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ImageSuicides, divorces and high stress, life as an airhostess is no cakewalk, discovers Seema Sinha

Night outs, movies, hotels, parties...all this and more fascinated 23-year-old Patna-based Rachna Pandey when she came to Mumbai on holiday in 1989. Despite her parents' disapproval (they wanted to marry her off), Rachna joined a foreign airline. She began earning somewhere around Rs 50,000 per month, and suddenly there were frequent foreign trips, stays at five-star hotels, trendy clothes, hobnobbing with the rich and the famous, bogeying late nights. Rachna's marriage to her pilot boyfriend lasted just one-and-a-half years.

She accepts, "An independent lifestyle, fatigue, erratic sleeping patterns, numerous temptations, meeting new and interesting people made it difficult for me to share space with anyone." She is now happily living on her own. "I have a boyfriend, we live in separate flats and I don't intend to make it official," she says firmly. Rachna took control of her life, but not everybody is as fortunate. Suicides among airhostesses in the recent past could be attributed to the combination of several socio and socio-economic factors.

Disturbed due to the 'differences' with her pilot boyfriend, 24-year-old Anupama Acharya committed suicide by jumping off a five-storey building in Mumbai. A 'troubled marriage' pushed 25-year-old Sucheta Anand to suicide. Erratic work hours, family pressures and adjustments as a homemaker and domestic violence could be responsible for an airhostess's life going awry. There are chances of girls from small towns succumbing to temptations more easily than the girls from big metros who must have seen it all. Says Perizad Irani, a flight attendant on British Airways, "I know of a colleague who fell for a captain, who was seeing half the world for the longest time. She came to her senses and married a sensible guy."

Reveals Deirdre Sampayo, director, Wings Airline Academy, "At times, they are not able to report to work and are found bogeying in a nightclub. Divorce is rising. Combine that with no job, which leads to frustration and they hit the bottle." Strangely enough, there are many instances of airhostessess's spouses not earning well enough. Says Seema Rawat, assistant general secretary, Cabin Crew Association, "There is a clash in values. They want her to wear Indian clothes and be there for every festival." In the other extreme, says Rachna, "They are so desperate for her money that they don't mind giving total freedom."

With domestic carriers flying almost 100 hours every week as compared to 25 to 30 hours in the past, most flight attendants are flying back to back flights. Besides fatigue, it leaves them with very little time for their families. Hence, 70 per cent of airhostesses quit their jobs within five years of working. Says Seema, "In the West, airhostesses don't spend nights outside the country after maternity. Unlike the West, the companies here are not willing to put them on ground." Adds Perizad, "In a foreign airline, women have the option of working part-time after maternity."

The other incidents that could diminish the aura of glamour and excitement, is a deluge of molestation cases on board in the last few weeks. A leading Bollywood star was witnessed hurling abuses in Hindi at a white airhostess when he did not get his choice of liquor. "Heavy drinkers and smokers are agitated when they don't get free booze and are not allowed to smoke. Some passengers even lodge false complaints when we don't reciprocate their advances. They think they have bought a girl in a skirt along with the ticket. Some men take the aisle seat to get close," says Preeti Raikar, a flight attendant on Air India.

Says Sabina Khan, an airhostess who has moved to British Airways, "Indian mannerisms are far from international standards. I remember an old man whistling and singing throughout the journey. In a foreign airline, you can't mess with the crew. The passenger is warned, he can even be hand-cuffed and arrested." Says Seema, "Our laws need to be more stringent. Ninety per cent of the time no FIR is filed. The offence is bailable. The passenger is told to apologise and that is the end of the matter."

The dream job that promises money and glamour will remain a dream unless the authorities step in before the flight angels put down their wings. And it is much more than beauty and glamour. As a flight attendant rightly puts it, "I am much more than a pretty face, and don't you forget it. I might save your life one day."

(Names of the airhostesses have been changed to protect their identity)

By Seema Sinha