New Delhi, Sept. 12: Air India has decided to ground about 130 flight attendants, mostly women, who have failed to meet government-imposed weight standards, angering cabin crew and aviation experts who see the move as "sexist".
The state-owned airline had last year asked 600 flight attendants to lose weight within six months. It now plans to assign over a fifth of them to ground jobs because their body mass index or BMI levels are still above prescribed limits.
A person's BMI expresses how heavy she is for her height, and is calculated by dividing her weight in kilos by the square of her height in metres.
A May 2014 circular by the directorate-general of civil aviation had asked all domestic airlines to classify their flight attendants into "normal", "overweight" and "obese" and ensure that only the "fitter" are assigned aircraft duties.
It said an airhostess was "normal" if her BMI was between 18 and 22, "overweight" if it was between 22 and 27, and "obese" for any figure above 27. For male stewards, the standards were 18-25, 25-30, and above.
After the circular was issued, an Air India human resources official said, the airline's 3,500 cabin crew members were tested and 600 were found overweight or obese.
They were declared "temporarily unfit" for flight duties and asked to undergo clinical examinations and weight reduction through a regimen of diet, exercise and lifestyle changes under periodic monitoring by the carriers.
They were given a six-month deadline, which ended recently, the official said. "About 130 of them failed the reassessment. We are now declaring them permanently unfit for their job as flight attendants."
Another airline official said these 130 would be given ground assignments at airports.
An official at the directorate-general said the BMI circular had been issued after "departmental discussions".
"People who are fitter can respond quicker and more efficiently in case of any untoward situation," the official said.
Some flight attendants and aviation experts suspect that the circular, which they have called "shallow", was a disguised attempt to remove flight attendants who might not meet some or other "aesthetic" standard.
"This move to impose a certain BMI, ignoring experience and other performance parameters, is immature, misogynistic and shockingly sexist," said Mark Martin, an aviation industry consultant.
"We seem to have lost the plot on what is needed from flight attendants."
Martin said flight attendants should be judged by their experience, passenger management capabilities and response to emergency situations as assessed during periodic drills.
Another aviation consultant, who works for a global agency, said several international airlines, such as Lufthansa and American Airlines, eschew appearance or age as criteria for selecting or retaining cabin crew.
"If the directorate is serious about the security aspect, it should come up with training guidelines and frequently subject all airlines to surprise safety audits, which could include mock evacuation drills," the consultant said.
A member of the All India Cabin Crew Association termed the BMI move "ridiculous".
"Any industry insider would vouch that Air India flight attendants are the best, mainly because of their long experience. So, this guideline and the management's decision to follow it to the letter is unacceptable."
A medical expert said it would be misleading to link BMI with fitness or speed.
"A person with a BMI of 27 could be fitter than a person with a BMI of 21," said Anoop Misra, former professor of internal medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, and now director of the Fortis Centre for Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol.
"Those doing fitness training regularly, with good haemoglobin (levels), correct blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and a good performance on the treadmill could be as fit as someone with a lower BMI," Misra added.
"Some wrestlers and athletes are extremely fit; their high BMI comes from muscle, not fat."
An industry insider said the private domestic airlines are unlikely to have been affected by the BMI circular because their cabin crew tend to be younger.