Sickos we meet mid-air: Flight attendants narrate horrors of in-flight harassment

Apart from clicking photographs, some passengers also try to invade their personal space and sexually harass them.
Sickos we meet mid-air: Flight attendants narrate horrors of in-flight harassment
Sickos we meet mid-air: Flight attendants narrate horrors of in-flight harassment
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Veera* has been a flight attendant for a decade now with a reputed international airline. She likes her job, the opportunities it provides and believes that people have a fascination with her uniform. But the latter often translates to rather uncomfortable situations for her. For instance, ask her about passengers taking her pictures without asking and she’ll say that it’s very common.

“I’ve had passengers take photos of me and my colleagues without permission. Some request to take photos with me. I generally don’t make a fuss out of it as they can get into a lot of trouble if they post it online and it is discovered,” she says.

That's what happened when an IndiGo passenger clicked and tweeted a photograph of one of the flight attendants on board. He was told off by the airline, which also asked him to take the photo down. As a means of justification, he replied saying that he was a “big fan” of IndiGo.

Vineetha*, a flight attendant at a domestic airline in India, recounts an incident when a passenger kept his phone on the floor of the plane and captured a video of her colleague walking down the aisle.

“In lesser time than it’s taking me to describe this incident, the passenger (who looked about 50) had taken out his phone, taken a video and kept it back. We all wear skirts, so you know what he was trying to capture,” Vineetha narrates.

When her colleague confronted the man, he denied it outright. But when she asked to see his phone and found the video, the man was forced to delete it.

Vineetha thinks that other than it being plain harassment, it also has to do with the glamour associated with being a flight attendant.

“For many, the lifestyle of an air hostess still appears glamourous or mysterious. Perhaps it’s the awe or disbelief of seeing an air hostess at close quarters or it’s just plain disregard for another’s privacy: maybe that’s why people ogle at us, or click our photographs without permission,” Vineetha says.

However, having their photographs clicked without their consent is only one form of harassment flight attendants go through on a daily basis. Veera has witnessed many passengers attempting to touch or grope flight attendants and pass it off as an accident.

“For instance, they just keep their hand too far out in the aisle when one of us is walking through. They’ll touch our legs or backside and pass it off as a mistake,” she says.

One particular incident that shook her happened at the beginning of her career. At the end of a Moscow-bound flight, Veera was standing by the exit as the passengers were de-boarding. A man walked up to her, grabbed her breasts, told her “thank you”, and walked away.

“I was too shocked and humiliated to react. None of my colleagues were around me but I believe some of the other passengers saw it happen. They walked away as well. That was the first and last traumatic incident though,” says Veera. She has never spoken about it before.

Harassing flight attendants is not something limited to inexperienced travellers from India either. Natasha Wynarczyk reported for Broadly about how the personal space of flight attendants is constantly invaded – some passengers even proposition them for sex. Flight attendants are also wary of reporting the incident because it often ends up trivialized or just demands too much waiting around, which is a hassle when you have odd working hours and tight schedules.

“It's easy to brush this off when you think you'll never see the person again. If I worked in an office with the same people every day, I might be more inclined to handle things differently,” said one flight attendant quoted in the article.

The fetishization of women working as flight cabin crew in advertisements does not help either. Heather Poole’s writeup in Mashable talks about how some airlines’ advertisements sexualise in-flight crew. One particular ad for Vietnam's Vietjet for instance, had women dressed up in a bikini, stockings and the cabin crew’s hat, posing inside a plane.

Indian cinema isn’t far behind when it comes to fetishizing flight attendants. Take the following clip from the 2002 Tamil film Panchathanthiram starring Kamal Haasan for instance. A stewardess is shown flirting with him and has no role later in the film.

Sexual harassment aside, a flight attendant working with a reputed international airline told Pallavi Bansal for TOI that they are often treated as “glorified ayahs (nannies)”. Passengers not only expect the cabin crew to clean up the unnecessary mess they create but also throw tantrums at them for trivial matters. In one such case, four IndiGo air hostesses were molested in 2014 by five men for not serving them alcohol and non-vegetarian food.

But for Sara*, who has been a flight attendant with an international airline for over 11 years, such incidents have been a rarity. She sounds surprised at their mention, saying that she has never been subject to harassment like this or had her photos taken.

She explains that many times, it has to do with passenger profile. For instance, she says, in a country like India, people are not used to seeing women who are dressed in skirts, wear makeup and are in-charge. “So, perhaps the stares come from that. Maybe they are curious. At the same time, there is a difference between that and being disrespectful,” Sara asserts.

She recalls an incident where a man once snapped her fingers and motioned her to come to him. “I walked over to him and realized that he is probably a man who has not travelled by air a lot, maybe even once. I explained to him in Kannada then that he needs to say ‘Excuse me’ or press the button in case he requires our assistance. He cannot just snap at us. And he understood,” Sara recounts.

Veera says that this is common for Indian passengers who believe that because they have paid for the tickets, they are entitled to being assisted for every whim.

“They often bring heavy bags and then refuse to pick them up, expecting us to haul them into the overhead shelf all by ourselves. I understand if you’re traveling for the first time and may not know the norm, but paying for the ticket does not mean you’ve bought our self-respect too,” she points out.

(*Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

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