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Hurray for airlines hiring older flight attendants
By Doug Young

Most people probably haven’t felt too charitable toward China’s airlines this past week, following numerous flight delays and cancellations at the end of the weeklong National Day holiday starting October 1, due to huge downpours during Typhoon Fitow. I’m not a big fan of either of the two major carriers, China Eastern and Spring Airlines, mostly due to past bad experiences.

But this week I want to offer some rare praise for each of these companies, following their recent decision to break rank with industry standards and do the unthinkable — raise the minimum age for new flight attendants.

Some might say this adjustment, minor by Western standards, is more market-oriented due to a lack of qualified singles in their 20s that the airlines usually prefer. But from my perspective, this move is long overdue, and should be a first step by all industries to remove the sexism, ageism and general bias toward good-looking people that permeates Chinese corporate culture.

Perhaps I’m writing this column partly due to my own age, since at 49 I’m certainly no spring chicken and my advanced years would exclude me from consideration at many Chinese companies.

More fundamentally, I’ve always found it a bit distasteful that Chinese job applicants are required to disclose things like their age and height and include personal photos.

Now, let’s take a look at the ground-breaking moves by the two leading airlines. Spring was the more radical, launching a campaign last month to hire new flight attendants as old as 45 — nearly my age!

Pretty, peppy and young

China Eastern liberalized its own hiring policy back in March, seeking to hire new attendants as old as 32. I couldn’t find references to previous requirements, but wording from the reports suggests past applicants had to be in their 20s and that single, childless candidates were preferred.

I’m being slightly sarcastic in calling the moves ground-breaking, as these changes are really quite small and still exclude a huge portion of potential applicants. But from a mindset perspective, it’s a significant first step in dismantling the stereotype that all Chinese flight attendants must be peppy, attractive 20-somethings.

That said, there’s much work to be done in making recruitment standards more professional and not based on irrelevant factors like age, looks or marital status. Reflecting the typical mindset, one article on the change at China Eastern playfully refers to these “older” flight attendants as kong sao, roughly equivalent to “flight sister-in-law,” invoking an older, more maternal image.

The same report says China Eastern would still require all applicants to be 163-174 centimeters tall, and that applicants with children older than two would receive preference over ones with infants.

Another report quoted a Spring Airlines official as saying the company made its decision because older women look kinder and are more considerate than younger ones.

I know it’s a bit unfair to bring Western standards to this discussion, especially in a society where the concept of modern, profit-based companies is just two decades old.

But these hiring requirements would instantly attract a flood of anti-discrimination lawsuits in the United States, where such practices are usually forbidden by law.

Having lived in China for much of the last two decades, I can say that many of my Western friends and I have always found a level of entertainment in typical classified job ads in China, including Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Ads typically require applicants to give their age, height and marital status, along with other personal information seemingly irrelevant to job performance. The most unusual requirement is the one for a personal photo, implying perhaps that attractive people will get preference  over less attractive ones.

I welcome this change at China Eastern and Spring Airlines, mostly because I feel a bit safer knowing that someone older and more mature will be able to assist me and others in the unlikely event of an emergency. Perhaps I’ll even take more flights on these two airlines to show my support for their progressive actions.

While this is just a beginning, I’m happy to see this kind of initiative from two leading companies based in Shanghai, arguably China’s most international city and certainly one of its most progressive. Hopefully other Chinese companies will follow suit by phasing out many irrelevant job requirements, bringing the country more into line with global standards.

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