A few weeks ago, the outspoken chief executive of Qatar Airways got himself into hot water over comments he made about flight attendants. Speaking at a publicity event, Akbar Al Baker was pointing out the benefits of flying his airline versus U.S. carriers. Baker was keen to point out the “award-winning service” offered on his airline by Qatar Airways cabin crew when he said:
“By the way, the average age of my cabin crew is only 26 years, so there is no need for you to travel on this crap American carriers. You know you are always being served by grandmothers at American carriers.”
His comments quickly suffered a furious backlash – Baker’s choice of words drew allegations of misogyny, workplace sexism and ageism. Although the damage had already been done, rather unusually, Baker issued a public apology saying: “I should like to apologise unreservedly to those offended by my recent remarks.”
He went on to say of cabin crew: “They play a huge role in the safety and comfort of passengers, irrespective of their age or gender or familial status.” But he did add a caveat to that: “However, cabin crew are the public face of all airlines.” Which is a really interesting point and one that was already being actively debated across the internet following his original remarks.
Should cabin crew be ‘beautiful’?
Should cabin crew be ‘beautiful’, ‘pretty’, ‘good looking’ or even ‘sexy’? Today, the very notion seems absurd and yet it’s a way of thinking that airline’s around the world just can’t seem to shake.
It wasn’t always like this. During the earliest days of commercial aviation, passengers would be only be served by male stewards. Even so, it didn’t take long before women started to take on the role. Yet, it wasn’t until the swinging 60’s that airline’s really started to use the image of their female flight attendant’s as a selling point in itself.
In 1965, the now defunct American airline, Braniff launched a bold new uniform in collaboration with respected designer, Emilio Pucci. The collection of interchangeable parts was dubbed ‘the air strip’ – the pun was most definitely intended. Female cabin crew were put at the forefront of Braniff’s advertising campaigns.
Things got even more questionable in 1971 with the launch of the Texas-based airline, Southwest. Flight attendants were chosen by a committee, including a person who was responsible for selecting crew on Hugh Hefner’s private Playboy jet. The original Southwest flight attendants were described as “long-legged dancers, majorettes, and cheerleaders.” The crew were then dressed in hot pants and go-go boots.
It was an attitude that became pervasive throughout the aviation industry. The image and uniform worn by (mainly) female cabin crew became a major selling point. But as the world has moved on, somehow the attitudes of some travellers towards cabin crew have stayed firmly rooted in the past.
Discussing what Akbar Al Baker had said, one commentator on popular aviation blog, One Mile at a Time wrote: “I prefer young (21-30) attractive stewardesses.” Another said: “He’s absolutely right! Age matters a lot to me when I pay full fare for a long haul flight. QR crew members are young, smiling and attractive for the “alpha male” eyes.”
Meanwhile, on the FlyerTalk forum, one writer commented: “QA CEO was absolutely on the mark with his comments. Why everything has to go through a political correctness test before it is justified here? I wholeheartedly agree with his comments about airlines in the US. Nothing but lousy service and mean attitudes.”
Middle East airlines aren’t immune either
And as Qatar Airways has seemingly proved, the Middle East airlines aren’t immune either. Yes, they dress their cabin crew in uniforms more appropriate to the social norms of the region but the overall image is often described as ‘glamorous’. The youth of the cabin crew and glossy, manicured looks are heavily promoted.
But here’s the thing – is it such a bad thing for cabin crew to ‘look good’? No, no, no – that doesn’t mean to be ‘good looking’ but rather have a polished, professional look with a pride for personal appearance.
Now, just to be clear, this has nothing to do with gender, age or sexuality. Nor does it have anything to do with traditional notions of beauty. Judging flight attendants based on your personal opinion of physical attractiveness is clearly a really bad way of knowing whether someone will be any good at the job.
Being well-groomed shouldn’t be a bad thing
But good hygiene and a well-groomed appearance are a good thing – factors that most airlines consider to be really important. Here’s the thing, as a passenger you’re just about to share a confined space with a group of cabin crew for any number of hours. Maybe for a short 1-hour hop, you don’t care but how would you feel on a 12-hour long haul flight?
Those cabin crew are about to prepare and serve everything you are going to eat and drink. They’ll be looking after the cleanliness of the cabin and dealing with any medical emergencies or other incidents on board. At this point, you probably care a little bit more about the competence of the crew. And start off by wondering if their hands are clean and well taken care of – after all, those hands will be handling and serving your meals.
It’s the same for the uniform. Is it well taken care of? Worn with pride and professionalism? It matters because as humans, whether we like it or not, we judge someone’s competence based on their appearance. After all, we have no other way of judging our cabin crew – it’s not like passengers can carry out an impromptu interview with their flight attendant.
It’s called a uniform for a reason
Again, hair and makeup might seem like a sexist subject but consider this – most airline’s don’t care how flight attendants wear their hair so long as it complies with strict safety rules. And remember, it’s a uniform for a reason – so that everyone looks similar and in accordance with the airline’s brand.
Now, there’s an important point to make here – it doesn’t matter what age you are or what you naturally look like. Appearing well groomed and professional is ageless and genderless. Yes, airline’s have stricter rules than many other industries but they also consider themselves to be premium businesses. You wouldn’t go to a five star hotel and expect to see scruffy staff. The same applies for airline’s – it’s really that simple.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.