BEIJING — Fly on a Chinese airline and you will be pampered by flight attendants who look eerily alike. They are young, beautiful and practically the same height.
This is not a coffee-tea-or-me stereotype but the result of a rigorous selection process that is much more old-fashioned beauty pageant than equal-opportunity job interview.
If you're older than 24, don't bother applying.
If you aren't at least a couple of inches taller than the average Chinese woman, go home.
And if your legs are even remotely similar to tree trunks, don't call us, we'll call you.
Sound like a throwback to the dark ages of workplace discrimination? Here, in the world's fastest-growing aviation market, prohibitive entry barriers are not only tolerated, they're flaunted as symbols of excellence.
"A lot of Chinese passengers judge the quality of airlines based on the quality of their flight attendants, meaning are they pretty or not pretty," said Luo Man, a media director at China Southern, the country's largest carrier.
Good looks are such a commodity these days, China Southern has put its annual recruitment drive on TV. Although men are not excluded from the jobs, only women are featured in the on-television selection process. The show, funded in part by the airline, follows a six-month audition -- complete with swimsuit competition and a race involving luggage, makeup brushes and drink trays -- through several major Chinese cities. Thousands of young women lined up for the chance to compete for 180 openings.
China Southern's website for the show, which provides news and information on the auditions, has had more than 1 million hits.
"This is every little girl's dream," said Lu Ju, 20, who has flown just three times in her life. "I want to be beautiful like the flight attendants. They can see the world and go places most people can't."
During a recent taping of the program in a posh resort on the outskirts of the Chinese capital, Lu and her fellow contestants lined up with military precision. All wore tight shorts and snug pastel T-shirts.
In teams of two, they raced against each other, one team member skipping rope and the other lugging a heavy suitcase. Then, off-camera, they changed from shorts to the button-down blouse, pencil skirt and black heels of a flight attendant. Back before the cameras as the clock ticked, they threw on rouge and eye shadow and touched up their hair in front of tiny hand-held mirrors, then grabbed trays of drinks to present to the judges.
Time counts, but so does poise.
"I think I was too nervous," Lu said afterward. "My hair was a little messy and I didn't carry myself with enough confidence."
Wang Jing, 22, has never flown before but insists it is her life's calling to work in the sky. Like many of the contestants, she is an only child who traveled by train to the competition, her mother with her every step of the way.
"I think this kind of contest is fair," said Li Guoping, 47, Wang's mother. "This is a service industry. A lot of other Chinese airlines have flight attendants who are very attractive. People always talk about which airline has the best-looking flight attendants."
The Chinese preference for young and good-looking cabin crews is hardly unique in Asia. Singapore Airlines, for example, has built its reputation on the beauty and hospitality of the sarong-wearing staff known in its global ad campaigns as the "Singapore Girls."
Chinese airlines are so youth-oriented, many in the cabin crew stop flying in their 30s. China Southern says it has the oldest staff, with retirement age capped at 45.
"My parents worry this is an unstable job without a long future," said Wang Wenjing, 21, a college junior at the contest who dreams of flying to Paris. "I don't want to be just another office secretary."
Veda Shook is not amused by the focus on looks and youth.
"I find it very offensive," said Shook, international vice president for the Assn. of Flight Attendants, the world's largest labor union for cabin crew members, representing more than 55,000 employees at 20 U.S. airlines. "When a carrier views their selection process as a beauty pageant, it's really a setback to our profession on a global scale."
Not that Americans haven't been there.
It wasn't until 1971 that it became illegal for airlines to refuse to hire men as flight attendants or ban married women.
Chinese airline officials say their industry is relatively young and that it will take time for the public to move beyond the superficial. Until recently, traveling by air was a privilege reserved for government officials and the very rich. The first flight attendants were picked not so much for their looks as their political reliability. But that is changing fast.
As Chinese people get richer, domestic air traffic could soar nearly fivefold in two decades, analysts say. To meet the demand, China will have to buy about 3,400 new aircraft, quadrupling the current fleet and making the nation the second-largest aviation market in the world after the United States.