When American Airlines rolled out its new uniform to over 70,000 employees last September it was meant to be a moment of celebration. Instead, the uniform has created misery. Flight attendants and other customer-facing employees have complained of skin allergies, respiratory problems and other symptomatic reactions – all caused by their new threads.
The uniforms replaced the last symbols of the pre-merger-American/US Airways era. The two carriers joined forces back in 2013 but not until September did the new American have a shared look for its flight attendants. As aeroplanes were repainted, websites changed and onboard products updated, the uniform finally got a revamp. For AA staffers, it was their first new look in nearly 25 years.
Designed in collaboration with Twin Hill, a division of Men’s Warehouse, the simple “slate grey, cobalt and crisp white” uniforms were meant to give employees a sleek and modern look.
At the time, Brady Byrnes the Director of Global Marketing at American Airlines said of the new uniform: “It really shows us as one brand. And that was really the only thing that was still kind of lagging behind for customers – being able to see that come together. It’s a huge milestone for us.”
Over 3,000 Reported ‘Reactions’ to New Uniform
But it wasn’t long before complaints started to roll in. On September 30th, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) issued an alert to its members. Flight attendants had reported ‘reactions’ to the new uniform and APFA was already seeking legal advice.
Since then, nearly 3,000 Flight Attendants have reported reactions caused by the new uniform. Headaches, rashes, hives, burning skin and eye irritation, itching, and respiratory problems have all been experienced after direct and indirect contact with the new uniform.
The fiasco has distracted the highest levels of senior management at Amerian and cost the airline dearly. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said of the debacle in December: “It’s a really big deal we are wrestling with.”
$1.2 Million Spent on Chemical Testing
But having spent over $1.2 million USD on chemical testing, there’s still no proof that the uniform is unsafe. Parker commented: “Trust me, if there was any concern on American’s part that there was something unsafe, 85,000 people would not be wearing those things tomorrow.”
The airline has been working closely with APFA to find a solution. A further round of joint chemical testing on the uniform has already taken place in an attempt to crack the enigma. Concern has been raised that thirteen different chemicals were found in a range of uniform items including formaldehyde, chromium and nickel.
But only one chemical, in one piece from the collection, was found to be slightly over industry standards. However, APFA noted that different combinations of chemicals and not the levels found could be the real problem.
With no conclusive proof that the uniform is actually at fault, American has moved to break the deadlock. The airline has acknowledged that there is a problem that needs to be addressed – but has stopped short of saying that the problem is with the uniform itself.
Authorised to Wear Old Uniforms
Bob Ross, APFA National President, said Friday: “This week, the company announced a step that APFA and our brothers and sisters at CWA-IBT have been pushing for—a company-provided alternative uniform option.”
Along with the original wool uniform, American has introduced alternative cotton and synthetic fabric versions of the uniform. But if flight attendants aren’t happy with that solution they’ll now be allowed to wear their old uniform (if they still have it in the back of their wardrobe of course). Where that’s not an option AA employees can even purchase their own clothing – so long as it matches the look. The airline has also said it will reimburse employees for costs incurred.
But make no mistake, Ross does not consider this case closed. APFA has said that they’ll be monitoring the situation closely. He expects a permanent solution to be announced by American soon.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.