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    China Business
     Feb 1, 2006
Asia's discriminating airlines: No dragons allowed
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - The male business traveler in Asia notices one thing rather quickly - the relative comeliness of the women who tend to him as he jets around the region. The stewardesses on Asian airlines tend to be much younger and more attractive than their matronly - sometimes even grand-matronly - counterparts on American and European airlines.

The lovely results come as a consequence of what is perhaps the earliest of early-retirement plans, with airlines forcing fading

beauties out to pasture at ages as young as 35. Hong Kong provides a telling example of a regionwide tendency.

While the city's courts have adjudicated sex-discrimination cases and proposed anti-racism legislation is making its way through the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's mini-parliament, there is no law on the books preventing age discrimination. Indeed, after losing a sex-discrimination case to one of its female flight attendants forced to retire at age 45, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong's flagship carrier, responded by lowering the retirement age for its male attendants from 55 to 45; now male and female cabin crew are fully equal at Cathay Pacific - both must deplane at 45.

Japan Airlines (JAL), which employs 250 staff in Hong Kong, appears to be the most youth-oriented carrier in the city. JAL has asked its Hong Kong-based flight attendants to disembark as early as their 35th birthday, and it is fair to say that most of these forced retirees think their premature superannuation has nothing to do with their ability to serve cocktails and meals and remind passengers to buckle up for takeoff and landing.

With the mandatory retirement age in Japan - now 60 - set to rise gradually to 65 by 2013, JAL's Hong Kong employees are understandably upset. Perhaps after being forced out by JAL, they can find employment at rival Cathay Pacific or Dragonair - another, smaller Hong Kong-based carrier in which Cathay Pacific owns a significant stake - where the retirement age for flight attendants is a more generous 45. Even for British Airways' Hong Kong staff, it is 45 and out, although in Britain grandmother stewardesses are retiring at 65 - and so, in compliance with a British law passed in 2004, are JAL cabin crew based in the United Kingdom.

In Hong Kong, however, as in most other cities in Asia, youth reigns in the airline business. Legislative councilor Lee Cheuk-yan, who is also the general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, thinks it is time to bring age discrimination to a stop, especially in a modern, sophisticated city like Hong Kong.

"It's terrible," he said. "I am not aware of any research that supports this [discriminatory] practice. These airlines simply have an attitude problem. They think the customers like younger girls. But how are cabin crew supposed to survive after 45?"

Lee says the airlines are not the only industry in the city - where the retirement age at public institutions is 55 - to discriminate in favor of youth. He maintains that ageism is also rampant in the retail sector, where those doing the hiring presume that a pretty face will improve sales. But he calls this a "hidden discrimination" that takes place during the hiring process and thus is more difficult to prove. What galls him about the airlines' discrimination is that, even though it is so open and unabashed, nothing can be done about it. Even the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission, established 10 years ago with the express purpose of combating discrimination, is powerless to act without the necessary legislation in place.

Lee does not foresee anti-ageism legislation coming to Hong Kong any time soon, however, because of what he perceives as the disproportionate influence of corporate interests in the political life of the city. As he sees it, when Hong Kong is granted full democracy by the central government in Beijing - and no one can predict when that is coming, either - then the local government will be compelled by the people to enact an age-discrimination law.

If you look at Hong Kong's changing demographics, the councilor's point makes sense. With a birthrate that, according to Civic Exchange, a respected local think-tank, is the lowest in the world at 0.8 child per woman, Hong Kong is aging faster than any other city on the planet. Government projections show that life expectancy will reach 82 for men and 88 for women by 2031. Combined with the low fertility rate, that means a quarter of the city's population will be 65 or older within 25 years; meanwhile, of course, Hong Kong's workforce will be shrinking dramatically.

The aging crisis is regarded as so acute that Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang has called on every married couple to have three children. But in a crowded city of high rents and cramped space, that call was greeted with laughter and incredulity - but very little reproduction.

So, ironically, as Hong Kong becomes increasingly geriatric, the face of its workforce in high-profile sectors of the economy remains remarkably young. And, in the judgment of the city's top unionist, councilor Lee, the situation is unlikely to change. Without a law on the books, he says, it is unlikely that airlines and other businesses will act on their own.

The Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants Union, for example, has made no headway with management on its demand for a flexible retirement plan that would allow cabin crew to retire as late as 60, although Cathay Pacific says it will "continue to review the subject". In Lee's view, as long as business interests continue to wield disproportionate power in a city without full democracy, age discrimination will be common practice in Hong Kong. "I am not optimistic," he said.

But is ageism even good business? In the case of airlines, could there be competitive advantages to having an experienced crew on board that compensate for fading beauty and youth? And how about a healthy mix of youth and experience? Would that not be the best game plan - with or without an age-discrimination law?

Asia Times Online asked leading airlines in the city to explain their retirement policies for cabin crew, and the responses ranged from no response (at the extremely youthful JAL) to terse statements from Cathay Pacific, Dragonair and British Airways that simply point out that their policies are in line with those of their competitors. Ultimately, however, these replies dodge the inherent ethical and business questions involved.

Clearly, this is a touchy subject for airlines from a public relations point of view - but not touchy enough to bring about a change in policy without a change in law. Wherever you are, just look around - youth and beauty do sell. In this rapidly aging Asian hub, however, it appears there will be a lot less of the two to sell over the next 25 years.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

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