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Sky’s the limit

“Madam, do have snakes and cock?”

It was a Bhavnagar bound flight and Rochelle, the 20-something attendant on the low cost flight, had just finished demonstrating the emergency response drill when a passenger suddenly asked her for what seemed like reptiles and fowl. A few minutes later, after she had decoded the man’s request — with help from other members of the cabin crew — Rochelle placed a tray of sandwiches and Coke before him.

Clearly, a flight attendant’s job is a taxing one. So much so that two members of a cabin crew, including an airhostess, got into a brawl with pilots aboard a Sharjah-Lucknow-Delhi flight last month. The airhostess accused one of the pilots of molesting her — a charge that the National Commission for Women later said was untrue. But the incident once again put the focus on a cabin crew’s exploits — hundreds of thousands of feet above sea level.

Airhostesses lead hard lives. They are sexually harassed, abused and are rudely spoken to. But there are lighter moments too. “It is only when we sit down to chat among ourselves that we realise how funny some situations are,” says Ramona, 32, who is a flight attendant in a private airline.

Deciphering a passenger’s demands and remarks needs special skills. But airhostesses manage to keep a straight face even when a traveller declares himself a “vegetable” (upon being asked his food references), or when another asks for a window seat because he finds it stuffy and hot inside.

Some passengers come up with propositions that verge on the obscene. Rochelle was offered a modelling assignment by a 12-year-old girl on a recent flight. The girl said that she had been sent by her father, who was also on the flight. A visiting card explained that her services were required for a lingerie company.

But those are minor peccadilloes compared with some of the other activities that passengers indulge in. The cabin crew of a New York bound flight was amazed when they found that on the upper deck an Indian couple — a Sindhi man and a South Indian woman — were having sex in full view of co-passengers. “But besides throwing blankets on the couple, there was nothing we could do,” says Ramona.

Often, situations demand tact. Former airhostess Shonali recalls an incident when there were complaints that an African passenger’s tall hat obstructed others’ view of the on-flight film. The gentleman, however, said he would remove it only if his Sikh co-passenger took off his turban. “Instead of unleashing a civil war, I told objecting passengers to just bear up,” says Shonali.

On a flight from Singapore to Sydney, Shonali and her colleague stumbled in the dark upon a couple — a French woman and Australian man — having sex near one of the aircraft doors. The two airhostesses took their place in the jump seats near the door and stared officiously at the couple. It worked — the woman ran to the toilet, but the unlucky man had to wait for his turn, and stood there, baring his bottom, while the two women continued to stare at him fixedly. “After he left, we burst into laughter,” says Shonali.

The other memorable moments often deal with celebrities on board. Rochelle remembers how disappointed she was on seeing superstar Rajnikanth, who bore no resemblance to his screen image in real life.

Shonali recalls telling actor Sunil Dutt that she had seen his film Padosan some 25 times. “He said most people talked to him only about his son’s films,” she says.

Another Bollywood actor charmed her into disguising a peg of whiskey as fruit juice to hoodwink a nagging wife on an international flight.

But celebrities are generally well behaved, says Rochelle. Ramona, however, recalls how she was disappointed in a much revered Bollywood actor who was travelling club class and insisted on standing in the aisle and talking to his wife and son, who were in the economy class. When repeated requests to the actor to step aside failed, Ramona announced to passengers that she could serve them only after the gentleman had finished his “important conversation with his wife”. The actor sheepishly walked away.

Humour often helps the crew tackle uncomfortable situations. One passenger, who wanted medicine for a headache, made a face when she was given a pill and asked for a “foreignwallah” medicine. The attendant asked the passenger if she had a foreign headache.

Sometimes, passengers are not pleasant. Ramona once had to slap a man who had molested her. Most airhostesses, however, try to ignore the acts of sexual harassment. One of the attendants points out that complaints about molestation by passengers are not always reported as attendants often feel embarrassed about going public with the incidents. Proving the charges — getting witnesses to testify and so on — is a daunting task as well.

“Women are generally afraid to stand up for their rights. A lot of airhostesses suffer from low self esteem after being insulted by passengers — which happens often,” says Shonali.

Shonali found being tough worked for her. When male passengers snapped their fingers, whistled or made a sound to get her attention, she’d often say: “I’m not your dog, your ayah or wife.”

The job undoubtedly, is tough. Flight attendants spend hours on their feet, in high-heeled shoes, pandering to the whims of passengers who believe that because they have paid for their tickets, the employees on board are their personal slaves. Most attendants, who earn anything between Rs 30,000 and Rs 50,000, not counting allowances, have to be away from home for two or three nights at a stretch on long flights.

But, in the long run, clearly it’s a lot of fun. For it’s laughter, among other things, that keeps them going.

(Some names have been changed on request)

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