In a small victory for middle-age women everywhere, American Airlines agreed Tuesday that its female flight attendants need not always weigh what they did when they were 21.
The airline and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants announced the settlement of a 17-year-old legal battle concerning the airline's weight standards for its 18,000 flight attendants.
Under a new set of weight provisions, age and height are factored into the permissible weight of female flight attendants, not just height.
"The previous weight tables were sexist, because weights for men were based on their having a large frame and for women on having a medium frame," said Cheryle Leon, president of the union and an active flight attendant based in Euless, Texas.
"They played on the old image of 'stewardesses' and the 'fly-me, sky-girl' stereotype," Leon said. "There is no reason weight should be a criterion for doing your job. It was a form of age and sex discrimination, especially hard on women over 40 and those returning from pregnancy."
Leon, for instance, is 45 years old, 5 feet 5 inches tall, and weighs 129 pounds.
She is fortunate, she said, because she meets both the old and new standards. Under the former policy, a 5-foot-5-inch female attendant had to weigh 129 pounds or less, in keeping with American's regulation that flight attendants retain a "firm, trim silhouette, free of bulges, rolls or paunches . . . for an alert, efficient image."
Under the settlement, which still must be approved by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and by the federal district court in Ft. Worth, a woman 5 feet 5 inches tall who, for example, is 20 to 24 years old can weigh up to 133 pounds, and from 25 to 29 years old, 136 pounds. A 40- year-old attendant may weigh up to 145 pounds, and an attendant over 65 may weigh up to 158 pounds.
The union estimates the jobs of some 200 women will be saved under the new regulations.
"We're very pleased with the settlement with the flight attendants and the fact that it has also been blessed by the EEOC," said John Hotard, a representative for Ft. Worth-based American Airlines. "What it (the new standard) does is allow a matrix of various weights according to age and height. . . . Older flight attendants can weigh more for their heights."
The first weight discrimination suit was filed by the union against American, the largest U.S. employer of flight attendants, in 1974 in New York. In 1988, a second case was filed in Los Angeles. And in 1990, the EEOC joined the union in a discrimination suit against the airline.
Tuesday's settlement between the union and the airline-if accepted by all parties-would effectively resolve all three lawsuits.
Weight requirements for male flight attendants also will be slightly modified, though the old guidelines were sufficiently lenient that few men were affected.
The new standards, based on a national study of height and weight of U.S. women and men, can be met by 70 percent of all Americans, according to Kathleen S. King, a San Francisco attorney who represents the union.
"This is a victory for all working women," said King, whose mother was a flight attendant for United Airlines in 1950 and had to quit after she married. "Weight is a ridiculous standard that has nothing to do with job performance.
"Unfortunately, the settlement still has weight standards. My hope is that one day weight, along with race, sex, religion and national origin, will be another factor we cannot discriminate on."
Though pregnant flight attendants were not fired for being overweight, on return from maternity leave they had to weigh in before being assigned to a flight, according to the union. If they were found overweight, they had to lose 1 1/2 pounds a week and be down to the standard by the end of 20 weeks.
Otherwise they were discharged. Though the new standard for returning mothers has not been made public, it is expected to have been relaxed.
The airline industry has frequently been challenged for discrimination against female attendants. Successful federal lawsuits have won them the right to keep their jobs if they wore glasses, got married or pregnant or exceeded company age guidelines. Last year, Pan American World Airways raised weight standards and paid back wages of $2.3 million to 115 employees.
In 1979, United Airlines made some weight allowances for older flight attendants, and other carriers had gone to less stringent standards than American.
"This is an important step toward eliminating sex bias and job requirements not related to safety or performance," said Anne Ladky, executive director of Women Employed, a Chicago-area membership association of working women.
"It gets rid of the disparity in weight requirements between females and males.
"It's also a step toward ending the sexist notion that flight attendants are not there to give service to passengers but to be decorative," Ladky said. "In doing so, it continues to bring greater respect to the professional job flight attendants do."