(The names of people in this story have been changed to protect their identity. The names of the airlines that some of them work with have also been withheld on request. Mentions of sexual harassment, descriptions of racism.)
"All we try to do is make passengers feel comfortable – it's our job. But sometimes, they get offended at the smallest of things, which are most likely not in our control. And even then, we have to keep smiling and be polite," says Anjana (name changed), a 28-year-old flight supervisor from Mumbai.
Air hostesses are expected to look, behave, and act in a certain way. But a recent viral video of a spat between a flight attendant and a passenger on an IndiGo flight from Istanbul to Delhi has divided netizens – can an air hostess be allowed to 'lose her cool'?
The flight attendant was seen raising her voice and defending one of her crew members on the flight after a passenger reportedly found fault with their meal service. The passenger even went on to refer to her as a 'servant', to which she responded: "I'm not your servant, I'm an employee."
Despite the 'glamour' associated with their jobs, air hostesses often work in high-pressure environments – so much so that dealing with rude passengers is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Quint spoke to flight attendants working with national and international airlines – and from racist comments and sexual advances to physical and mental stress, they endure it all with a smile.
'They Grope Me & Pretend It's Unintentional'
Speaking to The Quint, Mehak (name changed), a former air hostess with IndiGo, claims she has been groped by passengers on multiple occasions.
"During boarding, especially on an Airbus (which usually has a single aisle), things can get a bit chaotic. Many passengers, under the pretense of seeking help with stowing their baggage in the overhead bin, have rubbed themselves against me. And they pretend that it's unintentional!"Mehak, a former flight attendant with IndiGo
In May 2022, a passenger on board a Jaipur-Bengaluru flight was arrested for sexually harassing a flight attendant. In July this year, another passenger on an IndiGo flight was charged with sexual harassment of an air hostess.
And there's more. Mehak, who hails from West Bengal's Kalimpong, says that she has also been subjected to racist comments by passengers. "I have heard passengers passing rude comments about my facial features."
Recalling one such instance, she says, "Once, on a flight, a child kept pointing out to his father that my eyes were small. The father smirked at the child's remark and said, 'Good, now she won't know when we steal coffee from her tray'.
Forty-one-year-old Indrani (name changed), who works with an international airline, tells The Quint that she has often experienced racism at the hands of white passengers. "I've been told that I'm an Indian who has come to their country to take their jobs. I've also been called a Pakistani."
The Mumbai native, however, adds that when passengers resort to racist remarks, "it's considered very serious" by the airline she works with.
"When something like this happens, I alert the cabin crew chief, and they warn the passenger that if they continue to be hostile, we will have security meet them when we land," she explains.
'Passengers Look Down Upon Us'
Speaking about the recent viral video, Indrani says she was caught in a similar situation with a passenger who was unsatisfied with the meal service. "A passenger complained that he didn't have the required meal choice and lost his cool… I told him that if he doesn't calm down, I'd have to get the chief to speak with him. And I did. But she couldn't handle him either."
"The passenger in the video called the flight attendant a 'servant.' That's just unacceptable. I haven't been called names, but passengers often look down upon our profession."
She adds that once a passenger even broke a bottle of wine and charged at another crew member on board because she was upset with her.
Priya (name changed), who hails from Siliguri and is currently employed with IndiGo as an air hostess, claims Indian passengers are often "ill-behaved as they refuse to comply with orders like wearing seatbelts and abide by 'do not use washroom' signs."
"Most low-cost airlines have this rule of serving the corporate programme customers first. But many passengers fail to understand that. Once a passenger refused to eat his meal, saying, 'You eat it, I'm not hungry anymore,' because I didn't serve him before those who were covered under the corporate programme."Priya, a flight attendant with IndiGo
Anjana shares a similar sentiment. "I have faced classist behaviour from passengers. They were uncouth, rude, and entitled. It used to get so bad that I wanted to leave, but I stayed on because of financial obligations."
"The flight was packed to capacity, and the ground staff, by mistake, allocated a seat that was pre-booked by a passenger – in a row that has extra legroom – to a different individual. The passenger, however, took out his rage on me. He humiliated me in front of others and almost made me cry," she says.
"Then, he found fault with my service throughout the flight and called me 'unprofessional'," she adds.
Mental & Physical Stress
Indrani adds that the physical demands of the job also take a toll on them. "For international flights, we have to cross time zones and work at 40,000 feet. We're not really breathing fresh air."
She adds that as a result, her sleep cycle is "all over the place. Sometimes I sleep for 14 hours straight and at other times I don't sleep for days. There's also a psychological impact to this. It's not an easy job."
The 41-year-old adds that people often assume that "air hostesses have a lot of fun, travelling to different countries, but this is just a misconception."
"We often lead very lonely lives because we're tired all the time. And for the kind of work we put in and the kind of pressure we take on, we are extremely underpaid," she says.