TIME Aviation

It Sounds So Last Century, but Cabin Crew Are Still Hassled by Sex Pests

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From Coffee, Tea or Me? to The Swinging Stewardesses to the Singapore Girl. For years, books, movies and marketing campaigns have sold us the story that flight attendants are sexy girls who serve, not working men and women. Years of organizing and activism has helped alter this perception and has dramatically improved working conditions in many parts of the world. But decades after Continental promised to “move our tails for you,” there are those who still feel free to return an attendant’s smile with a wink and a leer — or even a casual grope.

Thankfully, legislation is slowly changing that. Last week, Hong Kong became the latest jurisdiction to take action on the issue after officials proposed an amendment to the territory’s sexual-harassment laws that would make sexual harassment of service providers illegal, even if it happens outside the territory. Under the Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Bill 2014, airborne sex pests would face civil action in Hong Kong courts. “Some people think they can run away from their actions — well, maybe they can’t run away anymore,” says Dora Lai, who heads the flight attendants’ union for local flag carrier Cathay Pacific. It’s a far cry from the 1970s, when the airline used to market itself with a nudge-nudge play on its code: “Try CX. You’ll like it.”

Though all this may sound like an improbable 1960s throwback, in-flight harassment is an enduring, industry-wide problem. Global stats are hard to come by because such behavior often goes unreported, or may be logged as an in-flight “incident.” But veteran flight attendants with international experience say it is a semiregular occurrence and an unfortunate fact of the job. The new rules in Hong Kong, for instance, follow a survey by Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunity Commission, which found that 27% of Hong Kong flight attendants reported being sexually harassed in the past year.

Statutory protection is a step in the right direction, but is still limited in scope. In drafting their proposal, Hong Kong officials looked to existing laws in Canada, New Zealand and Australia — a small slice of the travel pie. Some markets still lack harassment laws, many the will to enforce them. And it is notoriously tough to pursue claims against someone who may live and work elsewhere.

Part of the problem is that in-flight offenders are emboldened by a perception that they will not be called out. Airlines are certainly not the only place where this happens — creeps and criminals are universal — but there is something about flying that seems to bring it out, says Kathleen M. Barry, author of Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants. “There has always been that sense that there is something distinctive about being on an airplane, it is a space apart, away from your family, removed from normal constraints of a service relationship.”

Airline marketing has not helped. In 1974’s Sex Objects in the Sky: A Personal Account of the Stewardess Rebellion, Paula Kane observed a link between the rise of sexy ad campaigns (“Fly me”), salacious depictions of stewardesses and real-life, one-the-job harassment. Her businessmen customers felt entitled to a “pinch or a pat.” Some still do.

Today, few would venture to grab a bank teller’s breast, or to casually show a shop assistant or receptionist part of their anatomy without expecting consequences. But both still happen in-flight, cabin crew say. One Chinese employee for a German airline told me in an email how the mere act of pouring a beverage — a humdrum part of the job — prompted one passenger to joke about ejaculating on her. (Fearing repercussions at work, she asked to withhold her name.)

Flight attendants have led the charge to change the industry. Bolstered by the civil rights movement and feminist activism, workers at U.S.-based airlines successfully campaigned for an end to things like age and weight limits and the requirement that stewardesses stay single. They also fought for better pay and benefits. In doing so, they helped changed the perception that working on an aircraft is somehow not real work at all.

Current conditions vary widely across regions and carriers. The International Transport Workers’ Federation last year called out the United Arab Emirates and Qatar for “flagrant abuses” of aviation-workers’ rights (including restrictions on marriage and pregnancy). Hong Kong–headquartered Cathay Pacific has a strong and vocal union, but flight attendants in mainland China cannot organize. Major Chinese airlines still have height and age requirements. At a 2011 recruitment pageant, prospective hires had to walk a runway in swimsuits and were evaluated on the shape of their legs.

Of course, it is not really about what recruits wear, or how they look, but about power. Flight attendants could wear potato sacks and still get hassled. Stopping would-be offenders means showing passengers and staff alike that abuse will not be tolerated, says Heather Poole, an industry veteran and the author of the bestseller Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. “There’s a reason foreign carriers like to keep their flight attendants young,” she says. In her experience, young people, who often have less job security, may be hesitant to speak up.

When, as a rookie, she was groped by a passenger in first class, she fled to the galley and did not report it. “I had just started flying, and I didn’t want to lose my job by causing a problem with an important passenger,” she recalled in an email. “I still don’t [know] who I’d go to for something like that. The union? Human resources? A 1-800 number?”

For Hong Kong–based crew, at least, the new rules may provide some help. And at least the issue is being discussed. But tackling the problem globally will require all jurisdictions, and airlines, to step up. Not to mention passengers. “I’d suggest that any person with a propensity to act out in this manner consider traveling as if their mother is sitting next to them,” Poole says. “An 18-year-old new hire may handle a situation differently than a flight attendant with 10 years’ seniority and a black belt in Taekwondo.”

Creeps: consider yourself warned.

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