Air India Told to Reinstate Workers Fired Over Weight

Air India Aircraft
Planes fly past a Boeing Co. 787 Dreamliner aircraft, operated by Air India Ltd., on display during the India Aviation 2014 air show held at the Begumpet Airport in Hyderabad. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

A court in New Delhi ordered Air India Ltd. to reinstate three flight attendants it had fired for being overweight, saying the state-run carrier had not “applied its mind” in terminating their services.

“Accumulated medical wisdom would have us believe that weight brings with it several health related problems,” Justice Rajiv Shakdher of the Delhi High Court wrote in his March 31 order. “Does excess weight then, necessarily, in every situation, impede optimal performance? I believe the answer to this poser, would have to be in the negative.”

The order restores the services of the employees with full back wages from Air India, the carrier that’s trying to pare employee-to-aircraft ratio among steps to turn profitable. The carrier, which has not made a profit since 2006, is getting a bailout from the government totaling 300 billion rupees ($5 billion) through 2020 to operate in a market dominated by closely held IndiGo and Jet Airways (India) Ltd.

Air India in 2008 terminated the services of Sangita Garg, Punita Bakshi and Sona Chawla, all employed as ground service staff at the time, saying they failed to maintain weight within a prescribed limit, according to Delhi High Court documents.

“It is high time we understood that the flight attendant is not supposed to be a pretty face you see in a plane,” said Mark D. Martin, chief executive officer of Dubai-based Martin Consulting LLC, which advises airlines on strategy. “She is there for safety, service and to evacuate you whenever necessary.”

Air India spokesman G.P. Rao didn’t respond to three calls to his mobile phone yesterday.

Pleasing Appearance

Airlines typically look for ways to cut operating costs. Lower weight on an aircraft helps them save fuel costs, which can account for about 30 percent to 40 percent of the expenses.

The three Air India attendants were moved to ground roles as they were overweight to fly, according to the court documents.

Lawyers for Air India argued that “pleasing appearance, manners and physical fitness was required” in the travel industry and all crew members were expected to remain smart, alert and energetic, according to the documents.

The airline “has not applied its mind to germane factors before taking a decision to terminate the petitioners’ services,” the judge wrote. “The reasons given had no link with the conclusion reached, which was, to dispense with the services of the petitioners.”

Pilot Protests

Air India has had troubles with employees before. A group of pilots stayed away from work for two months in 2012, protesting the carrier’s decision to give training on Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliners to captains belonging to Indian Airlines, a domestic carrier that was merged with it in 2007. The strike prompted the airline to fire as many as 101 pilots and reduce overseas flights. Air India later reinstated most of them.

In 2010, a former flight attendant, who was fired during her second pregnancy, sued and won a case against Air India to get her job back after 20 years, The Indian Express newspaper reported.

Competition in the Indian aviation market, where the number of air passengers is forecast to triple to 452 million by 2020, is set to intensify this year with the entry of AirAsia Bhd and Singapore Airlines Ltd. Both the airlines have tied up with the Tata Group to start new carriers and are awaiting regulatory approvals.

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