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Too fat to fly? Backlash against Gulf airlines’ grounding of ‘overweight’ crew

The CEO of Qatar Airways Akbar Al-Baker issued an apology after he compared the crews on his airline with the ‘grandmothers on American carriers’. (Reuters)
LONDON: Two Gulf airlines have come under fire from grounded crew members deemed too fat to fly.
Air transport unions say weight discrimination is a problem with some airlines who regularly weigh crew members to ensure they are within closely-monitored bands.
Employees from regional carriers including Qatar Airways have confided to Arab News that they have faced being grounded or have been “humiliated” by their employers for being overweight.
A former Qatar Airways cabin member, who asked to be quoted by his first name “Martin,” said when he worked for the Doha-based airline he was sent a letter by the management asking him to lose 10 kilos.
Martin, who was 23 at the time of the reprimand, said: “I’m a big guy, yes, but I’m in proportion.” Martin is 180cm tall and at the time of receiving the letter he weighed 90 kilograms.
“I knew if I didn’t lose the weight they would ground me and it would be humiliating,” he said. “They send you the letter and then give you three months to lose the weight.”
Martin said it was “difficult” to lose weight when flying because no special diet food was provided. He said: “I lost the 10 kilograms in just one month by just eating vegetables. I was hungry all the time.”
He added that he found the management very “controlling.”
The former cabin member, who now works for Argentine Airlines, said: “It’s wrong.
In Argentina we have all sorts of bodies. Would you like someone super-young and slender to serve you, or would you like someone more experienced who can save you in the event of an accident?”
He said of Qatar Airways: “They measure your height and they tell you it’s because of aircraft requirements and about being able to reach things. Then they take your weight measurements but they are not clear about why. Why?”
Martin added: “I understand that they want you to look good but they forget that we are humans, especially when they consider the poor quality of the available food and our limited time.”
In June, the CEO of Qatar Airways Akbar Al-Baker was forced to issue an apology after he compared the crews on his airline with those of US-based carriers.
“By the way, the average age of my cabin crew is only 26 years,” he said in Dublin during a celebration of the launch of a new international route.
“So there is no need for you to travel on these crap American carriers ... You know you’re always being served by grandmothers on American carriers.”
The comment sparked outrage by labor unions representing US-based pilot and flight attendants.
Al-Baker’s comments came just two years after the Doha-based airline faced a massive backlash for its policy of firing female cabin crew for getting married or pregnant.
At the time, the airline was forced to make a U-turn and now offers pregnant women temporary ground jobs, and they can get married at any time after “notifying” the company.
In the wake of recent court cases against Aeroflot and Malaysian Airlines for alleged staff discrimination on the basis of appearance, a serving cabin member for Emirates told Arab News: “The company has a weight management system and there is a roster code for crew who are subject to this so it is fairly easy to check for this practice.”
According to documents seen by Arab News, the code “GAM” appears to denote that a member of Emirates staff has been grounded for “appearance management” reasons.
A female former cabin member who worked at Emirates from 2013-2016 confirmed to Arab News the airline regularly weighs its staff and “grounds” people for being overweight.
“People who were overweight had to work in the training college until they lost weight,” the 33-year-old told Arab News on the condition of anonymity. “I definitely felt self-conscious working at Emirates. They only hire skinny women so you are aware that you need to maintain that appearance, and also being weighed on a recurring basis is not nice.”
The disgruntled former Emirates worker, who now works for British Airways, added: “They only want young pretty girls, experience is not their priority.”
Gabriel Mocho, International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) civil aviation section secretary, told Arab News that the practice of sexism, as well as appearance and weight discrimination are a “problem” in some airlines. “When it happens we will call the airline out on it,” he said.
Mocho said discriminating on the basis of a person’s weight is “wholly illegitimate.”
He said: “We tend to see it in countries where there’s little or no union presence, and where labor legislation and the culture of flight safety are weak — both on paper and in implementation. Cut-throat competition among airlines due to decades of deregulation without proper social safeguards is making the situation worse.”
Mocho said discrimination would only be justified if a person’s weight undermined their ability to perform safety-related duties, but said this is not what is happening in these cases.
The ITF secretary said: “This is discrimination. It’s an unacceptable practice. Once again it ignores the fact that cabin crew are, first and foremost, safety professionals — not ornaments for the vanity of an airline.”
A spokesperson from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) confirmed to Arab News in a statement that excess weight is not a specific safety concern.
“There is nothing specifically about weight for cabin crew in the EASA regulations,” the spokesperson said.
“Obviously crew must be able to carry out the job to the relevant safety standards required. If this isn’t possible, airlines usually work with the individual to bring them to the required standard.”
Despite disapproval of airline weight monitoring practices at the union level, not all cabin crew deem the policies to be unfair.
Narissa, who worked for Emirates until May 2017, told Arab News she supports the airline’s weight management policies.
“It’s a good initiative. People who get letters are really overweight,” she said. “You are the face of the airline. They also ... expect you to move quite fast and you can’t do that if you’re very overweight.”
However she also expressed skepticism over whether the practice was really related to safety onboard.
“They say it’s because of health reasons but really it’s because they want us to look good. All the new joiners look like they are straight off the runway.”
Qatar Airways and Emirates did not respond to requests for ­comment.

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