Boarding a plane a few years ago, a passenger looked at me funny and asked, “Do you work here?”
“Of course I work here,” I said, laughing. Why else would I be standing in front of first class ushering him in? That’s when I realized what I wasn’t wearing: My blazer was hanging in the closet, and my scarf was wadded up in one of the pockets.
Aviation “office” dress code is specific for good reason. Flight attendants wear blazers with two gold stripes around the wrist, distinguished from the blazers of first officers who wear three stripes, and captains, who wear four.
Aviation “office” dress code is specific for good reason. A uniform makes the flight crew recognizable, which can be the difference between life and death.
It’s one way we can tell each other apart, though it doesn’t mean passengers recognize the difference. I once watched a celebrity ask the pilot on one flight for a cup of coffee after he stepped out of the cockpit during boarding. The pilot wasn’t wearing his hat or blazer — but his stripes were visible. Still, he’d been mistaken for a flight attendant. You should have seen his face.
But what matters most is that he stood out in his airline uniform. Passengers look to flight crews for guidance and instruction. A uniform makes us easily recognizable, which can, in the worst case scenarios, be the difference between life and death.
And yet, a reporter once asked me if it was possible to feel stylish as a flight attendant, or if my office attire is just a uniform, like a mail carrier or a mechanic.
I thought: Just a uniform?
If it were just a uniform, would people dress up like me on Halloween? Would the airlines make headlines when they team up with fashion designers? Some carriers think they can change their entire image by simply designing new uniforms and changing the color scheme. Never mind the cramped seats, check out our scarves!
Flight attendants want to look good, and passengers expect us to look good. That’s part of aviation history.
But airline uniforms aren’t just about looking glamorous. When I say something, passengers need to listen, not glance up from their iPhone and wonder who the heck I am. We need an outfit that passengers will respond to when there’s an emergency. A psychological connection needs to be established between stripes and scarves and a command of control.
Our office attire must be something that says, “Welcome aboard …”
“… now sit your butt down.”
When a Uniform is Office Attire, Thousands of Feet in the Air was originally published at NYTimes.com June 7, 2016