Ever since the early days of commercial aviation, the job of a flight attendant has been synonymous with glamor. From the colorful tailored outfits, perfectly coiffed hairdos, and flawless make-up, the role has become a quintessentially feminized occupation over the years.

Despite much progression within the role itself, gender binaries are still present and outdated uniform policies remain, with many big airlines still requiring staff to conform to stringent standards of beauty and dress. The job has evolved to require staff to be trained in handling scenarios such as terrorist attacks, passenger behavior, emergency landings and medical assistance, which is hardly an easy feat when you’re required to don a pair of high heels and tight-fitting skirt.

So, as the industry progresses toward gender equality, several news articles seem to suggest that airlines are beginning to review these standards of dress for employees following mounting pressure from unions. But how are airlines challenging these outdated views? And is enough being done to support female flight attendants?

What changes have already been proposed?

The flight attendant uniforms we are familiar with today have their roots in the very first examples that began to emerge during the 1930s. When they first appeared, flight attendant uniforms served a purpose, promoting an image of professionalism and style. However, these uniforms have not changed in line with the evolving duties of the flight attendant, illustrating a lack of progress in the workplace.

However, as the aviation industry continues to address issues of gender inequality and diversity, there is some evidence of change. But is that change happening quickly enough?

Back in 2019, when a global health crisis was far from anyone’s imagination, a number of airlines began to announce that they would be reviewing gendered and outdated uniform rules, particularly those affecting female staff members. Gone was the emphasis on appearance, the focus instead moving to practicality.

One such airline aiming to shake up uniform policy was SkyUp, a Ukrainian charter and low-cost airline. SkyUp traded the traditional skirt suit for more practical trousers, swapped high heeled shoes for trainers and made changes to its hair and makeup requirements.

During an interview with euronews.travel, Marianna Grygorash, head of marketing at SkyUp Airlines, revealed that the uniform change was implemented after concerns were highlighted in interviews with cabin crew.

"We have highlighted one of the globally important topics - women's rights and gender equality,” Grygorash said in the interview.

"We hope that this will become an impetus for global positive transformations in views and attitudes towards the treatment of women not only in aviation, but entirely.

"A woman in any field should have comfortable working conditions, and the ‘trademark’ of the crew should not necessarily include heels and a classic suit," she added.

SkyUp is not alone in rethinking their uniform policies in line with gender equality and inclusion. According to a May 2020 report from Simple Flying, KLM, Bangkok Airways, Air India and British Airways also allow female aircrew to wear trousers.  

Similarly, Iceland’s PLAY have also adopted a relaxed fit suit and ditched the high heels. In a press release dated June 8, 2021, published on the airline’s website, PLAY said its new uniforms, created by designer couple Gunni Hilmars and Kolla, aimed to “scrap the constrictive rules often associated with these uniforms and include relaxed fits, stretchy fabrics and of course, shoes meant for working on your feet!” 

“Forget running around in high heels - comfortable sneakers are the way to go. Instructions regarding hair, make up, tattoos and nail polish are gone. The uniforms are not gender specific, and our crew can pick whatever works for them from a varied selection of outfits,” the release continued.

Aer Lingus also announced that it would be relaxing uniform restrictions. In an online statement, published on January 15, 2020, Aer Lingus unveiled a new-look uniform from Irish designer Louise Kennedy, which includes “the addition of trouser and dress options” and “garment materials have a level of stretch and are designed to fit and flatter all body shapes and sizes”.

At the time, director of Marketing and Digital Experience at Aer Lingus, Dara McMahon, said that the redesign, which was part of the carrier’s brand refresh that began in 2018, had “been a carefully considered and highly researched process”.

“Our cabin and ground crew told us clearly that comfort, practicality, versatility and flexibility needed to be key factors in the redesign,” McMahon added.

As well as recognizing the need for change, it seems as though airlines are beginning to recognize that there is an opportunity by revamping the uniforms that they can present themselves as a fresh and vibrant force in the marketplace.

Union action leads to change

On March 28, 2022, Alaska Airline announced that it would be updating its uniform policy in collaboration with employees in an effort to “provide more freedom and flexibility in individual and gender expression”.

“This is what it means to care – to ensure everyone can bring their best and most authentic selves to work and to be an inclusive and welcoming environment for employees and guests alike. That’s the journey we’re on, and the future of Alaska Airlines,” the statement continued.

Fingernail polish, makeup, two earrings per ear, and a single stud nose piercing are considered “expression options available to all employees”. There is also greater freedom afforded to the placement of tattoos, more hair style options would be permitted alongside “adjusting the names of our uniform kits to be focused on fit vs. gender identifications”. The airline has also created personal pronoun pins that each employee has the option to wear with their uniform. 

The statement continued: “We are also developing new, gender-neutral uniform pieces for our frontline employees, including flight attendants, customer service agents, and uniformed lounge employees, working with Seattle designer Luly Yang and with input from employees.”

The gender-neutral uniforms are expected to be ready to wear by 2023.

However, according to the Seattle Times, a letter to Alaska Airline’s from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) written on behalf of a non-binary flight attendant, alleged that the carrier’s flight attendant uniform policy discriminated against non-binary workers by forcing them to “conform to rigid gender stereotypes”.

It’s worth noting that Alaska Airline’s revamped uniform came almost a year after the letter was submitted suggesting that workers and unions are a driving force when it comes to implementing this sort of change.

But is sexism still in the air?

While much is being done to combat sexist and dated policies, it seems that sexism is still well and truly in the air. According to a recent YouGov poll of 3,996 British adults conducted on 15 March 2022, one in 10 British men said that female flight attendants should wear high heeled shoes as part of their uniform.

That same month, Maria Fernandez, a flight attendant for Iberia, created a petition after the Spanish flag carrier unveiled its first new uniform policy in 15 years. Although female flight attendants were permitted to wear trainers during flights, they were expected to change into high heels in airports and during boarding.

The petition, which was attracted 83,377 supporters and is written entirely in Spanish, states “I’m not stewardess Barbie! Iberia: DO NOT force us to wear heels. Let us choose!”

The controversial uniform policy is expected to come into effect on June 1, 2022.

Meanwhile, according to an article by The Independent published on March 1, 2022, Australia’s largest trade union, ASU, wrote an open letter to Qantas’ CEO, Alan Joyce demanding that gendered and outdated uniform rules for staff be amended.

“While airline uniforms have come a long way since the age of miniskirts and towering heels, there’s still a way to go,” the open letter continued. 

It asked that Joyce “remove the requirement for women to wear make-up”, “allow women to wear low-heel shoes, including permitted loafers… with all uniform items, not just trousers”, and “consider whether heels and hosiery are still necessary at all”.

Sexism, it seems, is still influencing uniform policies and decision making.

Still a long way to go (in high heels)

While aviation is synonymous with innovation, it still appears to be behind the times when it comes to progressing in the areas of gender equality, particularly the appearance of its female and non-binary staff.  

But things are slowly changing and, while they’re not moving at a rapid pace, it seems that the voices of its workforce, who are calling for these important changes, are finally being heard.

While it’s evident that there is a value for both airlines and flight attendants to revamp uniform policy to reflect the modern world and the dynamic and vital role cabin crew perform, it will be interesting to see if more carriers are quick to adopt these changes