Are Delta’s ‘Passport Plum’ uniforms causing the same kind of painful reactions as those suffered by flight attendants and ground staff at American Airlines? Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines rolled out its new uniform to over 64,000 uniformed employees last May and while there have been a few isolated reports of adverse skin reactions, the true scale of how serious the situation may be is only just emerging – especially for flight attendants.
Despite the fact that Delta’s flight attendants don’t actually have trade union representation, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) has now asked the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for help, requesting a formal evaluation of the potential safety risks posed by the uniform. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is expected to respond to IAM’s request within a week.
The union claims Delta’s senior vice president of inflight service, Allison Ausband has “sugar-coated” the seriousness of problems associated with the uniform, telling staff in a recent internal communication that the complaints stemmed from just a “small number” of Delta’s employees around the world.
“The truth is, we have no idea how many employees have complained, and how far reaching this problem is,” IAM claims in a written statement. The union believes that employees are too scared to speak up about the issue for fear they could get in trouble with bosses.
“We are receiving reports from many Delta Flight Attendants that they fear retaliation from Delta management if they were to report their adverse health reaction/s due to our uniforms,” the statement continues.
Shortly after Delta rolled out the Zac Posen-designed uniform there were some “isolated” reports of flight attendants suffering rashes and irritation from wearing the new threads. In particular, the airline decided to make the neck strap on service aprons out of a softer material and around 25-reports were received about chaffing and rubbing.
The airline said it would consider producing an alternative blouse made out of 100% cotton rather than the standard cotton-Spandex blend in order to alleviate those issues.
On the face of it, Delta has gone to a lot of effort to avoid the problems that have plagued American Airlines. It took three years to design, prototype and test the new uniforms which are manufactured by respected workwear outfitters Lands’ End. Around 1,000 Delta employees conducted a months-long wear test in a real-world environment to iron out any problems.
It’s been a very different story at American Airlines. A recent lawsuit claims over 7,000 AA employees have suffered adverse medical reactions to the Twin Hill-designed and manufactured uniform that was introduced in 2016.
The reactions range from relatively minor concerns like skin rashes, ear and throat irritation, and headaches, to more serious symptoms including fatigue, vertigo, the triggering of various auto-immune conditions, and adverse effects on endocrine as well as liver functions.
In extreme cases, there have been reports of women who had stopped menstruating to commence to menstruate again. In other cases, female staffers have reported losing their hair.
It’s suspected that various chemicals used in the manufacturing process may be the cause of the reactions, especially when worn by flight attendants in a pressurised aircraft cabin. Independent chemical testing paid for by the Association of Flight Attendants revealed the presence of Pentachlorophenol, Tetrachlorophenol, Trichlorophenols, and free and partially releasable formaldehyde in some uniform items.
However, it’s important to note that some experts have said the chemicals weren’t present in high enough concentrations to cause ill-health effects.
The IAM says Delta is giving some staffers the option of wearing a plain black suit, while others have been removed from their duties. There’s concern that some employees are choosing to struggle along rather than speak out for fear they may lose their jobs.
Both Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines have had similar problems in the past, although Alaska took steps to use internationally certified fabrics in the manufacture of its new uniform to avoid a repeat of the issues it faced between 2011 and 2014. Meanwhile, American Airlines decided to ditch Twin Hill and awarded its uniform contract to Lands’ End based partly on the success of the Delta uniform rollout.
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.