Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pay my salary or I won’t fly... Living out loud with *Sunita mehta (22) Air hostess

Scores of women dream of a career up in the skies. They want to be air hostesses! In recent times, for many living that dream, life has become a nightmare; they are staring into a bleak future. Here’s a story of a young woman who is holding dearly to her dreams, hoping to see a rainbow...

I used to fantasize about flying in a plane.

I have always wanted to be an airhostess... travel the world, see new places, wear a glamorous uniform...and I took the first step toward acheiving my goals in 2007.

I’m from a middle-class family in North India. When I was in the twelfth standard I attended a workshop conducted by an air hostess training school in my hometown. I thought this was the route to realise my dream. But I was disappointed by the lackadaisical training; later I came to know that the teachers were failed hostesses. I was studying for a BA degree through correspondence when I came across an ad by the most glamorous airline – Kingfisher Airlines. I went for the walk-in interview and got selected. It was the happiest day of my life; I could now realise my dreams of flying, give my family a better life and even send my parents on a holiday. I am the oldest of three siblings and I wanted to help my father in some way, maybe some extra cash to tide over the month if required. With a job at the most envied airline, everything seemed within reach.

I had to pay a deposit of Rs 50,000 to the airline; my father readily paid up because he wanted me to be happy. Leaving home to embark on my career was a bittersweet experience. My family had come to the station to see me off. I came to Bangalore in 2008. I loved the city, the people, the weather and above all my job. I had to undergo three months’ training during which I was not allowed to take leave at all. I discontinued my studies and concentrated on my dream career.

After training, I signed a three year contract with the airline for a salary of Rs 24,500 per month; plus I was to be paid Rs 400 for every extra hour of flying beyond the stiupulated 70 to 85 hours. I was to get a lay-over allowance when I had to stay outside my base. I flew the Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkotta sector. I was literally flying in air; life was all peachy.

I loved it when people stopped and stared as I went by in my smart red uniform and pearl earrings and chain. I was thrilled to stay in five star hotels; the grand rooms and the room service...ah, it was bliss. I saved diligently, after all, I am a small town girl and careful with money.The funny thing was that my salary never even touched the base salary as taxes were deducted at source. My colleagues and I asked for Form 16 but we were never given any legal documents.

Mid-last year things began to change. We were now staying in three star hotels instead of the usual five star. Soon we were put up in guest houses. Our salaries were getting delayed, initially by a month or so. Then we went without salaries for months together. I have not been paid from December 2011. Initially, it was easy to manage. I dipped into my savings to pay the rent and for other expenses. Last month, I broke my fixed deposit. I don’t want to ask my parents for help; however, I know they are my last fall-back option if things get worse. I am single, but I do have my EMIs to pay for all the household gadgets I have bought for home. Running a house becomes a difficult puzzle to solve when you have a job with no salary. My situation frustrates me, but I cannot give up hope. I keep telling myself there is light at the end of the tunnel.

My family asks me to give my employers an ultimatum: Pay my salary or I won't fly. But that will not work. I will be fired and someone else, who also needs the money, will take my place. My colleagues and I are all in the same position. Some of my colleagues have it worse. How on earth are we going to manage in future? How will we face the tough times? One of my male colleagues is stuck without pay or prospects. Male stewards cannot head the crew nor can they be trained for serving in first class, which is reserved for women. When we are feeling depressed, we try and motivate each other. But I can feel his pain as he has decided to postpone his wedding until things get better. We had attended interviews with international airlines together. They prefer female crew, but I am doubtful if I will get anything, simply because there’s tremendous competition. I feel that I have to get out of the industry itself as other airlines are also facing the similar problems. But where can I go?

I have reached a stage where I am ready to trade my dream for stability and security. Do I spend sleepless nights thinking of my future? Well, I will be lying if I say I am not worried. I have attended a few interviews in the hospitality industry and am hoping for something to click. But I wish, with all my heart, that I will be able to continue to fly.

I don't bemoan my fate. Life is about hope and I am young. I smile and greet passengers wholeheartedly. Now I am on 'home stand-by' (i.e I have to remain at the base and wait to be called for work) I will not be paid for days at home. Here I am, without money or a better alternative. I am left in a nowhere zone, just like the airline. But on the days I am flying, I leave my worries on the ground. When the plane takes off, my heart soars, for at that moment I know I'm living my dream.

(*Name changed to protect identity)

—As told to Jayanthi Madhukar