Agreement tips scales in favor of flight attendants

Published Apr. 9, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

First the no-marriage rule fell. Then the no-children rule, and the too-old rules.

Now the weight chart _ one of the last symbols of the flight attendant as a sex object _ is being tossed on the trash heap of airline history.

With an agreement this week by USAir to abandon weight limits as a condition of employment, only a handful of airlines still insist that they can suspend or fire a flight attendant based on a line on a scale.

"With this settlement, the airline will finally stop using weight as a means to evaluate flight attendants and recognize us for our contributions as safety professionals," said Carol Austin, the head of the USAir flight attendants' union.

USAir agreed to settle the issue with its 9,300 flight attendants and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which had sued the airline on the grounds of sex and age discrimination for barring women from flying because they failed to meet certain weight requirements.

The rules, once common among airlines, are hangovers from a day when the flight attendant was young and single and called a stewardess and society looked quite differently than it does today on the role of women in the workplace.

Weight standards for flight attendants have been the subject of legal battles since the mid-1970s, when attendants began to assert that it was a form of sex discrimination to require them to meet weight requirements as a condition of holding jobs.

At most airlines, flight attendants were required to weigh in regularly and could be suspended without pay, or lose their jobs, if their weight exceeded the standards.

"A lot of women went through indescribable psychological agony knowing that if they gained a pound, they could lose their jobs," said Nancy Segal, an attorney for the Association of Flight Attendants. "It caused a lot of eating disorders and a lot of grief."

Segal said most major U.S. airlines, with the exception of United, have dropped or relaxed their weight standards.

At United, several flight attendants, joined by their union, have challenged the weight restrictions in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

At USAir, the weight standards stipulated that a 5-foot-2 flight attendant could weigh no more than 125 pounds. She could add 3 pounds for each decade, at age 30, 40 and 50.

Under the agreement, which still must be approved by the court, the weight policy will be abandoned; no new policy can be introduced for three years, and then only by negotiation with the union.

In addition, the airline will pay $90,000, $15,000 to be split among 20 flight attendants who were not hired because of their weight and $75,000 to be shared among 33 who were suspended by Piedmont or USAir, according to Diana Gilpatrick, EEOC senior trial attorney.

Four women currently on weight suspension will be offered reinstatement as was another who had been fired.

USAir still maintains dress and grooming standards for its flight attendants, said Andrea Butler, a spokeswoman for USAir, and the new agreement also calls for all flight attendants to meet performance standards.

They must fit comfortably down the aisle of USAir's smallest aircraft, facing forward and single file, and fit quickly through the cabin emergency exits.

_ Information from the New York Times was used in this report.