United Airlines -- Fly the Famished Skies

by Steven Hill
This article has been published in various publications, and read on NPR affiliate KUOW in Seattle
I can picture it now. The customers line up at the ticket counter of United Airlines, shifting nervously.

"Next!" shouts the United Airlines attendant, as one customer anxiously steps on to the scale. "Excuuuuuse me!" bawls the attendant. "Fifteen pounds over weight! You can't fly with us!" And so, with a look of dejection greying his face, the customer mopes away, dragging his luggage behind.

In case you haven't heard, United Airlines has discovered that its fleet of airplanes are apparently too flimsy to carry a few more pounds here and there through the friendly skies. How else can we explain the fact that on May 8th United Airlines ground ed and suspended without pay Catherine Brewer, a 44 year old, 147 pound flight attendant for failing to lose the fifteen pounds demanded by the company?

I'll bet most customers never realized how delicate these United Airlines planes are. How sensitive they are to weight and how precarious is the lift of their engines. What with their hold full of baggage and cargo, and the cabin filled with passengers, pilots and crew, you'd never think that fifteen more pounds might sink the ship. But apparently, such is the case!

At a time of intensifying international competition in the airline industry, this doesn't exactly instill confidence in United Airlines' ability to transport passengers safely. Picture now, if you will, the plane spinning round and round, plummeting to earth, the pilot announcing: "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. Due to an excess fifteen pounds located somewhere on board the craft, I must ask you all at this time to please begin collectively exercising, sweating and s hedding some pounds -- and pronto!"

It sounds preposterous, doesn't it? A hundred and forty seven pounds isn't that much weight, not for a woman or a man. Surely those big strapping pilots, those dashing male captains of the airways, weigh more than that. Surely many of the passengers - - women and men -- weigh much more than that. What could the weight of one flight attendant have to do with the ability of the plane to fly?

Perhaps there's another explanation. I've noticed that there's an obsession with the thinness of women in this country. And, conversely, a disgust with women's natural body fat. The diet industry rakes in $10 billion per year, preying on the insecurit ies of women living in a society that doesn't like its women taking up too much physical, intellectual, political or economic space. Instead, we insist that our women look like those twiggy-thin Barbie dolls, Madonna and Cindy Crawford. Could this weigh t reduction edict of United Airlines be a glaring example of (gasp) sexism and (gasp) sexual harassment of a working woman by her employer?

"Nonsense!" huffs United Airlines. "We just like our stewardesses -- oh, excuse us, we don't call them that anymore, not since a long time ago when they were akin to Playboy Bunnies in the fantasies of men and popular culture -- we call them flight atte ndants now -- we just want our flight attendants to project a fit, professional image, just like our fit, professional company. What's wrong with that?"

What's wrong with that? Just ask Ms. Brewer, who has been a United Airlines employee for 24 years. For 24 years she's given the company her best, and now that she's 24 years older and a few pounds heavier United Airlines gives her the boot. As people age we gain weight, that's just what most bodies do whether we like it or not, even the waistlines of the executives of United Airlines. Shouldn't twenty four years of service to her company earn Catherine Brewer some respect and job security? Shouldn't women of any size and weight be able to go to work without being harassed by their employers, as long as they get the job done?

Apparently not, according to United Airlines.

So which is it, United Airlines -- either your airplanes aren't safe enough to carry fifteen more pounds -- in which case you won't be carrying my poundage anywhere. Or you're a sexist company still clinging to outmoded standards of female appearances t hat discriminates against your flight attendants. Either way, I'm not flying with your airline anymore. I'll fly with an airline that has thrown out its weight restrictions, like Northwest Airlines. Suddenly, your famished skies don't seem so friendly!

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