Russian carrier Aeroflot has been accused of discriminating against certain flight attendants for their age and weight.
"Old, fat and ugly" is what Yevgeniya Magurina jokingly calls a group of flight attendants for 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.
A Moscow court is due to rule on Tuesday in Magurina's lawsuit against Aeroflot, the first of two possible appeals against a previous ruling rejecting her claim that she was taken off sought-after long-haul international flights because of her looks.
The stewardess' action has triggered a wave of support as well condemnation, putting the spotlight on how women in modern Russia are still often judged by their physical appearance.
The first warning for Magurina, 42, came last summer when she went to pick up a new uniform and discovered that Aeroflot no longer stocks any above Russian size 48 (NZ size 16). Magurina, who says size 48 fits her hips but not her chest, used to order a larger size and get it tailored.
Aeroflot insisted its preference for slimmer staff has objective reasons: Overweight attendants could also pose a safety risk by blocking emergency exits, and require more costly fuel to transport.
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 says a sympathetic manager leaked her documents showing that some 600 of Aeroflot's 7000 cabin crew staff, mostly women, were re-assigned to lesser flights without bonus pay because they were considered too "old, fat and ugly." The Associated Press could not verify the numbers.
"No one cares about professionalism - you have to be young, slim and pretty," she said. But local courts in April dismissed her lawsuit as well as a similar claim by another flight attendant, Irina Ierusalimskaya, saying it lacked evidence of discrimination.
Vladimir Alexandrov, Aeroflot's deputy CEO for legal matters, says Magurina and Ierusalimskaya's lawsuits are "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."
Magurina is seeking 500,000 rubles ($A10,730) in damages and wants the court to rule the company's regulations on clothing sizes discriminatory. The pay slips she submitted show that she stopped receiving bonus pay, roughly 20 per cent, after she asked for a size 52 uniform, and that she was no longer assigned the role of senior steward.
Magurina and Ierusalimskaya claim that the downgrading was part of a wider move against hundreds of others who faced pay cuts and were taken off the prestigious long-haul flights. The two lawsuits are individual actions, and the two women say they are the only ones taking Aeroflot to court.
Aeroflot denied the claims of discrimination in court, arguing that the company had no obligation to pay bonuses. It also insisted its preference for slimmer staff has objective reasons: Overweight attendants could also pose a safety risk by blocking emergency exits, and require more costly fuel to transport.
The company has been pushing to transform itself from a drab post-Soviet airline into a rival of world's best airlines on comfort and efficiency. Its most recent efforts included a five-year partnership deal with FC Manchester United, as well as enlisting prominent chefs to create menus for business class passengers.
The Skytrax consultancy recently rated it four out of five stars, and Aeroflot has entered the world's top 20 airlines by the number of passengers carried.
But there has been controversy, too.
An online forum of flight attendants in 2010 published what appeared to be a calendar with a nude woman wearing a flight attendant's red hat and white gloves posing by an Aeroflot plane and inside the cabin. The company promptly denied that it had commissioned the shoot.
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."
See also: The truth about being a flight attendant
The two women's court battle with Russia's biggest airline has attracted support from some and condemnation from others - at an April news conference, a member of Aeroflot's advisory board 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," said Pavel Danilin, himself an overweight man.
Aeroflot told the AP its advisory board members do not speak on the company's behalf.
Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite turned prominent journalist who doesn't shy from voicing common but unpleasant opinions, said she understands why Aeroflot would 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 decades of Communist gender-equality slogans.
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," Zakharova said.
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.
Magurina, who keeps two sets of size-48 uniforms in her closet, laments that a few inches could undermine her decade of work as a stewardess and seven years with Aeroflot.
"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."
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