In South Korea, a career as a flight attendant is said to be so sought after and the competition so fierce that would-be cabin crew are willing to go under the knife in painful plastic surgery operations to make themselves more appealing to the country’s airlines. In fact, a number of cosmetic surgery clinics in Seoul even offer special ‘stewardess’ programmes that suggest a combination of forehead shaping, rhinoplasty and eye surgery to improve a candidate’s odds.
Officially, looks shouldn’t count – South Korea’s largest and most attractive airlines for aspiring cabin crew, such as Korean Air and Asiana, abolished minimum age and height requirements in 2015. The need to attach a photo to an application – a common practice in South Korea – was also abolished in an attempt to make the recruitment process fairer.
Unofficially, however, the process is said to be anything but fair and qualities like youth and beauty are just as important (if not even more important) than experience or aptitude for the job. Korean Air, for example, remains reluctant to hire anyone as cabin crew over the age of 30 according to insiders quoted by local media.
The response to any hiring event can be so overwhelming that many airlines employ the services of specialist cabin crew recruitment agencies to carry out the initial selection process. The first of its kind in South Korea, Airline News Center opened in 1989 and now has four branches across the country – it’s director Pablo Lee likened the recruitment process to a “beauty contest”.
“I think you can compare it to some sort of beauty contest,” Lee was quoted by the Korean Herald.
“First of all, they have to be physically perfect… over 60 kg is kind of overweight, but rarely some people get hired even if they weigh more than that because they are tall,” he continued.
One candidate said many aspiring Korean flight attendants were afraid of telling their own family for fear of being scoffed at for “not being good enough”. Unlike many countries, a career as cabin crew in South Korea remains incredibly aspirational with pay and benefits that many young people could only dream of attaining.
With that kind of competition, some candidates are willing to have plastic surgery to achieve the “perfect” look. The Reborn Medical Centre in Seoul even offers a special cabin crew cosmetic surgery programme – or what it calls “stewardess moulding”.
“What is the image that comes to mind when you are a stewardess?,” the centre’s website asks. “Many people think of a stewardess as slim with a crisp egg-shaped face,” the translated website continues.
Reborn suggests aspiring cabin crew get a combination of forehead moulding, rhinoplasty to make a straight nose, surgery to create “cool eyes” and other procedures for elastic and smooth skin.
But even undergoing plastic surgery isn’t any guarantee of getting picked. The odds are stacked against South Korean candidates – some estimate that 20,000 applicants can apply for an opening when only 100-200 positions are available. Many aspiring cabin crew are willing to fly around the world to attend the recruitment events of international airlines like Emirates, Qatar Airways or Singapore Airlines who hire multi-national cabin crew.
The practise became so common at Emirates is said to have told recruiters to immediately reject South Korean candidates who attended any recruitment event outside their home country.
But rejection is a part of the game… many candidates are willing to dedicate years to landing their dream job. Being turned away, 6,7,8 or even 9 times is just part of that game. A lucky few will finally become winners.