Last week, United Airlines unveiled the first official look of what will soon be the airline’s brand new uniform for thousands of front line staff around the world. The reaction to the pictures that the Chicago-based airline shared on its website and internal newsletter was both swift and damning – rather than being the improvement that so many staffers were hoping for, the majority seem dismayed and that’s to put it mildly.
The designs from womenswear designer Tracy Reese, tailors Brooks Brothers and workwear apparel experts Carhartt have been a year in the making and in the coming weeks an army of uniform testers will start trialling them in a real-world environment. United will no doubt be preparing for an avalanche of feedback to come back on the look, fit, fabric and of course, the practicality of the uniforms.
In fact, United is keen to stress that the pictures they’ve shared don’t necessarily represent what the final product will look like. “These images are not a full representation of the final uniform program,” the airline pointed out in a blog post that accompanied the sneak peek pictures. “We’ll continue to refine designs based on employee feedback” – although that probably won’t go as far as what many employees and in particular, flight attendants would like.
The union that represents some 24,000 flight attendants at the airline, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), however, points out that their primary focus isn’t the aesthetics of the uniform. You might not like the color choice (inspired by a new color palette the airline unveiled last year) and you might not even like some of the design choices – but your biggest concern should be whether it’s safe to wear.
That might sound ridiculous (after all, who worries that their clothing could be dangerous?) but after several scandals involving toxic flight attendant uniforms at other U.S.-based airlines, it’s an all-important issue. At the last count, nearly 5,000 flight attendants at American Airlines have reported adverse reactions to a new uniform they were given in 2016 – flight attendants reported suffering from hives, rashes, severe headaches, breathing problems and even central nervous system issues.
An ongoing class-action lawsuit against American Airlines claims some flight attendants are suffering long-term life-changing medical problems which they say is the result of a variety of chemicals used in the manufacturing process. American has since switched suppliers although the way it handled the debacle hasn’t helped ease a strained relationship between management and frontline workers.
Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines ended up working with 15 different textile research and testing institutions in Europe and Japan before rolling out a Luly Yang-designed uniform last year. That was a deliberate effort to ensure the uniforms were completely free of potentially harmful substances and allergens – avoiding a repeat of a toxic uniform scandal that hit the Seattle-based airline in 2012.
As for the United uniform, AFA told its members last week:
“The new uniform is well made and produced. This is an important foundation for successfully rolling out a new uniform. There is still time for adjustments related to style and the airline is receiving feedback now. Style can be modified, but a safe, well-made uniform, properly distributed is critical.”
“The airline has implemented our recommendations to ensure safety related to chemical contents of fabrics and garment features specific for working crews. In addition, the airline is conducting a thorough wear test program representing large cross-sections of the population, which is an important part of producing a uniform that allows Flight Attendants to do our job without health concerns.”
In fact, AFA went so far as to tell flight attendants to give United a chance:
“It is common across the industry that reaction to new uniform style is critical. Sometimes that changes as Flight Attendants see and feel the uniform in person – and sometimes it changes because the style is modified. The good news is that United is still taking feedback and working to make this a uniform that works for Flight Attendants and compliments our role as aviation’s first responders.”
That’s not to say that AFA isn’t completely disinterested in the aesthetic design of the uniform – the bellboy looking male flight attendant uniform has come in for particular criticism over the white piping. AFA wants it removed, United has so far stuck to its guns. In reality, United is never going to please 70,000 employees – comfortable, practical and safe is probably the most that flight attendants can hope for.