Latoya Ferns Advani doesn’t want to be an air-hostess, even though the question is asked routinely by well-meaning relatives. It’s not a totally outrageous (or random) enquiry. Her mother, Charmaine Ferns, joined Air India in 1976 and served the airline for 36 years. Surely, the glamour, exposure and opportunity to travel the world would be enticing to any young girl, but Latoya has heard a different set of stories too. Stories of her mother’s struggles that began with the sacking of J.R.D. Tata, of overworked and underpaid air hostesses still working for the now debt-ridden airline, and of discrimination. “No,” Latoya Ferns Advani doesn’t want to be an air-hostess because the profession and industry is now a shadow of what it was in the 70s and 80s–a time when air-hostesses were not just the face of the airline, but ambassadors of the country.
“Those were the good old days, dear.....today I am not so sure if I would want to become an air hostess,” Shanti Menezes, who joined Air India as a young 22-year-old, re-iterates. Articulate, poised and beautiful, these women were held to exacting standards that were reportedly laid out by two men—the legendary aviator and industrialist JRD Tata and his commercial director SK (Bobby) Kooka, who on every Thursday would personally pick the most glamorous girls in the country to fly their nascent airline.’ “You had to be tall and slim,” Shanti elaborates. “It wasn’t an unrealistic beauty standard, but a very well thought out recruitment plan as air hostesses were required to reach certain heights in the cabin area,” she adds, narrating how she was tested on her walking skills after the interview. “We also had to know our ‘wine and cheese’ along with a foreign language,” adds Suneeta Sodhi who joined Air India in 1988. They weren’t ‘glorified ayahs’ as air-hostesses are deprecatingly referred to nowadays by those who don’t fully understand the skill set the job demands. Instead, they were jet-setters, travelling the world in their Kanjeevaram Sarees neatly draped in the Bharatnatyam style, hosting the creme de la creme of the society and building upon a vast bank of knowledge few women of their generation had access to. They were the original Indian ‘It Girls’ who literally flew the good times.
A life that’s difficult to imagine today, there were many perks bundled up with being an air-hostess onboard an Air India flight 40 years ago. For many women who came from higher socio-economic backgrounds, being trained as an air hostess was akin to finishing school, given the meticulous grooming they underwent. The grace with which Air India hostesses carried themselves earned them the repute of a supermodel. They were gorgeous, yes, but their exposure to the whole wide world meant their personalities were particularly dynamic too.
For Charmaine Ferns, it was the people she met that made taking the flight worthwhile. From having flown prime ministers, presidents, spiritual leaders, diplomats and Bollywood superstars, Charmaine rubbed shoulders with true-blue VIPs. However, she says she’ll never forget the moment when she got to fly and serve Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Not as cut-and-dry as flying with celebrities would be today, mingling with the air hostesses was quite common back then and they quickly joined important social circles and made worthy connections, including more amorous ones. Top-ranking businessmen and industrialists also flew Air India, and both Maureen Wadia and Parmeshwar Godrej, former Air India Hostesses, reportedly met their spouses while hosting them on flights.
But nothing beat the idea of getting paid to travel the world. Air hostesses would be treated to layovers at exotic locations that would last between three-to-four days where they only stayed at the very best 5-star hotels. “I chose to become an air hostess, primarily because I wanted to travel. We had so much time back then as the frequency of the flights was limited,” Shanti says excitedly. For another former Air India Hostess, Valerie Fernandez, it was almost as if Air India gave wings to her wanderlust. “I continue to travel even after retirement as Air India offers their hostesses a certain number of tickets every year at nominal prices as a perk,” she says. Post extensive travel and long flights, Air India hostesses were given ample time to rest along with a lot of exciting opportunities. One of them was the World Airline Pageant that Suneeta Sodhi won in Paris in 1988. She says, “It made a huge difference to my career as I became the face of Air India and started representing it in various events.”
But while the profession provided ample opportunities, including the possibility of love at 30,000 feet above the ground, it also put restrictions on marriage and on the number of children air hostesses were allowed to have. Prioritizing her family over career, Suneeta Sodhi decided to quit after she gave birth to her daughter. Charmaine tells me how many Indian air hostesses are spinsters till date. “It even strained my relationship with my partner thereafter which I decided to become a single mother,” she notes.
Though the constraints on marriage were lifted in 1979, certain restrictions still plagued the skies. For example, the retirement age for female cabin crew was 35 whereas for the male cabin crew it was 58. Thus, air hostesses were hardly considered for promotions that instead went to their male colleagues by default. Shanti tells me, “It would so happen that a newly recruited male colleague that I trained after being in service for 20 years would soon become my senior. After we protested, we were given senior positions in office but the minute we stepped in the flight we became subordinates to the junior most male employee in the cabin.”
While Air India employees had a union called Air India Cabin Crew Association (AICCA) which was backed by Shiv Sena, it did not support their struggle, as it affected the men’s career progression. Thus, realizing the futility of fighting through the union, Charmaine Ferns along with Valerie Fernandez, Shanti Menezes, Nergish Mirza and a few others founded the more rebellious, more pro-active Air India Hostesses Association (AIHA) in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, it still has not been given the status of a union, but that doesn’t take away from its importance, especially for modern-day air hostesses. “We went from the High Court to the Supreme Court, collected money to fight the corrupt officials and fought hard to turn our jobs into careers,” Charmaine says. With the help of amazing lawyers like Indira Jaising and Anand Grover, the case was finally won and the retiring age for hostesses was raised to 58.
Fighting the big fights and the small, these women were also dealing with the more routine realities of being an Air India hostess while fighting for equality at the workplace. Putting a smile on your face and dealing with tired passengers, continuously exposing your body to artificial pressure and radiation, keeping up with a rigorous skincare routine to keep acne at bay, dealing with jet lags and improper sleep cycles; all the glamour came at a cost. Earlier, hostesses were required to walk back and forth with food from the galley each time they had to serve a passenger. Most air hostesses suffered from medical problems like slip disk and backaches.
Perhaps the most terrifying experience that marked the lives of air hostesses in the 70s and the 80s was an increase in hijackings. Though none of the air hostesses we spoke to personally lived through this terrible experience, Valerie mentions a particular heart-wrenching incident that haunts her till this day. “I was supposed to be on the Kanishka Flight that blew up in 1985 but it was my daughter’s birthday that day, so I took leave. Incidentally, the stand-by air hostess who went on board as my substitute too had her birthday on the same date. The flight blew up with absolutely no survivors.”
While Suneeta mentions that the only thing they were asked to do during hijacks was to cooperate with the terrorists, Air India Hostesses were taught everything from anticipating the more dire needs that may arise–dealing with death on board, providing mouth to mouth resuscitation and putting an infant to sleep. “What most people do not realize today is that we are your doctors, babysitters, counsellors and even lifesavers, thousands of feet above the ground,” exclaims Charmaine Ferns.
Today, in 2018, the job still pays well but benefits like travel are not as lucrative since the frequency of flights has increased. “The glamour deteriorated after the airline’s nationalization and soon it became about the greed for money, the power for hunger and our fight for equality,” Charmaine states. In her hall, I see an old picture of her as she poses elegantly with her colleagues on her last day at Air India. Her lips are sealed in a tight smile. While speaking to these women about the good old days of being an Air India Hostess, I gauge part nostalgia and part relief. Now with the debate for privatization of the airline heating up in parliament, they are unsure of what would become of their perks and meagre pensions; and they do not seem very hopeful.
Privatisation is ought to bring turbulence–nevertheless, they have their seat belts fastened.
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