our passengers safely from point A to point B,” she said.
Despite Cathay launching an online course with a special section on sexual harassment for Hong Kong cabin staff in March, the union says some in-flight managers continue to distrust staff who report cases.
A Cathay attendant who did not want to be identified told AFP her in-flight manager had been reluctant to warn a passenger who had patted her head and back repeatedly, which she described as “humiliating”.
“I felt angry and sad. I was the concerned party, not just relaying the incident… And after telling him, the supervisor was still not supportive,” she said.
Cathay Pacific told AFP it provided training to all staff on the “prevention and elimination of discrimination and harassment in the workplace”.
But attendant Michelle Choi said the company needed to go further to support staff in taking immediate action, from giving warnings to asking passengers to apologise, or in some cases reporting to police.
“We want flight attendants to know what they can do instead of feeling embarrassed about reporting the case, and in the end making excuses to tolerate these acts as many used to do before,” she said.