Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 2003 / 26 Shevat, 5763

Christopher Elliott

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Consumer Reports

Are stubby stewardesses affecting the safety of flights? | Are airline flight attendants too fat? Possibly. Passengers, crewmembers and several studies suggest that these airline employees have been packing on the pounds lately.

Not that it's any of our business. How much someone else weighs is a private matter --- unless their mass affects the safety of our next trip. And then it does, indeed, become an issue.

We already know that flight attendants are prone to eating disorders. A study conduced by Chicago clinical psychologist Lyn Dettmar suggested nearly half of all flight attendants struggle with their weight, leading to compulsive exercising, fasting and higher incidences of bulimia.

If attendants mirror the U.S. population, then they're probably bulking up. A recent series of studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that almost a third of all Americans are obese - twice as many as two decades ago.

We know that cabin attendants certainly appear to be bigger. Tish Thompson, a manufacturer's representative in Toronto, says she's seen more crewmembers that look "a bit overweight" lately. Vanessa Luckey, a manager for a glass company in Cincinnati, Ohio, agrees: "Our flight attendants seem to be a little more robust."

Statistics aren't kept on fight attendant weight. But crewmembers admit that their waistlines are expanding. "Yep, we're heavier than we used to be," says Sharon Wingler, a flight attendant and author of the book "Travel Alone & Love It: A Flight Attendant's Guide to Solo Travel". "We have no mandatory retirement and, with age, I can attest to the reality of a slower metabolism. I work out at least three times a week and eat a low-fat, vegetarian diet, yet weigh 10 pounds more than I did a decade ago."

The reason for the weight gain? "Pay cuts have lead to attendants eating more Payday bars in the hopes of easing the pain of job insecurity," says former flight attendant Anita Potter.

The Federal Aviation Administration sets minimum performance standards for crewmembers, including duties such as fighting fires, opening exit doors, and responding to emergencies.

But is it enough to just meet the standards? Some industry insiders have told me privately that they're worried about what might happen during a real emergency. None of them want their names used in a commentary because they're concerned that they they'll seem insensitive for bringing it up. Their stories are unsettling, though. One veteran travel agent told me about a Newark-to-Hong Kong flight on which there were three wide-bodied attendants who could hardly fit down the aisle. They may have passed their test, but not with flying colors.

All of this begs the following question: Why would we spend billions of dollars to upgrade airport security to exceed virtually every safety standard we had before Sept. 11 only to be permissive about safety in the aircraft cabin? It doesn't seem right.

I'm not advocating a return to the days of weight requirements. The old airline rules that required flight attendants to look like Ken and Barbie were stupid and discriminatory. Potter, who once was suspended a week for weighing two pounds more than she should, predicts if weight restrictions came back - the last of the limits were lifted in 1994 - many crewmembers would quit. "The job just wouldn't be worth it anymore," she says.

What I am saying is that maybe it's time to lighten up, both figuratively and literally. Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the largest flight attendant union, the Association of Flight Attendants, bristled when I asked him if he thought crewmembers were, on average, getting heavier. So did a lot of travelers when I brought up the subject of weight gain. Anyone who wonders if crewmembers are getting fatter, Zack scolded, "thinks flight attendants should be eye candy."

Not true. If we can freely discuss the weight of passengers - remember the flap over Southwest Airlines' decision to begin charging overweight passengers for an extra seat? - then why not the weight of flight attendants? It isn't out of line to ask the FAA to revisit its current performance standards for crewmembers, to bring the rules in line with post-9/11 air travel. It's consistent.

Airlines safety is too important to be held hostage to our misguided sense of political correctness.

JWR contributor Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman. Click here to visit his site. Click here to sign up for his newsletter. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Christopher Elliott