Chinese airline is criticized over strict weight rules for female flight attendants

HONG KONG — A Chinese airline has been criticized over a new policy imposing strict weight requirements on female flight attendants.

Early this month, Hainan Airlines issued guidelines to its cabin crew stating that female flight attendants would be immediately grounded if their weight exceeded the “standard limit” by 10%, the state newspaper Global Times reported.

The guidelines included a formula for calculating that limit based on height and said flight attendants who were suspended would be put on a company-supervised “weight reduction plan.”

The airline, which is one of the biggest in China, also emphasized the importance of female flight attendants’ appearance for the company’s image, the report added.

The guidelines drew outrage online as well as questions about their legality.

Liu Tao, a lawyer in Dalian, China, with more than 10 years of experience in labor law disputes and civil rights, told NBC News that the airline’s policy was “very inappropriate and obviously illegal in China” and could constitute employment discrimination.

Though China once had national legislation allowing weight standards for flight attendants, it was abolished in 2001, Liu said.

“This weight standard could only be legitimized if Hainan Airlines asked for every employee’s agreement in advance with signed notifications and consent forms,” he said.

Hainan Airlines did not respond to requests for comment.

Rachel Liu, a flight attendant at a different Chinese airline, said that while she and her colleagues were incensed by the Hainan Airlines requirements, they have encountered similar expectations at their own jobs.

“Almost all airlines would prefer thin female flight attendants, and some overweight women cannot pass the interviews,” she said via text message.

She questioned the preference for exclusively thin female cabin crew, “as they can’t even help passengers put away their luggage.”

Social media users in China also criticized the requirements as “unnecessary” and “ridiculous.”

“The flight attendants I need are those who are equipped with professional and safety knowledge and those who wear clothes and shoes suitable enough for dealing with emergency incidents. Their weight is none of my business,” read one comment on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

Though Chinese domestic carriers are currently on a hiring spree as travel rebounds following the lifting of “zero-Covid” restrictions, China “has long lagged behind in developing an overarching regulatory framework” that uniformly applies to the whole industry, said Liu Tao, the lawyer.

He said Hainan Airlines employees could file a complaint asking the company to retract the guidelines, or they could seek arbitration and compensation if they are fired for violating them.

“Under this condition, the employees are very likely to win the case,” he said.

Cheng Cheng and Riley Zhang contributed.

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