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Women Hope to Get Ahead in the Clouds Over India

An economic revolution sets would-be flight attendants and others on new career paths.

April 17, 2006|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — Like most of her classmates in flight attendant school, Sandhya Chatribin has never been on an airplane. At least not one that can fly.

The 19-year-old came here from the western coastal state of Goa the way most Indians travel long distances, in a rattling train that shimmied and squeaked its way hundreds of miles across the subcontinent.

It was a two-night trip in general class, where passengers sat on wooden slats or stretched out on homemade hammocks or, when floor space ran out, slouched in reeking toilets.

By looking skyward for work, Chatribin and her classmates have embarked on a journey from the old India to the new.

Millions of young Indians like her have a confidence born of a quiet revolution that is sweeping the country as its economy takes on the challenges of global competition, and easier travel opens the way to once unimagined opportunities.

"Look in the eyes of younger people and you see a new India," said Kapil Kaul, regional head of the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, a Sydney, Australia-based air transport consulting and research agency.

"They don't think of India the way their parents did. They feel that India can be compared to any other country. They're seeing a new, emerging India, a powerful India which wasn't seen before."

But some change comes slowly. Many Indian women Chatribin's age are still under pressure to marry a man chosen by their parents, to quickly bear children and stay at home to care for family and in-laws.

Chatribin is the youngest in a middle-class family of 10. Her parents took a rather radical view of her future: They left it up to her.

"They realize this job is something which will keep me away from them," she said. "But then, it was my choice, and my happiness lies in it.

"Society is changing quickly," Chatribin said. "My mom is not very educated, but the younger generation is different, and she is changing with it."

Many in Chatribin's class of about 130 trainees come from farms in rural India, where 70% of the country's 1 billion people still live. A flight attendant's salary is just too attractive to let old social hang-ups get in the way, said Bhavna Tinari, Chatribin's instructor at the Frankfinn Institute of Air Hostess Training.

"Everybody wants economic stability," said Tinari, who was a flight attendant for six years in the 1980s. "They want to raise their standard of living."

In Tinari's day, the starting salary for a flight attendant, including perks, was a little more than $300 a month. Any of her students who find jobs will earn up to $560 a month, or more than double that if they get hired by airlines in the Middle East.

That may not seem a lot by Western standards, but it's better than other jobs open to young women with a basic education, such as at the call centers that U.S. firms use to handle customer service and telemarketing. Call center jobs normally pay $159 to $204 a month, according to a study released last year.

Kaul has seen 5,000 people line up to interview for just one advertised opening for a flight attendant position.

A quarter of a century ago, when many of the old social rules were still firmly entrenched, thinking of an airline job would have been a flight of fantasy for most young Indians living outside the more cosmopolitan cities.

In 1982, when Tinari was looking into becoming an Air India flight attendant, custom dictated that her entire extended family would decide what, if any, career she could pursue.

Her uncle, a state deputy director of education, was scandalized that she was about to go flying around unchaperoned, serving food and drinks to strangers.

"He thought that this was a very 'loose' sort of a profession," she said. "My younger brother supported me through thick and thin, and he said something to my parents which also clicked with my uncle.

"He said, 'We have never been able to get in an airplane. If she's able to sit in one, why don't you just let her go?' "

Today, India's flight attendants have earned wide respect in their country as members of a well-paid elite "roaming around the world getting to know different cultures," Tinari said.

The old India is on the rails, where an accident-prone passenger train system dating back to 1854 is struggling to break the chains of a corrupt bureaucratic system that has dominated India for generations.

The state-owned Indian Railways is the world's largest. It carries 13 million passengers each day on about 7,000 trains that crisscross the subcontinent. Outdated technology and infrastructure contribute to the estimated 300 serious railway accidents reported each year. But for the last century and a half, most Indians with a long way to go have been forced to take their chances on a train.

Cars and planes catered mostly to the middle and upper classes. The poor majority had more basic choices: walk, hitch up a cart or buy a train ticket.

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