How old is too old to work as a flight attendant? The old-fashioned view would have us believe working as cabin crew is a glamorous career reserved solely for younger adults – but surely that way of thinking is crusty, ageist and definitely out of date in the 21st century? Yet no matter what your opinion on the matter is, at some point a flight attendant is going to have to call it a day and hang up their apron and ice tongs.
Maybe it’s the long unsocial hours, the jetlag, or the heavy lifting and demanding passengers. Perhaps it’s the constant health checks that you just can’t seem to pass anymore. For most flight attendants, however much they love the job, it’s all going to take its toll eventually – then it’s time to quit.
For flight attendants at Hong Kong-based airline, Cathay Pacific this is a decision that they’ve had to put some serious thought into. And interestingly, the vast majority of Cathay cabin crew want to increase the retirement age from the current 55 to 60 years old.
Admittedly, there is a very good reason why the Cathay flight attendants might want to work longer in life – as a desperate bid to keep the loss-making airline afloat. In a recent ballot conducted with the support of the flight attendant’s union, just over half of the airline’s 9,032 cabin crew voted to increase the retirement age.
Hong Kong-based airlines have some of the youngest retirement ages in the industry
Only 1,000 cabin crew voted against the plan with the remaining 3,000 not bothering to cast a vote at all. It comes after the long-established airline lost HK$575 million last year. In May, Cathay said over 600 Head Office jobs would be slashed in a major cost-cutting push.
“The survey is bound to generate different opinions, but the bigger issue is we have to stop age discrimination against cabin crew at the company,” commented Vera Wu Yee-mei, chairwoman of the Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants’ Union. She said the majority vote would allow them to press ahead with the proposal whilst being sensitive to the needs of flight attendants who didn’t view the results quite so favourably.
But according to the South China Morning Post, Cathay Pacific has one of the youngest retirement ages for cabin crew in the region. China Airlines, All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Philippine Airlines all have a minimum retirement age of 65. Meanwhile, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airways set their retirement age at 60. Flight attendant’s at Singapore Airways have to wait until 62 before they can retire.
In contrast, Hong Kong-based airlines including Hong Kong Airlines, Hong Kong Express Airways and Cathay Dragon allow their flights to retire at the remarkedly young age of just 45 years old.
Meet Bette Nash – Thr world’s oldest flight attendant
That’s nothing in comparison with Bette Nash, who was until this year the world’s oldest flight attendant at 80 years old. Bette first started working for the long-defunct airline, Eastern Airlines in 1957 – aged just 21 years old at the time.
Since then, Nash bizarrely never left her original airline but through a series of mergers and acquisitions ended up as a flight attendant at American Airlines after it bought U.S. Airways in 2013.
And what was Bette’s secret to success? Here’s what she told CNN just before her retirement, late last year: “I love my people. I know my customers. I know what they want. The airline thinks names are important, but I think people’s needs are very important. Everybody wants a little love.”
Qatar Airways gets itself into hot water over calling American flight attendants “grandmothers”
Yet not all airline’s apparently view more mature cabin crew as an asset. In July, the outspoken chief executive of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker got himself into hot water when he told the audience at a press conference: “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.”
Ouch – simultaneously jibing older flight attendants and claiming his airline didn’t hire mature staff. The comments caused a big furore and Baker was forced to back down, offering an unreserved apology to anyone he may have offended.
Baker explained: “Cabin crew are the public face of all airlines, and I greatly respect their hard work and professionalism,”
He continued: “they play a huge role in the safety and comfort of passengers, irrespective of their age or gender or familial status. I have worked for many years in the industry, and I have a high regard for the value that I see long-serving staff members bringing through their experience and dedication.”
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.