Alaska Airlines has been accused of discriminating against non-binary and gender non-conforming flight attendants by making staffers adhere to a uniform policy that enforces binary options of male and female. In an open letter, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told the Seattle-based airline to take immediate corrective action or face the threat of legal action.
The ACLU claims Alaska currently has two uniform and grooming policies. One policy is written for “male” employees and the other policy is written for “female” flight attendants. Although Alaska recognizes and accommodates transgender workers, its rules ignore the rights and needs of employees who don’t see themselves as either male or female or are gender fluid.
The ACLU highlighted a slew of disparities including allowing female workers to wear long hair down except for during meal service while requiring male flight attendants to tie long hair back at all times. Female workers aren’t allowed facial hair and male employees aren’t allowed to wear makeup except for concealer or tinted moisturizer.
Male employees can’t wear as many earrings as female flight attendants but female crew aren’t allowed to roll their sleeves up – a practice that is perfectly fine for male flight attendants. High heeled shoes are also a tricky subject of the differing uniform policies, as to are the types of nail polish that flight attendants can wear.
The ACLU is representing Justin Wetherell, an Alaska Airlines flight attendant and instructor who identifies as non-binary and feels trapped by Alaska’s current uniform policies.
“When I am working as a flight attendant instructor and allowed to wear regular business attire, I am not forced into Alaska Airlines’ ‘male’ or ‘female’ uniform policies — neither of which fit me because I am non-binary,” Justin explains.
“But when I work as a flight attendant, I am forced into one of two standards, often for up to four days at a time,” Justin, who has worked for Alaska for 7 years continued.
“I am willing to follow all of the elements of the uniform policy for professional attire, as I do when I work as an instructor, but I don’t want to be forced into a binary uniform that excludes me and leads to me being misgendered at work.”
Alaska Airlines revealed a new look uniform back in 2018 after it acquired the now-defunct Virgin America brand. Designed by Seattle-based fashion designer Luly Yang, the new collection encompasses 90 individual garments – designed specifically for male or female employees.
The ACLU claims employees must pick clothing from only one set of uniform – either male or female.
Justin requested to wear uniform pieces from both the male and female collections but his application was “summarily” rejected in January because it might harm the airline’s “branding”.
“The uniform policy places a particularly heavy burden on non-binary employees, but the uniform’s policy also harms any flight attendant who does not fit Alaska Airlines’ preferred image of either male or female,” commented Joshua Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project.
“By forcing our client and countless other employees to adhere to Alaska Airlines’ rigid gender categories, the uniform policy demeans employees who do not conform to gender stereotypes and interferes with their ability to do their jobs.”
Alaska Airlines says it will make some changes to its uniform policy later this month, including gender neutral hair policies and the ability to order any pant or parka style online regardless of the gender of the flight attendant assigned at birth.
“Over the past year, we have introduced several new guidelines designed to give our flight attendants more inclusive uniform options,” a spokesperson for the airline told us in an emailed statement.
“We are committed to continuing to explore uniform and grooming standards for our flight attendants. We know we cannot do this alone, and appreciate the feedback and partnership we have with our flight attendant community,” the statement continued.
“Alaska Airlines has been a longtime supporter of the LGBTQ+ community. We have been a leader in the industry when it comes to inclusivity in our uniform and grooming standards, which have been informed by our employees and developed in accordance with federal and state laws.”
In 2018, Air New Zealand announced plans to design a new flight attendant uniform that would include gender-neutral items. The new collection was meant to be rolled out at some point in 2021 but the project is likely to be delayed because of the pandemic.
Alaska Airlines has been contacted for comment.
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.