Air India Is Wrong to Ground Flight Attendants for BMI: Let Us Count the Ways

Did you hear about the latest misuse of BMI? Air India decided to ground 130 flight attendants for being “too fat to fly.” According to this article, 600 crew members were given notice 6 months ago that they were on probation and had to lower their BMIs to fall into the range of 18-22 for the women, 18-25 for the men.

Here’s the official Air India version:

“About 130 of them failed the reassessment,” an Air India official told The Telegraph in Calcutta. “We are now declaring them permanently unfit for their job as flight attendants.”

“People who are fitter can respond quicker and more efficiently in case of any untoward situation.”

I hate to get all judgey, but that’s just plain wrong in so many ways. First of all, BMI is not a good indicator of fitness. See Sam’s post “Fit, Fat, and What’s Wrong with BMI” where she says:

Lots of thin people are falsely reassured by their BMI, while lots of people with BMIs  in the overweight/obese categories might be worrying with no good reason. Fit and fat are linked but not in the ways most people think. I worry that lots of fat people don’t exercise because they worry what people will think especially if you exercise and don’t get any smaller. Yet fat and fit people can be very healthy.

Not only that, BMI was never even meant to be a measure for individuals. It was meant to offer a way of thinking about populations. According to “Top 10 Reasons Why the BMI Is Bogus”:

The BMI was introduced in the early 19th century by a Belgian named Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet. He was a mathematician, not a physician. He produced the formula to give a quick and easy way to measure the degree of obesity of the general population to assist the government in allocating resources. In other words, it is a 200-year-old hack.

If you question whether someone physically fit could have a BMI measure that’s outside of the normal range, think about this, from Sam’s post:

Marc Perry notes in Get Lean that according to BMI most American football players count as obese. So too do many Olympic athletes. There is list here of all of the Gold medal athletes from the 2004 Olympics in Athens who count as overweight or obese according to BMI.

Here are a bunch of other reasons that BMI is a bad way to measure fitness and even fatness.

Not only that, even if it were a way of thinking about individual health and fitness, the fact is, their range is rather on the low side anyway. The Huffington Post’s report on this story points out:

In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health considers individuals with a BMI under 18.5 to be underweight. People with BMIs of 18.5-24.9 re considered to be of normal weight. Those who have BMIs between 25 and 29.9 are overweight, while a BMI of 30 or greater puts people into the obese category.

Having established that BMI is not a good indicator of an individuals fatness, let alone fitness, what can we conclude about Air India’s decision? It’s fair to say that it’s just downright discriminatory and, since it’s had a disproportionate impact on women, it’s sexist. Here’s what one aviation industry consultant had to say:

“This move to impose a certain BMI, ignoring experience and other performance parameters, is immature, misogynistic and shockingly sexist,” said Mark Martin, an aviation industry consultant, in an interview with The Telegraph. “We seem to have lost the plot on what is needed from flight attendants.”

I myself have felt heartened lately while flying (not in general, just on this specific point) because the North American carriers that I tend to frequent are employing people with a range of body types and sizes. That’s a big difference from years ago when all flight attendants were tall and slim. I like the change.

Air India needs to get with the times. It’s just not true that BMI is a good indicator of anything useful, and it’s not okay to fire people because of their weight or size.

But most people disagree with me. When I did the Telegraph‘s on-line vote on the question “should flight attendants be judged by their BMIs?” and voted “no” only 29% agreed with me. 71% thought it was quite alright. I found that astonishing. What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Air India Is Wrong to Ground Flight Attendants for BMI: Let Us Count the Ways

  1. 22 is very low and I know as a personal trainer that my fittest and healthiest clients range and are often much higher than that. If you want to have muscle and not be super lean (I.e. You’re not naturally the kind of person who is lean or you don’t want to dedicate your goals to it), 22 is tough. I think I could get down to that BMI but I bet I’d lose my period if I kept my muscle or I’d lose my muscle and maybe compromise my health (or the body composition everyone seems to be buzzing about these days. So, IMHO…If it’s about health, it’s not about BMI, as convenient and easy as it might be to use. Ugh!

    1. And I mean very in relation to average. It’s in the middle of “normal” but normal is arbitRary. I also forgot to ask why men are allowed to be bigger? Women can and do carry muscle these days!

  2. Thanks for pointing out the Air India story. I completely agree with you that flight attendants shouldn’t be judged by their size (and while we are at it, age too). I like it that I see people of different sizes and ages working for airlines; it reinforces the view that air travel is for everyone, not just working businessmen from a previous era. Also, not to jump to conclusions here, but the fact that this happened in India is worrying, given the recent news of sexual violence against women (of course this happens everywhere). I wonder and worry that this reflects societal pushback against women.

  3. I bet they wanted to put attractiveness standards in place but didn’t want the PR flack that might cause. They’re just pretending this is about health. I side eye anything like this, especially given how low the required BMIs are for women.

  4. That’s wrong. Unless flight attendants are expected to run laps up and down the plane for the entire journey (for no reason at all) then it’s silly. If they can walk with no issue, carry things with no issue and have no breathing difficulties then what it the issue?

  5. Hmmm…why not create a little mini boot camp that encompasses the activities they think they will not be able to accomplish and let them have at it rather than the one size fits all BMI approach? Seems a way to cover up that they are just looking for eye candy.

  6. That is such crap. I’m 5’9″ and a very active runner in a so-called “healthy” weight range and my BMI is way higher than 22! Wtf. I don’t think I’ve been a 22 BMI since high school.

  7. I found that some people who weighed or said they weighed less than me were bigger than me in some parts of their body
    This is just another reason to push dying to be thin craze.

  8. “It’s just not true that BMI is a good indicator of anything useful”

    How have we determined that? With some anecdotes about professional football players and Olympic athletes? That would only be pertinent if professional football players and Olympic athletes formed a significant percentage of the population…which they don’t.

    BMI does underestimate fatness often enough, but it rarely overestimates it. We don’t have to depend on anecdotes or intuition, the accuracy of BMI is studied well. From a February 2012 study in the _International Journal of Obesity_:

    Less than .09% of women who are neither overweight or obese in terms of body fat percentage are categorized as obese when using BMI. Less than 1% of women who are neither overweight or obese in terms of body fat percentage are categorized as obese or overweight when using BMI.

    The percentages are higher for men, but still low. The lesson is that BMI is very good, especially for women, at being correct when it indicates that an individual has excess body fat, whether overweight or obese.

    1. The further question is whether counting as “obese” or “overweight” is an indication of physical fitness. It’s absurd to think that anyone with a bmi over 22 is automatically unfit/unable to perform the tasks a flight attendant needs to perform to do her job safely. Carrying extra body fat (“extra” by what measure and whose standard?) is not a useful metric for performance potential. This seems a clear abuse/misuse of bmi. Your point doesn’t clear up anything with respect to this case.

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