|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
Boss of PC Air hires transgender cabin crew and says he wants Thailand to give more rights to 'members of the third sex.'
Her eyelashes, and her stockinged legs, are long enough to warrant a double-take from passengers on board. It may seem a form of harassment to others, but Thai flight attendant Punthakarn Sringern, 25, relishes the attention.
Sringern – or Mew, as she likes to be called – is one of four "ladyboys" working for PC Air, the first Thai airline to employ transgender people.
Finding work beyond the entertainment and cosmetic sectors is difficult for Thailand's "third sex", who are said to be more numerous here than anywhere else in the world – so this job, says Mew, is "a dream come true".
PC Air is so named because its founder and president is Peter Chan – the title does not allude to political correctness. Chan, a property developer, began PC Air last year and immediately confronted what he calls a "question of human rights" in this generally open-minded but still socially conservative nation of 69 million.
"Ladyboys in Thailand don't have good jobs," Chan said from PC Air's 34th-floor Bangkok HQ, where crystalline chandeliers and white bearskin rugs distract from the sprawling view of the city below.
"They work as dancers or entertainers or in shops, because society doesn't accept them in other jobs."
Emblazoned across each PC Air jet is the company motto –"I believe it's my way".
Chan hopes Thailand, and the world, will eventually accept transgender people – known here as kathoey – in everyday life. "This is the ladyboys' dream," he said. "Everybody has to have it [their way], it's a human right."
His airline, which also employs a female-to-male transgender pilot, first flew in December – from Bangkok to Vientiane in Laos. It plans to fly to Hong Kong, China, Japan and South Korea from early next month.
Chan, who worked for Thai Airways before making money in the housing market, plans to develop the company's inclusive hiring policy further by employing people with disabilities and those aged over 60 in the airline's office. The ambitions of PC Air's kathoey, on the other hand, are a bit more personal.
"We hope this job will change [Thai] politics, that this is the first of other opportunities," said Chayathisa Nakmai, 24, who had gender realignment surgery after leaving school and always hoped to become a flight attendant.
"It's our dream to get married one day," added 26-year-old Nathatai Sukkaset, referring to government rules that say kathoey cannot change their gender on any official identity forms.
These stipulations have made other airlines wary of following PC Air's lead. Under Thai law, kathoey must be listed as male on their passports – a requirement that critics say could confound immigration officers in less forward-thinking destinations and disrupt flight operations.
Others in Thailand are uncomfortable with PC Air's open-minded policy for different reasons. One airline veteran, speaking to the Bangkok Post on condition of anonymity, said: "A lot of our passengers, especially conservative Thais with families, may shun flying with us [if we hired ladyboys]."
PC Air's passengers have, to date, been welcoming, say the flight attendants.
"The customers want to take many pictures with us, they ask us to pose with them," said Sukkaset.
"I think they're excited about flying with us," said Mew. "They know they'll meet ladyboys and they like the idea."
The airline has just recruited an additional 30 attendants – but of the five kathoey applicants, only one got a job.
"The other ladyboys' English was good, but their looks no good," said cabin crew manager Natcha Mitsumoto. "You still have to look like a lady to work here."