Why It’s So Difficult To Design A Perfect Airline Uniform

Filed Under: Aviation

Airline uniforms receive a lot of discussion and critique in the frequent flyer world, sometimes unfairly so.

It’s unlikely the choice of uniform is going to affect your journey much, yet every time an airline updates their uniform there are fashion show launches as well as detailed discussions on colour choices, cut, fabric, etc. Everyone has an opinion on whether a new uniform ‘works’ or not.

Like aircraft livery changes, most uniform updates are met with a negative reaction.

While it’s easy to design something that looks good on a model strutting down the catwalk, it’s much more difficult to design something practical that staff will actually enjoy, be comfortable in, and be proud wearing.

Delta’s existing uniforms

All shapes and sizes

Airlines have thousands of staff working in dozens of different roles around the world. They might have staff who are 18 years old and staff who are 78. Some might be 4’5″, while others might be 6’5″. Some may be slim, others plus size. Some may have very diverse fashion tastes, some very conservative.

Middle Eastern and Asian airline have less trouble with this as the majority of their cabin crew seem to be younger with strict size restrictions, while American and European legacy carriers have a more diverse workforce.

It’s extremely difficult to design a single uniform that will look good on all ages, sizes and heights. An 18 year old girl is not naturally going to have the style as her grandmother. A bright, form-fitting, modern, short dress may be a young adult’s first choice, while a middle-aged woman may feel very uncomfortable in something like this.

This is one reason airlines tend to choose plain, dark, neutral colours that may not be the most exciting or ‘fashion-forward,’ but will be a safe choice the majority of their staff will feel comfortable in. It’s safer to have some staff ‘underwhelmed,’ than some staff feeling uncomfortable.

I do applaud the increasing trend of airlines using actual staff for their promotional photos and launches, rather than professional models. It is a bit insulting if an airline shows off their new design with perfect models, and then expects their normal staff to be able to look as good as a professional model.

Alaska Airlines uniform as modelled by real staff

Outliving fashion trends

Airlines do not want to have to update their uniforms very often. It’s a time consuming and very expensive exercise.

I would think once every ten years would be a reasonable frequency. So any design choices need to be appropriate now, and in 10 years time. Fashion trends that are popular right now will likely be embarrassingly outdated in 10 years time. To give an aviation-based example, I think Etihad’s geometric livery design is absolutely stunning, and completely on-point for today’s fashion and brand environment. However, it’s so modern and current that I fear that in 10 years time it may be very outdated, given how quickly fashions change.

Etihad’s beautiful current livery – but will it be in fashion forever?

This is why designers tend not to adopt any current fashion trends, no matter how good and relevant they look today, because they need to future-proof them for many years to come.

Appropriate fabric

It boggles my mind how badly American fumbled with the choice of fabric for its 2016 uniform produced by Twin Hill. They eventually dropped the supplier after more than 5,000 of their staff complained.

Surely a key part of testing any new uniform would be for actual American staff to wear the uniform for a few days, while they completed some tasks in a test environment. I cannot understand how they did not do sufficient testing for this.

The fabric needs to breathe, be fairly flexible as crew move around the cabins, and not cause skin irritation. Crew will do everything from reach up to an overhead bin, to reach down to retrieve something from under a seat, so the material needs to be able to move with them.

Holding up under all conditions

Airline staff, particularly cabin crew, do hundreds of different tasks in all manner of conditions. Walking down a runway and posing for a photograph is not one of them. The reason so many airline uniforms are plain, dark colours is because they will cover stains and spills more easily than lighter colours will.

That is why I found the recent launch of Hainan’s new uniforms so bizarre. While they look absolutely beautiful on the streets of Paris (where they were launched), the light colours and flowing fabrics seem like an odd choice when crew are going to be wearing them to do everything from assist passengers boarding in the rain, to cleaning toilets.

A spill of red wine won’t work too well with white or light grey!

Hainan Airlines new uniform in Paris

Does fashion and formality get in the way?

I’ve always thought it weird that male cabin crew look like they’re stepping into an important board meeting, or job interview while they’re serving garlic bread or handing out hot towels. A full business suit seems wildly impractical, and while low cost carriers often opt for a far more casual polo shirt or jeans and a simple shirt, this seems like it would work much better for the working environment.

I believe airlines insist on full suits to portray an environment of formality, professionalism, and sophistication. I imagine wearing a tie would be an absolute pain on a 14 hour longhaul flight!

Similarly the scarves the females wear, while adding a pop of colour and interest, also seem like they would get in the way while they are performing safety demonstrations or refreshing a bathroom.

I know each airline has slightly different, but extremely strict guidelines on what crew can take off for various tasks through the flight. A tie with an apron never made much sense to me.

Virgin Australia’s uniform

Pilot uniforms are much simpler

Pilot uniforms have barely changed in my lifetime and they’re one of the most recognisable and iconic looks of any profession. Designers barely deviate from the basics of pilot uniforms — black suits, ‘wings,’ stripes on the shoulders, and the iconic pilot hat.

Pilots perform less manual labour type tasks than cabin crew do, as most of their job is sitting in the cockpit, so a simple comfortable suit that portrays a sense of authority and experience is sufficient.

Qantas pilots

Bottom line

I’m not going to list my most and least favourite uniforms, because those that are the most stylish may be the least practical. It’s virtually impossible to design something that looks good, is comfortable and durable, and all of your staff are going to feel comfortable and confident in.

I don’t envy the very difficult task the designers have trying to cater to so many different types of people to work so many tasks in so many different situations!

What do you like in an airline uniform?

  1. U do know the Hainan Airlines uniform comes with aprons when it comes to serving food onboard and picking up garbage ?

    Very mature of you just find things bizarre, when your writing doesn’t necessarily give insights into the travel industry but rather showed us how less knowledgeable you are.

    I know Hainan is running out of money these days, but they are still a good airline.

  2. Why in the world would any of Lucky’s readers care about this? And no, I haven’t read the article but am taking the time to write this note as I find the quality of the blog degrading lately. I used to visit this blog multiple times daily but now it’s every few days.

    Nothing against you James. The article “Flying while Fat…” also seemed unnecessary. To any commenters saying I should not visit if I don’t find the articles informative, that is precisely what is happening, hence my two cents.

  3. What do I like from an airline uniform? The one which does not outstage the real purpose..to be worn by FAs who fulfill the true meaning of service on board. The design is only secondary and should not overstage the comfort and agility of FAs in order to execute their duty perfectly.

  4. Interesting topic! I feel that uniforms are part of an airline’s brand image and when done well, can really contribute to boosting a brand’s recognition and perceived quality. SQ’s sarong kebaya’s are as distinct a part of Singapore Airline’s brand as it’s classic livery. While their uniforms are not nearly as distinctive, I’ve noticed that Lufthansa’s FA’s always tend to be wearing very clean and crisply pressed uniforms. ANA’s new uniforms with the blue line along the arm are interesting too. I originally thought that the blue line was unnecessary, until I realised how it drew one’s eye to the direction a flight attendant was directing – a very neat confluence of design and functionality!

  5. DELTA ….. if just 25% of there entire staff would look like that as they should and not wear worn out shoes, dirty and fatty dresses, pants that are not ironed …. most of Europe and for sure Mid East and Asia are leading in that part!!! Design too! Classic like LUFTHANSA or stylish as Emirates or Cathey Pacific. But ALL 3 Mayor US Carriers, ……… oh my

  6. Old people will remember the days when the release of a new uniform range was newsworthy, back in the day when flying was costly, exciting, somewhat novel.
    The fashion houses competed strongly for the business and uniforms were more closely linked to marketing and image. So Dior, Balienciaga, Saint Laurent, Pucci, Carven all featured prominently, plus many others.
    The Hainan cheongsam/qipao variation is great, so is the Alaskan . Even Vivian Westwood did a nice job with Virgin. IMO, best ever is Pucci ( Braniff , 60s) and Balienciaga ( Air France).
    FIT NYC has a few in their permanent collection as does V&A, London.

  7. @ Jesus – I noted that each different has a different policy on how crew can change their outfit for different parts of service (i.e. remove jackets, put on aprons).
    Crew still have to perform various tasks in their ‘full’ uniform like serving pre-departure beverages, storing luggage in overhead bins etc. I think the Hainan uniforms looks beautiful (and they’re a great Chinese airline), I just noted the design may not be practical for some of the tasks they have to perform in them.

  8. I actually like this article and James’ contributions. Not sure what people are expecting. It often bothers me as well how truly awful US carriers uniforms are these days. I tend to also think that the style and quality of the uniform directly translates to a staff’s own pride in product and results in more respect and comfort from passengers. One needs only to look at the horror of American’s uniforms to wonder how much that reflects in staff and passenger attitudes. Walk through any European airport and look at their uniforms and polished requirements. Quite a difference. Even British Airways, while hardly a pillar of fashion, is steps above the way U.S. flight attendants present. Funny thing is, that at least Southwest stays true to its culture. That is, why even bother trying and let the crews be as comfortable as possible. How far we have come from the days of Pucci designing the Braniff uniforms.

  9. Agree on the “fashion vs practicality” aspect: for example, I love-love-love Alitalia’s current uniform, because it’s so elegant, chic and just pleasant to look at, but the attendants seem to hate it because of the discomfort it causes them. That’s one of the reasons they decided to redesign it just a year later.
    Plus, no matter how beautiful Alitalia’s uniform is, the airline is still plain awful. So yeah, I like a nice uniform, but I wouldn’t pick my airline based on it.

  10. If find it bizarre that Hainan Airlines opted for photo shoot with Caucasian models and one token Asian lady. It has no resemblance to their actual crews. I could understand Emirates..

  11. As @Justin said, the airline uniforms are part of the airline’s branding. FAs and all employees are “brand ambassadors”, essentially human billboards. Whilst in uniform, they’re essentially advertising the airline. That is why their design – both fashion and functionality – is important to airlines. And while we can argue form over function all day, let’s be perfectly honest: the dumpy, garbage-bag-looking, tracksuit-like uniforms donned by most American carriers’ FAs are brand damaging. There’s no reason why so many airlines can have fashionable *and* stylish uniforms while others can’t. And yes, body type/size is a large factor in this but let’s leave that to the previous article for now.

    An excellent/terrible example of this are that UA and AA have about 7-10 permutations of the cabin crew uniform, for both males and females, dictated by destination of the flight, the phase of the flight, and the service being conducted. Further, they allow for “optional” accoutrement that may be worn at the FA’s discretion. And then there’s the situation with the multiple, non-uniform lapel pins – “pieces of flair” if you’re an Office Space fan – that are distracting, unsightly, and often can provide an unwanted glimpse into the personal lives of FAs. All of this is absolutely chaotic from a branding standpoint and completely dilutes/damages the brand overall. The result is that on any given flight on a UA/AA, you’ll likely see 4 or 5 variations of the uniform as FAs tend to wear whatever they want so long as it conforms to one of the permutations. This gives the impression of shoddy/absent leadership, lack of professionalism, lack of pride in the brand/company, and the sense of an overall substandard product.

  12. @jackie it’s an global blog and why does everything have to be the US perspective of everything? Otherwise start your own dealing with flights /travel entirely within the US excluding any international journeys , including trans border

  13. Dear James,
    Your articles are great, well written and, informative. It is nice to see some other topics besides credit cards, Marriott hotels and more credit cards. remember that it is impossible to please everyone in this blog, but I assure you that you are doing an excellent job! Keep up with the good stuff!
    I love going to the airport and try to recognize a cabin crew by their uniforms. I love Eva Air dark green’s unform, I also love singapore’s Saron simply because they are so elegant yet so simple!
    Again, keep up with the great stuff

  14. First, about pilot uniforms. Many resemble ship captains. Fine. A few are like practical air force types, mostly the bomber jacket. I tend to like the ship captain design.

    About flight attendants, how about the Australian air service to Antarctica? They were green jumpsuits. How need it would be for flight attendants to wear that? +1 from me.

    An alternative is the sharp looking uniform that many airlines try to have designed. Those include EVA Air, Lufthansa, etc. Many times, they are not so sharp but not so bad.

    I don’t mind if the FA is overweight or ugly but gives good service. That’s better than the young, slim, slick uniform with a bad attitude. One only needs to read Lucky’s recent report of TAAG (Angola). Their uniforms are no worse than AA or UA but their service is the worse.

  15. It’s part of the branding. Most of the uniforms shown in marketing purposes are the uniforms flight attendants wear while they walk through the airport and welcome you as you enter the plane. Almost always they put on an apron or take off the blazer jacket once meal service starts.

    If flight attendants wear jeans and a polo shirt, then I’m afraid more regular passengers wearing the same thing may be mistaken to be a flight attendant.

    I’m not sure on this but I think the only airline that has not changed its uniform in decades is Singapore Airlines? I feel that ever since I was a kid SQ already had its flight attendants wearing the purple kebaya.

    As others have said, I think service is super important regardless of looks/uniform.

  16. @Sung Unusual from a Western perspective but it is quite common to see fashion adverts in China targeting Chinese audiences using Western models. I believe we Chinese call this a “Western worshipping” culture. (presumably the same phenomenon underlying the popularity of English afternoon tea, Downton Abbey etc in China) Whether this is actually an effective means of advertising, I have no idea. I agree it is all the more unusual in Western eyes as I would never have expected fully Western lineup of FAs on a Chinese airline.
    FWIW James I think this is a great article and image is important IMO – I definitely love the sharp red VS uniform over say the BA uniform.

  17. I so love the KLM blue!
    thanks man James! as said, we seen enough of credit cards and the Regis 😉

  18. I remember the Alitalia uniforms made by Armani, they were stunning! Although the olive color was a risky choice since it doesn’t look good on some skin tones.

    Supposedly, Hainan airlines uniforms are stain resistant, although I wonder for how long with continuos use.

  19. James, you are a complete breath of fresh air on this site…don’t let the mouth breathing haters get you down. The comments here are literally worse than those on Youtube for some reason. Loving your new articles (though disagree with your assessment on Hainan! I think they’re amazing!)

  20. I remember once, I think it was in New York, they decided the entire crew should all wear cotton uniforms because it’s natural and cooler. Everything was great for the first day of flights, but the next day none of the uniforms fit because the cotton shrank! They were running like penguins! One guy split his pants!

  21. I generally like the changes in airline uniforms with the variety of styles and colors with the mix and match options. This way just about anyone of any age, sex or shape can get a decent look. Custom tailoring is really important in achieving good fit and comfort.

    As for the major US carriers, I really like the Delta uniforms, followed by AA and I honestly can’t visualize the UA uniforms. The new Alaska female uniforms pictured above are awful IMO – bad color combinations, bad sleeve cut length and a difficult style for most women to wear.

  22. Dude what is the point of this article??? Is it just to get people to comment on how silly this is ? Plenty airlines have great ( even elaborate uniforms – Thai?!). This is a filler post.

  23. Currently, on the upper half of the homepage there are FIVE individual posts by lucky spruiking some credit card or another. I for one am GLAD that James is here with his non credit card referral content. It is downright refreshing.

  24. So many of my AA flight attendant friends have become ill from the new uniforms. Gladly management let them wear their old ones…but leads to a complete “there is no uniformity in the uniforms”.

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