Hainan Airlines defends flight attendant weight restrictions after backlash

A Hainan Airlines flight attendant measuring 158cm (5.1 feet) - the average height of a Chinese adult woman - would be required to stay within 48kg.
Hainan Airlines cabin crew. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Jessie Yeung and CNN's Beijing bureau

Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines has defended imposing weight requirements on flight attendants after reports of the new policy went viral on social media and sparked a public backlash.

State media initially reported that the airline, one of the country's biggest, introduced a new policy in early June that threatened to ground female attendants if their weight exceeded the 'standard limit'.

The rule was part of a series of broader guidelines on appearance issued to cabin crew, with the 'standard' weight calculated by height, according to state-run Global Times.

For instance, an attendant measuring 158cm (5.1 feet) - the average height of a Chinese adult woman - would be required to stay within 48kg.

Flight attendants who are less than 5 percent over that standard will have their weight monitored monthly and undergo a review, while those weighing 10 percent over the standard will be immediately suspended and put on a "weight reduction plan" supervised by the company, Global Times reported.

Hainan Airlines has confirmed to CNN that they used a "weight reference standard" - but said it applied to all flight attendants regardless of gender.

The airline also said the measure "cannot be interpreted as a simple criterion to suspend a flight attendant like some media did".

The standard is "based on the standard human body weight reference and matched with the healthy weight range measurement for the crew" the airline said, adding that the rules are used to evaluate and manage the crew's "health, physical shape and posture".

"This is intended to advocate healthy living habits and maintain a good professional image and healthy physique by anchoring the reference target, rather than passively waiting for individual crew members' physique to change significantly and then affect safety service work," it said.

The response came after a weekend of building anger online, with Chinese social media users reacting to the initial state media reports with criticism towards what they see as a reflection of the country's skewed gender norms.

"I just need the flight attendant to be fully qualified in professional knowledge, well-practiced in safety procedures, and wear the most suitable shoes and clothes for emergencies. Her weight is none of my business," read a top comment on the Twitter-like platform Weibo.

Several users pointed out that being a flight attendant is a physically demanding job that should prioritize the employee's strength and stamina instead of maintaining low weight - especially in emergency situations, where attendants are responsible for keeping passengers safe.

Others argued that airlines in many Western countries have dropped the requirement for high heels and skirts in recent years.

Australian airline Qantas recently released new guidelines for employees that provide one set of requirements for everyone, abandoning the previously separate regulations for male and female employees - meaning staff of any gender can now wear long hair, have makeup or no makeup if they choose, and wear flat shoes.

Alaska Airlines also launched gender-neutral uniform guidelines for flight attendants last year; Virgin Atlantic and British Airways have adopted similar policies for greater inclusivity.

Other Asian airlines have made headlines in recent years for imposing weight rules on cabin crew. In 2015, Air India asked 125 flight attendants to lose weight, while Pakistan's national airline ordered cabin crew to abide by weight limits or face being grounded in 2019.