Russian flight attendant sues airline for discrimination

"Old, fat and ugly" is what Yevgeniya Magurina jokingly calls a group of flight attendants of Russia's flagship airline Aeroflot who she claims have been sidelined in an apparent drive to make the cabin crew younger and more physically attractive. She is one of just two women who have taken one of the world's largest airlines to court for that.

A Moscow court is due to rule on Tuesday in Magurina's lawsuit against Aeroflot in which she maintains she was taken off the sought-after long-haul international flights because of her looks. The flight attendant's claim, which triggered a wave of support as well condemnation, has put the spotlight on how women in modern Russia are still often judged by their physical appearance.

The first warning shot rang for Magurina last summer when the 42-year old went to pick up a new uniform and discovered that Aeroflot no longer stocks any above Russian size 48 (U.S. size 10). Magurina, who says size 48 fits her on the hips but not on the breast, used to order a larger size and get it tailored. Then, all flight attendants were ordered to be weighed and photographed as part of a contest to staff a special business class crew. Several months later, Magurina, who had typically worked as senior attendant, arrived at the Sheremetyevo airport for her flight only to see she was assigned a junior role: "You scan your pass, the names of the crew light up and you see your position. No one has even told me."

Magurina, one of Aeroflot's 7,000 cabin crew staff, says about 600 flight attendants, mostly women, have been put on a list that she jokingly calls the "old, fat and ugly" and have been re-assigned for less prestigious flights. Like others, Magurina was taken off the long-haul international flights and put on the lower-paid domestic ones:

"No one cares about professionalism — you have to be young, slim and pretty," says Magurina who lives in the suburb of Lobnya near the airport, home to thousands of Aeroflot staff.

Local courts in April dismissed Magurina's lawsuit as well as a similar claim by another flight attendant, Irina Ierusalimskaya. The Moscow City Court is expected to rule on Magurina's appeal on Tuesday.

Aeroflot in recent years has undertaken to transform itself from a drab post-Soviet airline to something that can rival the world's best airlines on comfort and efficiency. Its most recent efforts included a five-year partnership deal with FC Manchester United and enlisting well-known chefs to create menus for its business class passengers.

But there has been controversy, too.

An online forum of flight attendants in 2010 published what appeared to be a mock-up of a calendar with a nude woman wearing a flight attendant's red hat and white gloves and posing by an Aeroflot plane and inside the cabin. The company promptly denied that it had commissioned the shoot and said it would investigate how a photographer and a model were allowed to get inside the plane.

The airline that posted 38.8 billion rubles ($650 million) in net profit last year has recently been rated four out of five stars by the Skytrax consultancy and has entered the world's top 20 airlines by the number of passengers carried.

Aeroflot has dismissed Magurina and Ierusalimskaya's lawsuits as "a routine employee vs. employer dispute that has been deliberately inflated to the scale of a public campaign aimed at tarnishing the airline's reputation," according to Vladimir Alexandrov, the company's deputy CEO for legal matters.

When asked whether the company has stopped stocking XL uniforms for female cabin crew staff, Alexandrov told the Associated Press that Aeroflot does not disclose its "internal rules and regulations" He added, however, that the cabin crew's job is "physically and psychologically demanding."

The two women's court battle with Russia's biggest airline has attracted a wave support from some and condemnation from others.

At a news conference in April, a member of Aeroflot's public council argued it was "quite acceptable to pay for good looks."

"Aeroflot is a premium airline, and the staff's looks is definitely one of the things the clients pay for," Pavel Danilin, himself an overweight man, said.

Aeroflot told the AP members of its public council do not speak on the company's behalf.

Often the one to voice a common but unpalatable public opinion, Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite turned prominent journalist, said that she understands why Aeroflot would not want to get rid of older and less physically attractive women.

"If you build a beautiful company, you have the right to demand that your staff look good," Sobchak said on the Dozhd television channel after the April ruling. "Why would you become a flight attendant if your butt is this big?"

Yulia Zakharova, a Moscow-based clinical psychologist, said the public reaction to the trial shows that Russia is still a largely patriarchal society despite the decades of Communist slogans of gender equality.

"New values are seeping in slowly but the patriarchy is still very much alive," Zakharova said. In Soviet times "women were 'equal' in a sense that she was to 'go and get a job' but then she would come home and make dinner. These expectations are still there."

The fact that the female flight attendants are reportedly expected to stay well below size L while men are allowed wear XL shows how underprivileged women are in Russia.

"Society judges women with the eyes of a young man," Zakharova said.

Migurina, who keeps two sets of size 48 Aeroflot uniform in her closet, says she is upset that her decade of work as a flight attendant and seven years with Aeroflot has been cancelled out by a few inches.

"Right now there's a policy that a flight attendant has to be sexually attractive," she says. "But our role onboard is different: it's to ensure safety, not to be an object of sexual desire. This is wrong and hurtful."