Sexism in the air?

Are U.S. airlines giving women second-class treatment in first class?

Published December 8, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

"Right from the start, you'll know you come first with us," United Airlines says in materials touting its first-class service. For first-class passengers, amenities include juice and cocktails before take-off; plenty of "inner space"; complimentary reading material such as the Wall Street Journal and USA Today; a sound system with "compact disc quality" and an individual video unit in each armrest, with six different channels. "Let's see," the airline tags on smugly after this bullet-point list, "did we leave anything out? We don't think so."

But some women passengers disagree. They would add one more bullet point to United's first-class list -- and to those of several other American airlines: "Complimentary gender discrimination, available from the moment you board the plane."

"When entering the plane, I'll have a briefcase and a portfolio and the man I'm traveling with will have the same, and he is met with 'Let me get your coat, let me do this and that, what would you like to drink?' before he even sits down," says Elizabeth O'Dowd, vice president and chief creative officer for BrightHouse, a consulting company. "And I will be ignored -- not spoken to and not helped."

For O'Dowd, who regularly flies Delta Airlines on business from her home in Atlanta to New York, the last two years have been filled with injustices: from having to prove that she's sitting in first class while the men around her waltz up to their seats unchecked, to flight attendants ignoring her pleas for help when she dropped a bunch of portfolios in the aisle. All of this, she believes, is because she's a woman.

O'Dowd is not the only one feeling slighted in the air. "There are just so many cases of flight attendants tripping over themselves to refill men's coffee and answering every whim and pretending that they don't notice my attempt to get them to clear away a tray or refill my coffee," says Katherine Joyce, who works for a financial service in New York and has also had problems -- mostly, she says, with United. "It's really a demonstrated sense of being second-class, of being unworthy of the same kind of attention."

"This really blows my mind, it's just not possible," says Denise Hess, an American Airlines flight attendant who usually works in first class. "How could a flight attendant get away with it? If you walked up and refilled a man's drink and didn't even ask the woman sitting next to him? I can't comprehend it."

Airlines are legally obligated to provide services without discrimination, says Bill Mosley, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which regulates customer service for airlines that operate in at least two places in the United States. While racial- and disabled-discrimination complaints are often filed with the department, Mosley says, it has never received a complaint based on gender. As with other discrimination complaints, Mosley adds, gender discrimination would be hard to prove unless the incident involved some type of overt derogatory action or remark. "If a flight attendant failed to freshen someone's drink or hang up their coat, it probably wouldn't trigger an investigation," he says. "But if a whole series of complaints came in about one carrier being discriminating, it would make us more likely to think maybe there's some pattern we have to look into."

One Delta Airlines pilot, who requested anonymity, said he never thought there was a problem until his wife experienced it while traveling without him and brought it to his attention. "It was especially discouraging that it came from a company that I had trusted as my employer for so long," he says. "I brought it to Delta's attention on numerous occasions. Delta has made strides to remedy the situation but still has a long way to go."

Delta spokeswoman Katie Moussouri says that no flight attendants have ever been disciplined for gender discrimination, and adds that discriminatory service has never been an issue at Delta. "People are trained to provide outstanding customer service, regardless of the customer," says Moussouri. "If a customer is wanting another drink and if they ask for it, certainly that would be something that the flight attendants would be able to provide." Kristina Price, spokeswoman for United Airlines, says the same thing: It's never been a problem and there have never been any formal complaints filed. "We respect their opinion but we work very hard to make sure that our flight attendants get the proper training to treat everyone equally," she says. If customers are unsatisfied, Moussouri and Price say, they should bring it to the attention of the airline. All of the women interviewed for this article said they have never bothered to complain formally, mainly because they thought nothing would come of it besides a saccharine form letter on company letterhead.

"Yes, I treat women differently than I treat men," flight attendant Hess says, but the objective, she explains, is to give them better treatment, not worse. She purposely makes more eye contact with women, places their tray tables down first, refills their drinks first and addresses them as Ms., not Mrs. or Miss, in order not to offend them. "I've even had, when I'm addressing a woman first and asking her entree choice, the man sitting next to her speak over her and say what he wants for his entree choice. In that case, he'll get a nasty look from me or a flippant remark like, 'Now, now, ladies first.'"

Obviously, not every flight attendant discriminates, the women passengers say, and just as clearly, not every female passenger feels herself to be a victim. Take Anita Blair, the CEO of Independent Women's Forum, a nonprofit organization specializing in women's business issues and a founding partner of Welty & Blair, a law firm in Arlington, Va. Blair flies all the time and has never had a bad experience in first class. On the contrary, she says, she finds it very welcoming to women.

Blair believes the onboard conflict may be rooted in a quasi-competitive situation between the flight attendants and the women business travelers. "People will say that a lot of serious businesswomen have a bit of a chip on their shoulder about sexual attractiveness, that they know to be taken seriously in the business world they have to suppress their sexuality. Yet, when they see other women openly expressing their sexuality, they at least subliminally feel, 'Gee, why can't I do that?'"

A lot of the women traveling in first class probably had to scratch and claw their way to the top in a man's world, agrees Hess, and probably have a chip on their shoulder as a result. "And if they walk on the airplane with a condescending attitude to a flight attendant, well, they'll get a cold shoulder. It's human nature. If you treat anybody with disrespect, you're going to get that attitude back."

The female passengers, on the other hand, say the attitude problem originates with the flight attendants, who are resentful about having to serve women executives because they're uncomfortable with their own career. "I'd be kind of bitchy too if I was 45 and had to work on a plane," O'Dowd says.

And sometimes they are ignored, the passengers say, because the flight attendants are so busy flirting and fawning over the male passengers' every need that they fail to pay attention to the women on board. "There's always been the stereotype that the flight attendant meets a rich businessman on the flight and ends up marrying him and quitting her job and becoming this really wealthy wife," says Amy Flynn, a graduate student living in Sydney, Australia, who says she has experienced sexual discrimination on U.S. airlines, but never on foreign carriers. "And I think this stereotype is still believed, even now."

The rags-to-riches dream rings true to Hess, who admits that there are some flight attendants who do view wealthy male passengers as their ticket to a posh lifestyle and marriage, as Prince Charmings coming to meet their flying Cinderellas miles and miles above the clouds. But these are the exception rather than the rule, she says, and this has nothing to do with gender discrimination. "Let's not forget, the flirting goes both ways," Hess says. "The male flight attendants also flirt with the female passengers."

Department of Transportation spokesman Mosley says that passengers who believe they have been discriminated against for any reason should file a complaint, documenting the incident in question, with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, 400 Seventh St. SW, Washington DC 20590. If an airline were found to be breaking the law, civil penalties could be levied, from a few thousand dollars up, and the airline would have to promise that it would not happen again.

Such promises might seem to be worth substantially less than the price of a first-class ticket, but if enough women who feel discriminated against file enough complaints, the skies of United, and other airlines, might really become more "friendly" -- at least to women who feel they're getting second-class treatment in first-class seats.

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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