Should All Flight Attendants Wear Skirts?

Filed Under: British Airways, Unions

Late last week, female members of British Airways’ Mixed Fleet cabin crews won the contractual right to have trousers as a uniform option.

The distinction of “Mixed Fleet” is important here, because the female employees in British Airways’ Worldwide crews already had slacks as a uniform option.

If you’re not familiar with the labor relations history at British Airways, the key thing to know for purposes of this discussion is that BA has two flight attendant contracts. The Worldwide flight attendants are the more senior, and no one has been hired under that contract since 2010. The Mixed Fleet crew was formed as a response to deteriorating negotiations between Worldwide and management, so they have a completely different set of work rules, salaries, etc.

And apparently part of that has involved some contention over wardrobe.

Given that we’re talking about a Western airline in 2016, this seems like the obvious eventuality, so I was a bit shocked when I scrolled past “British Airways Flight Attendants Win the Right to Wear Pants! Is That a Good Thing?” in my Twitter feed.

It’s a loaded question

I respect Gary tremendously, and I’m sure this wasn’t intended this way, but asking if women having the right to wear pants is a good thing, is to my mind, a question wrongly put.

(And that’s not even getting into the British use of the word “pants.”)

The only meritorious question is why the hell did it take so long? Or possibly pondering if British Airways truly has nothing better to do with their time? This isn’t a carrier that wardrobes its crews in an iteration of “national dress” or one that has built marketing campaigns on the physical appearance of their flight attendants.

It’s British Airways. And other female flight attendants (in the Worldwide crews) have been allowed to cover their legs since Julien Macdonald designed new uniforms for the airline in 2003, “that both male and female staff would enjoy wearing, because it felt good and made them look good.”

The Julien Macdonald uniforms for British Airways, including women’s trousers

I don’t know the exact details on the demographic split amongst British Airways crews, but for the sake of easy math argument let’s say it’s a 50/50 split between Mixed Fleet and Worldwide crews, each of which are equally divided between males and females.

What kind of incompetent and out of touch management spends two years and the legal and financial resources of their company to preserve their contractual right to discriminate against 25% of one working group?

Over trousers!!!

And of course, Gary goes on to explain a bit of the history of flight attendants, and the evolving perception of the role, and he’s spot-on in noting that expectations have changed over time. I absolutely agree with his assessment that British Airways Mixed Fleet crews provide a great service on a more consistent basis than their Worldwide counterparts.

Where I take issue, however, is with the inevitable conclusion drawn by the leading question in the headline, and the corresponding implication that skirts and service levels are even tangentially related:

“A sharp look, that sets the tone for friendly and professional service, is what makes sense in the modern North American and European market. So it’s great for BA cabin crew that Mixed Fleet female flight attendants can wear trousers like Worldwide fleet flight attendants can. The key is for mixed fleet service not to degrade to the point of worldwide.”

I’m sorry, but the insinuation that one crew is providing better service than the other because their female contingent is showing more skin is asinine.

Wearing the pants

Have you ever seen a female pilot wearing a dress? How about a police officer?

For a bevy of reasons, Western culture has a societal expectation that individuals wearing pants are in a position of authority.

Airlines simply cannot expect passengers to believe that “flight attendants are primarily there for safety” if a portion of the crew is also expected to display their bodies for the visual gratification of said passengers.

A woman can look “put together” in slacks, just as much as a man can. A woman can look professional without makeup, just as much as a man can. It’s about the attitude, not the trimmings.

If nothing else, outfitting your female cabin crew in such a way that requires them to abandon or modify their wardrobe in order to participate in, much less coordinate, an emergency evacuation seems ill-advised.

So why is Mixed Fleet better?

As someone with a bit of background in management and training, I can confidently say the difference in service between Mixed Fleet and Worldwide Crews is more to do with the rigorous and comparatively recent training of the former than with any wardrobe differences.

If you’ve seen the documentary A Very British Airline you might remember a scene wherein a training manager is going over the importance of timeliness, and explaining that the plane isn’t going to wait for late crew. To the casual observer, this might seem either pedantic or concerning. After all, adults shouldn’t need to be told to be on-time to work. And if they do, perhaps they shouldn’t be in charge of evacuating an aircraft.

But that’s the key point — with a few exceptions, Mixed Fleet crews weren’t “adults” on their start date. In talking with crew, many of them had only one or two jobs prior to signing up for British Airways. And these weren’t aviation careers, or even hospitality jobs, but rather generic low-paying service-industry hourly gigs.

Tesco. Topshop. Zara. Nando’s. You get the idea.

So the training teams at BA essentially had a blank slate. They were able to set whatever standards they wanted for their new generation of flight crew, and mold their new hires accordingly. And for a group of impressionable and star-eyed people who were enamored with the idea of seeing the world, those messages are powerful, and the pride and joy Mixed Fleet crews take in their role is palpable.

Worldwide crews aren’t going through that same type of intensive training on a consistent basis. They get periodic updates on procedures and requirements, of course, but that’s not at all equivalent to an immersive experience that builds camaraderie and inspires passion.

Many of the Worldwide crews have also been in their roles for some time, and much of that time has been embroiled in downright hostile negotiations with management. There is a lot of bitterness on both sides, and that obviously spills over into the general work environment. And even if that weren’t the case, folks get bored, or set in their ways, and as novelty fades to routine enthusiasm wanes.

It shows a deficit of leadership, but is not otherwise unexpected.

Implying that service standards are better on Mixed Fleet flights because the women wear skirts suggests the inverse is also true — and arguing the myriad and pervasive service problems with British Airways would be resolved by reintroducing pantyhose to female crew members is laughable.

Bottom line

Ultimately, a crew member, (or any employee in any industry, really) that looks “sharp” is more likely to provide great service not because of the wardrobe requirements of their role, but because they take pride in their work and are happy in their job. That’s what makes someone get up five minutes earlier to groom their eyebrows or carefully hang their uniform versus throwing it on the hotel sofa. There are myriad ways to inspire pride and job satisfaction that don’t require the sexualization of the workforce. And enabling the romantic male gaze of passengers doesn’t magically ameliorate leadership deficits.

Regardless of your thoughts on the importance of gender equality, I think we can agree that airlines (and all companies) should fight the right battles. And skirts probably aren’t one of them.

Case in point, I’m writing this on board a flight with an all-male crew, none of whom look like they’d recognize an iron if one dropped on their heads. The pre-arrival cookies were delivered on a tray with the rest of the meal (including the nuts!), and the crew has spent the remainder of the flight in the galley doing their damnedest to avoid interacting with passengers.

Ask yourself: would they be providing better service in skirts?

If you’d like to pour a glass of wine and join me in the comments to discuss the impacts of everyday sexism in the aviation industry, please do!

  1. To be clear, Tiffany, I was saying that of course it’s a good thing! 🙂 It was a question that the folks at BA had been asking for a couple of years but has been a long time coming.

  2. I think the idea behind the skirts for MF was more the culture the management of BA wants to create between MF and WW crew.

    The idea of MF, the hats, the higher uniform standards etc is to portray the MF crews as superior to the WW crew and therefore break the power the WW crews had (still for the time being have).

    It’s my opinion that the entire BA management needs a clear out, many friends that work for BA have so many stories about how relationships between managers and crew is so bitter that it cannot be repaired. Management apparently can give no concessions to crews no matter hot silly or small. This whole event makes BA look ridiculous.

    Even on MF crews there is a turn over rate of around 20% and staff are told as long as they get 18 months out of MF crew BA have made money on them.

    There are good and bad crews on both contracts. I don’t think you can decide just because a route is MF or WW how service will be.

  3. I’ll go ahead and say what this post was too kind and diplomatic do say itself: Gary’s post–as well as his clickbait-y headline–were sexist and inexcusable. Trying to logically argue the merits of a debate that’s inherently sexist only lends support to the notion that such things are debatable and can be decided by so-called “reason.” As a man and feminist, I agree that these types of debates need to be called out for what they are: rationalizations of sexist behavior and beliefs.

    Anyway, this is a great post, Tiffany! I’m very glad to have read it and am happy that it’s a part of this blog.

  4. Not that this is really relevant to the point you are trying to make, but there are plenty of female pilots that choose to wear skirts.

  5. Skirts are meaningless to service. Mixed fleet was introduced as part of lowering BA costs, when the airline more or less beat its flight attendants union six years ago.

    For many at BA the issue seemed to be “succumbing to the union” and “making mixed fleet more like worldwide” both of which are viewed as negatives from a service standpoint. Even if drawing some sort of line in the sand on skirts is just weird.

  6. @ Jon — Agree that it’s about power, and culture (i.e. management wanting to create a culture wherein they have more power over the incoming crews). Disagree that skirts equate to a higher uniform standard.

  7. Back at the first airline I started, we had one particular (male) flight attendant who loved stirring up trouble. Our uniform back then offered a choice of skirts or trousers, but never specified that the skirt was only available for women. This guy decided to put in a requisition for a skirt for himself to stir up $hit. Needless to say a memo clarifying the uniform policy was sent out pretty quickly.

    I did have the last laugh though. He was on a London layover later that year and a child passenger had thrown a cup of pudding on his trousers on the flight up – I authorised him to send them for dry cleaning on company account. I then had scheduling call him and tell him he was being pulled out to work another flight – and that they would send him a spare uniform skirt since they had no spare trousers available in his size. Ah, good times.

    I’ve also had a Captain friend at the second airline I started fly a full day with the cabin crew uniform scarf option rather than the pilot tie, but that was on a dare!

  8. @Sean M: I think you’re proving the point that skirts are unnecessarily gendered and sexualized if you’re viewing a male FA wanting to wear a skirt as “trouble” and then forcing him to wear one as “hav[ing] the last laugh.”

  9. I don’t think women should have a choice any more than men do. Fine they can wear pants but they can’t choose between skirts and pants. Feminism is all about getting better treatment not just equal treatment.

  10. On a recent IAH – DFW AA flight I sure wish the flight attendant had been wearing pants (or had chosen to sit with legs crossed), small plane and at the front of the cabin meant I chose to not look forward when she was sitting. At least the flight is only ~45 min…

  11. I’m surprised BA has not allowed males to wear skirts (ok ok kilts). 😉 If the Queen can wear slacks/pants, then I agree it should be fine for FAs to wear slacks/pants/trousers or whatever you wish to call it. As for sexism in the airline industry, no doubt about it that it exists!
    Great post, btw, Tiffany!

  12. Give men the choice to wear skirts first then let’s talk.

    A uniform’s a uniform period.

    How society imposes a perception of power and bias on a piece of garment is another matter altogether.

    With this rule, is BA being discriminatory for not allowing mixed fleet men to wear skirts?

  13. Credit, you have it backwards. Rather than women having no choice “like men”, men should also have the choice to wear a skirt or pants.

    As for this: “Feminism is all about getting better treatment not just equal treatment,” you could not have less understanding of feminism if you tried, but I doubt you’ve tried. It’s so much easier to throw out a simplistic, seemingly superior line than bother to consider what equality entails.

  14. Whoops, sorry, Tiffany, I also meant to say this post is a breath of fresh air on this blog and to thank you for writing it. Far too often the comments here are full of disgusting attitudes about women, especially FAs.

  15. If a person can’t see why mentioning service standards in a blog entry about women being permitted to stop wearing skirts is a problem, then what are you going to tell them? There’s nothing you can say. They get it or don’t. I guess the equivalent of “but I have black friends” is what you have to expect — “but I support women wearing pants.” Oh well — very few people have the ability to be introspective and say, “hmm, maybe I do need to think about that” instead of getting defensive. Especially on the internet. Lots of people lack some perspective here. It was only about 40 years ago that female flight attendants had to sue United in order to challenge their policy of discharging married female flight attendants.

  16. @Credit You seem to have misguided ideas about what feminism is. Feminism is not about women getting superior treatment to men, nor is it about having the same EXACT same rules apply to both men and women. Men and women are different; this is obvious and acknowledged by most feminists. Equality is an equilibrium where rights and opportunities are equal, which of course can be composed of thousands of different variables and take many, many forms.

    I (and most) would prefer a reasoned discussion to the typical, lazy chauvinism that you’re spouting. Your arguments are not original or intelligent; they’re what the world has been hearing for years. My hope is that, instead of reacting badly against my words (which I recognize are strong, but hey, enough is enough), that you take some time to read more about gender equality, and perhaps do your best to empathize with those who have real grievances.

  17. The airline industry has been going to h-e-double-hockey-sticks since the demise of FAs wearing hot pants and/or mini skirts.

  18. Kudos to Tiffany for the article, and to AB and Lisa for their thoughtful follow-up comments. I agree that the points of view you three expressed were a “breath of fresh air” on this blog. I wish you’ld been posting last year when I commented that I found it problematic that Lucky, in one of his posts, used the phrase “wifebeater”, to describe an article of clothing.
    The responses to my remarks were rather more problematic, and reflected attitudes about women I had hoped would have disappeared 30 years ago.
    Thanks to all 3 p of you.

  19. Thanks Tiffany, can you believe this is even a discussion point in 2015? I think the post that this controversy was alot about power and control is spot on. To say that giving women a choice to wear pants is a feminist position is also ridiculous. This is a human position. I appreciate your perspective and great points.

  20. Problems with skirts:
    – bad during an emergency, makes it hard to climb over things
    – only mid-to-high heels look good with the dowdy FA skirts, but those heel heights are very uncomfortable for long periods of standing/walking, also bad during an emergency
    – pantyhose are expensive, an extra cost that men don’t incur

    What year is this? 1900? Let the women wear pants if they want to. Jesus Christ.

  21. @ Aaron K @ Credit — Nope. Should they be? Maybe. Gender is a nuanced thing, and it gets particularly complicated when work uniforms are involved.

    But I don’t see how you can even argue “what about the men?!?!” when there is another group of women working for the same company and performing the same role that has had the option to wear trousers for over a decade. Even if you don’t believe men and women should be able to cover themselves comparably, surely all the women should have equivalent choices?

  22. This doesn’t seem too important. Truly though, slacks are dressed down from skirts.

    Sorry, but feminism seems primary about making women less attractive and more disagreeable, in hopes that they won’t reproduce. It’s working pretty well!

  23. Oh goodness! This is a fun comment thread to come back to after a flight with no WiFi!

    I just want to address the plethora of people asking “well, do the men have the choice to wear skirts?!” as though that’s a reasonable response. It isn’t.

    The choice isn’t between wearing skirts or pants, and this isn’t a question of self-expression either. If an employer wants to say tattoos or piercings or certain hair colors aren’t appropriate for the professional environment, and those rules apply to people of all genders (as they do in the case of British Airways), that’s entirely different.

    The actual choice that has been denied to the women of Mixed Fleet is the choice to not be viewed as a sexual object while performing their occupational duties. Skirts and high heels are a hindrance, especially in case of an evacuation. Slacks can be professional and tailored for women, so neither is a valid argument.

    So if it’s not for safety, and it’s not for professionalism, then why are female flight attendants at Western airlines outfitted in a way that shows their skin?

    The answer is obvious, and that is something all people should have the choice to avoid.

  24. As though I needed another reason to want to be bffs with Tiffany. Well done. And thank you for calling out the “but what about choices for men?” ridiculousness. White hetero males, you have ALL the choices, anything you want. There are no more choices to be had.

  25. On the question of men being allowed to wear skirts…well, we are talking BA here. What about men being allowed to wear kilts? They are traditional wear for men in one of the countries of the United Kingdom, after all.

  26. @Joe For the sake of humanity, I hope YOU don’t reproduce. And god forbid you already have, I hope your children are more mature than you are and can rise above the small mindedness of their father to form more empathetic opinions.

  27. Seriously @Joe? You’re just being an idiot on purpose right?

    Just in case you aren’t, let’s try this: Your job requires you to only wear a banana hammock to work. Don’t worry that you can’t really fill it out. It “doesn’t seem too important” to the rest of us. Thankfully, your obvious inadequacy also makes you “less attractive” and unlikely to reproduce. So, we are all safe from any @Joe offspring who you could teach your vile brand of chauvinism to.

    FWIW, if Gary’s intention was to say “of course it’s a good thing” in the original post, he might have been more successful without the overly detailed discussion of the “hyper-sexualized persona” of flight attendants…and the hot pants photos…and the Hooters girls.

    It’s a bit of mixed message.

    Gary has also provided this thorough explanation of the shorthand Delta’s pilots use to simultaneously objectify and body shame female FAs at least 6 times. I’d argue there is a point where you tell a story enough times that you become part of the problem rather than someone just reporting/blogging about it.

    I don’t know Gary personally. So, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that this was unintentional. But, that’s why it’s a post like Tiffany’s is so important. Well done!

  28. @Joe – so allowing women greater freedom to dress, have equal pay, etc. and not be sexualized but still have a professionalism is wrong?

    Should women only have jobs in where they must appear to be sexual objects for heterosexual men?

    Because honestly, that seems to be the implication of your post.

    And yes, I believe if a male flight attendant wants to wear a skirt, they should. If someone who is transgender is a flight attendant, they should wear any flight attendant outfit that matches their gender identity. C’mon y’all, we live in the 21st century.

  29. Wow, the Sjw thought police are out in force tonight. I’m surprised that haven’t hanged Gary in effigy yet.

  30. First, I want to say that you make a valid case why MF crews should be able to wear pants: WW crews do, BA does market to the uniform or physical appearance as say SQ does, etc. Where I will take issue is your characterization of “discrimination.” Management has the prerogative of establishing dress codes for its business. If these standards were unreasonable or inappropriate you might have a point, but flight crews wearing skirts does not rise to the level of discrimination IMO. I am currently interviewing for two positions where the company requires suit and tie. It’s their office and their choice to make that a requirement. If I take issue with it, I should decline those offers. It’s that simple. I see a similar case for airline uniforms. Let the free market for labor factor these requirements in. Either way, I do not consider it as a discrimination.

  31. @Miranda,

    I forgot that it also encourages nasty, abrasive personalities. Beyond that, I’m not sure it’s done anything recently. Blue hair, maybe?

  32. Mixed fleet management had huge control issues
    I left and wear trousers any time I choose even in bed if I want to

  33. I saw a news report online a couple of years back saying that people perceive women in smart skirt outfits to be more senior, more capable, more trustworthy, even better paid, than those in trousers. Some academic had established this by showing pictures of the same woman dressed either one way or the other to two otherwise similar groups of people and asking them to rate her on a range of perceptions.

    Personally I would rather have the positive associations that go with a skirt suit or smart top and pencil skirt, which is why I work in an environment where the unwritten rule is that women should dress this way. I can see why some airlines issue only skirts for women’s uniforms, if they know that doing so results in them being seen more positively by passengers. An airline is a brand, after all…

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