A serving member of cabin crew at the Dubai-based airline, Emirates has approached us to speak of their concern about an internal ‘Appearance Management Programme’ which they fear is deliberately being used to target black flight attendants as a way of dismissing them from the airline.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the insider told us the secret programme was used by Emirates to ensure cabin crew were of an ‘acceptable’ appearance based on their weight – with staff being grounded and threatened with losing their jobs if they didn’t go on drastic diets.
We’ve seen an internal email which confirms the existence of the programme, sent from the cabin crew fitness and nutrition department but which makes it clear that the action is part of the so-called Appearance Management Policy and that cabin crew who fall within the remit of the programme will be judged by Uniform Standards Officers.
Cabin crew at the Persian Gulf airline have long feared the Uniform Standards Officers – as flight attendants make their way into work, they’ll be looked up and down by one of these members of staff to ensure they meet the airline’s strict standards.
Image and grooming
But far from just judging a flight attendant’s uniform, hair and makeup, it’s alleged the Uniform Standards Officers are also rating cabin crew on their body shape. Those who are deemed to not be looking the part can be grounded immediately and denied any flights for 30 days in order to lose weight.
Those who fail to shift enough weight are subjected to disciplinary proceedings, including dismissal
Our source tells us the airline regularly fails to provide adequate support for ‘overweight’ cabin crew. Many have to wait weeks before they are seen by a nutritionist or doctor. There is little provision to account or treat underlying health complaints and an arbitrary weigh-in test is used to judge how well a crew member is achieving their weight loss.
The threshold of appropriate appearance
Even more concerning are allegations that mothers who have recently given birth, as well are more mature crew members are subjected to random weigh-in’s to see whether they have “exceeded the so-called threshold of “appropriate appearance”.
And our insider even raised concerns that Emirates management was deliberately targeting flight attendants from certain African countries, alleging that black cabin crew were asked why they couldn’t maintain the same weight as their counterparts from South East Asian countries.
The strict appearance policy even affects new joiners, who would already have been judged and ranked on photographs they are forced to submit to the airline before they are offered a job. Ab initio cabin crew are weighed on joining the company and then monitored throughout their probation. Before graduation, cabin crew are once again subjected to a final weight check.
Why an airline might have weight limits for cabin crew
Of course, there are some very good reasons why an airline would impose some rules on the size of their cabin crew. For example, aviation regulators say flight attendants must be able to fit into a jumpseat harness but Emirates’ policy seems to go way beyond this requirement.
Not that Emirates is the only airline accused of firing cabin crew for being overweight. In 2009 Air India dismissed nine flight attendants for being overweight – apparently because their shape could “impair agility”. In 2015, the airline threatened to fire 125 crew for the same reason and again in 2017, Air India grounded 57 flight attendants for the same reason.
Air India and Malaysia Airlines accused of having similar policies
The Indian carrier uses Body Mass Index (BMI) as a way of assessing the weight of their crew – a useful reference but one that fails to account for muscle mass and underlying fitness levels.
A policy by Malaysia Airlines to sack ‘overweight’ crew also hit the headlines last year, when five crew members were fired and a further 20 threatened with dismissal. The NUFAM union which represents Malaysia Airlines crew said the airline had only taken such drastic action because the flight attendants were over the age of 50.
Back at Emirates, and our source says the strict rules have led some crew members to develop eating disorders in a desperate attempt to maintain the required ‘look’ of the airline. Other flight attendants remain grounded as they try to lose weight or face the sack by management.
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.