Australia: Virgin Blue Airlines guilty of ageism against women recruits Print E-mail
London -- April 6, 2007

Branson airline rejected air hostesses as too old 

Bernard Lagan in Sydney and Ben Webster

Sir Richard Branson’s Australian airline, Virgin Blue, has lost a long-running legal battle against women who claimed that the airline refused them employment as air hostesses because they were too old.

Eight women ­ the eldest of whom was 55 when she tried to become a Virgin Blue hostess ­ succeeded yesterday in having Queensland’s highest court declare that Sir Richard’s airline had discriminated against older women in a recruitment drive for staff in Australia in 2001.

The women were experienced airline hostesses and six were aged 40 or over. What they did not know was that Virgin Blue’s recruiting system rejected applicants over 36.

One of the women secured an interview only after she filled out a second application, reducing her age by ten years. None of the women, all experienced hostesses with Ansett, the failed Australian airline, made it past Virgin Blue’s first round of interviews, in which they had to write and perform a dance routine.

However, the court said that while the airline had discriminated against older women applicants, it had been unintentional. The supreme court decision upheld a 2006 tribunal decision which found in favour of the former hostesses. Virgin Blue was ordered to pay them compensation.

The tribunal had found that “unconscious” discrimination had occurred within Virgin Blue when a young panel of assessors, whose job it was to evaluate applicants, tested them for competencies that included “Virgin flair”.

Virgin flair was defined by the airline as “a desire to create a memorable, positive experience for customers. The ability to have fun, making it fun for customers.”

During an earlier hearing, Theresa Stewart, who had 27 years’ experience, said that she was refused a job in late 2001 because she didn’t have the “Virgin flair”.

She said: “They were after a certain look that appeals to Richard Branson. If you had two beautiful blonde girls, 25 and gorgeous, then they went to them like homing pigeons.”

The older women had also argued that evidence of Virgin Blue’s preference for younger, good-looking hostesses was contained in a magazine article that pictured female Virgin Blue employees in sexually provocative poses. The airline’s magazine, Voyeur, also celebrated younger employees.

Virgin Blue has vehemently denied that it employed only younger women as air hostesses, although statistics show that only 1 of 750 women aged 36 and over who applied during the airline’s initial recruiting drive was successful.

Virgin Blue was angered and upset after the tribunal found against it in 2005, claiming that it was “not the Virgin Blue way” to discriminate against older applicants. It declared that the matter was far from closed and vowed to appeal against the decision at the Queensland supreme court.

But the supreme court’s decision seals the victory for the women. The court rejected all of the airline’s arguments against the board’s decision.

Cabin fever

­ Of easyJet’s 2,500 cabin crew, 100 are more than 50 years of age

­ In the mid-1990s, Air India tried to recruit Miss India finalists and pay them a higher salary than that received by regular crew

­ Cabin crew unions protested against sexism in various Asian airlines in 1997. Adverts showed a blow-up sex doll dressed as a stewardess, with the slogan: “If an airline treats its employees like this, what must it think of its passengers?”

­ A BA stewardess embarrassed Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge at the airline’s AGM in 2002 by asking why he could retire at 70 when she had to go at 55

­ The US Appeal Court ruled in 2000 that United Airlines discriminated against 16,000 female crew by setting weight limits for women

­ In the 1970s Patricia Ireland, a Pan Am stewardess, forced it to offer female staff the same medical benefits as men

­ In the first days of civil aviation stewardesses were often required to be registered nurses

Source: easyJet, Times database