When it Comes to Flight Attendants, Why is the Media so Sexist?


That’s what a stranger tweeted to me out of the blue last year. I remember staring at the computer screen and thinking, what in the world…? Because I like sex. Why did she think I hated sex?

Someone else followed up with something about me disliking attractive women. Or maybe I was jealous of sexy women. Either way it made me mad. For one, I don’t hate anyone based on the way they look. Two, was that her way of calling me ugly? I might not be the prettiest woman in the room (or on Twitter) but I can hold my own, most of the time. Not that that matters considering it had nothing to do with the topic of conversation: Human trafficking.

Last year I wrote an article about how airlines are training flight attendants to spot human trafficking on planes. I shared a link to the story in a tweet during the Super Bowl. The timing of my tweet sent a couple of sex workers over the edge, since I had made the point in the article that sex trafficking surges during the Super Bowl and other sporting events. They insisted it didn’t and launched an attack for two straight days.

Hundreds of sex workers were on a mission to enlighten me on decriminalization, and they did this by first suggesting I hated sex — and women. It felt like a script, a well-rehearsed script meant for someone else,someone a little more conservative than me. I got a feeling they were used to fighting religious groups, people quick to retreat when the word SEX gets used in capital letters. The whole thing was bizarre. The only thing I can compare it to is a call center in India, when you go a little off script and the conversation completely falls apart. I felt like an actor who’d walk onto the wrong stage.

That was the first time I became conscious of a script. Now it feels like I’m in the middle of another script. Only this time I’m not on the wrong stage. It’s my life. I’m real. But all the players around me are reading lines that distract and confuse.

The sexy flight attendant script won’t die. I blame the media for this. The media can’t get enough of flight attendants behaving badly — or I should say flight attendants not behaving badly until the story gets edited to make it look like they were to make it go viral.

“Flight attendant” is equivalent to SEX DIRTY DIRTY SEX in the media. When there’s a bad story in the news that has nothing to do with flying, but involves a person that may have been a flight attendant over 20 years ago, the job title will somehow make its way into a headline, even if that person has an interesting job now. “Flight attendant” is used so often like that, the sexy stereotype won’t die. Because the sexy stereotype won’t die, nobody cares when we have something serious to discuss. Nobody notices when reputable news sites print ridiculous stories.

Last year Travel & Leisure, a reputable publication, shared a “study” about flight attendants having sex on planes. I’d expect something like this from the Daily Mail but not Travel & Leisure! Tell me the last time you read a “study” about workers in other professions having sex at work? I’m sure deli workers get it on behind the deli counter. I bet baristas are doing it after hours. What about your favorite sushi chef? Have you ever wondered if he’s doing it with other sushi chefs? Not only do people wonder about our sex lives, the first thing people ask me about when they find out what I do for a living is the mile-high club; they read about it in luxury travel magazines. It’s a vicious cycle.

The word flight attendant is so connected to sex, the media will do anything to write about flight attendants. Unless, of course, it’s a serious story about flight attendants, like a story about thousands of sick flight attendants who are having terrible allergic reactions to chemicals in their uniform, and then they won’t touch it. If they do it’s only briefly. Even then they’ll try to make it sexy — or fun.

In 2011 Jezebel ran a story about flight attendants at Virgin who were having allergic reactions to their uniform. The headline read: New Sexy Uniforms Give Flight Attendants Sexy Rash. Sexy rash. Have you ever had a sexy rash? The worst part is I bet nobody thought twice about the title. Meanwhile the story is four short paragraphs with one sentence dedicated to the sexy rash. I bet it got a ton of clicks.

We’ve come a long way, Baby.


Flash forward to 2017 and now my American Airlines uniform is making me sick. I should say the toxic chemicals that make it last longer and look nice are messing with my thyroid function. The toxic chemicals also make it difficult to breathe — at work. These same chemicals give me pin pricks all over my body. Sometimes I want to scratch my face off. The crazy thing is, I stopped wearing the uniform a month after we got it. I wear lookalike Calvin Klein and Banana Republic pieces. The problem is, I have these reactions standing near co-workers who are wearing the new uniform. Their uniform affects me.

For the record the uniform has never given me a sexy rash, or even an ugly rash. Unfortunately those who have broken out in hives don’t look too sexy when their face is involved. Looks more like a chemical burn, than a sexy rash, doesn’t it?

Other people are experiencing sexy bloody noses, sexy eye infections that don’t respond to antibiotics, sexy flu-like symptoms, and sexy sky-high heart rates. But you won’t read any of that anywhere because, well, it doesn’t follow the sexy script. Unless you have a quirky title like “American Airlines and the Case of the Itching Flight Attendants.” Being itchy is the least of our worries. That brilliant headline came from Conde Nast Traveler. There’s nothing quite like blowing a serious problem off with a headline that sounds more like a cutesy children’s book.

It doesn’t help when your CEO pushes the script hard to cover up what’s happening to over 5,000 employees. When addressing the uniform crisis, American’s CEO, Doug Parker, has been quoted multiple times stating that he won’t recall the uniform because “over 75,000 people like the way it looks.” As if that matters. LOOKS. Only in airline world can an executive get away with making a statement like that. Do you think that if thousands of people were seriously suffering where you work your CEO could get away with focusing on how great everyone looked — instead of health?

I’m a flight attendant with a significant public profile. I’ve written a New York Times Bestseller, and I have over 100,000 followers on Twitter. I’ve been tweeting about the uniform crisis nonstop for nine months. While I’m quoted often in stories about travel and I’ve done numerous television interviews over years, barely anyone has reported on the crisis in depth.

What I’m saying is I have a voice. People hear me. Reporters follow me. I’ll be tweeting about the uniform and I get private messages from journalists at big news sites asking me questions about why we have ash trays on nonsmoking flights. That or magazines are looking for my top ten makeup tips or packing tricks. About six months in, I started to get angry. One day I tweeted something about the media being sexist. A reporter sent me a message saying he had tried to write about the uniform crisis, but his colleagues just chalked it up to “just a bunch of women moaning.”

Never mind the fact that it’s not only women who have been affected by this. Also it’s not just flight attendants, either. It’s rampers and pilots and agents and every work group that has to wear the uniform. But you wouldn’t know that based on what most of the journalists who have covered our story have written. I guess a sexy rash isn’t as sexy on a mechanic.

When I first started writing about the uniform crisis on Facebook, a strong female voice in the aviation community suggested I stop whining.

Whining? I prefer the word fighting.

The last time someone told me to stop whining I was tweeting about fatigue and 8-hour minimum layovers. This same person, a complete stranger, suggested I spent too much time shopping for shoes on my layovers. Shopping.

Which brings us back to that strong female voice in the aviation community. After she accused me of whining, she questioned me about my designer jeans that were probably made in China. She couldn’t understand how a uniform made in China could be a problem if my jeans that were also made in China weren’t. Let’s ignore the fact that she assumed I wear designer jeans, because.…I’m a flight attendant who likes to shop for shoes on layovers? I don’t know. Let’s focus on the fact that I don’t wear designer jeans to work. I wear a uniform to work. That uniform has made thousands of American Airlines employees, some of whom do not wear designer jeans made in China, sick.

If a pilot had posted about his heart racing or having respiratory issues at work, do you think she would have asked him about his designer jeans that were probably made in China? Somehow I doubt it. What about fatigue? When pilots write about fatigue do you think people assume they’re really tired because they were shopping for shoes? When you have a fun-time sexy job, people don’t think twice about making disrespectful comments. Even women make sexist remarks.

That or they tell you to quit. That’s what one aviation blogger told me to do because I didn’t seem happy, because I didn’t tweet happy things anymore. That’s because I like to tweet about things that are important, things that need to change. Like, fatigue and the goddamn uniform.

Question: Do men get told to quit their jobs because they don’t tweet happy things.

Even my own coworkers say things that shock me. There’s a big divide between those who’ve been affected and those who haven’t been affected — yet. The toxic uniform has created a toxic work environment, and sexism keeps rearing its ugly head. I can’t tell you the number of people — men — who’ve accused us having mass hysteria.

Hysteria comes from the Greek root hystera, meaning uterus. Originally, it was believed that hysteria and hysterical symptoms were caused by a defect in the womb, and thus, only women could become hysterical.

Maybe this is why so many friends and co-workers (and even an executive at another airline) are quick to ask, “what about the pilots?” whenever the uniform crisis comes up.

I’m sorry but I find it offensive that I need a pilot to prove what I’m experiencing is real. For the record, there are female pilots. But not that many. In fact, whenever I hear the ratio of female to male pilots I’m always shocked. Piloting airliners is still a male-dominated industry. Flight attendants are still primarily women. This is why, I’m sure, our CEO continues to only discuss the flight attendants in connection to the uniform. Because if the pilots aren’t affected, nobody cares. It’s not real. We’re liars. Hysterical women who moan and whine and shop for shoes and designer jeans made in China.

Why haven’t more pilots spoken out about the uniform? I have a few theories. One is reinforced by what a Captain shared with me in a private message. “Not sure why fewer pilots report symptoms, but I believe it’s because of our FAA medical — if the FAA medical people want you grounded until the uniform issue is investigated and resolved, a pilot will lose his paycheck for the duration. Yes, there’s a disability clause if a pilot loses FAA medical certificate, but it’s a large pay cut. I don’t think pilots want to turn their future over to the FAA Med Dept.”

Words matter. Words make a difference. This explains why our CEO continues to use the words “rashes” and “hives” and keeps the story focused on flight attendants.

Below is a photograph of an agent. She stopped wearing the uniform months ago. And yet every time she goes to work and stands near co-workers wearing the new uniform she experiences extreme swelling. Would you call that sexy? I doubt it. Probably why you haven’t heard about it.

The worst part is while we fight the company and fight for our health, we also have to deal with sexist co-workers.

One male flight attendant wrote this on a female flight attendant’s Facebook page after she described her symptoms: “Why doesn’t every female co-worker who *claims* to have had a reaction stop bitching about it on and off the plane and file a class-action lawsuit.” A couple of male flight attendants came to her defense by reminding him they have reactions too.

After I shared part of a letter from my doctor about what’s happened to me over the last nine months, I was called “psycho” and “crazy” and “media whore.” One co-worker was very clear about how he felt about me. But first he focused on my hair color and eye color and pointed out my gender by mentioning I was “an attractive woman.” Then he stated I “married well” and lived a “privileged life,” which is why, according to him, I didn’t NEED the job.

Do men who work at Google and are married to women who make good money get told they don’t NEED their job and therefore should quit — or shut up?

When the pilots union finally released a statement about pilots’ having reactions to the uniform, a couple of media outlets wrote about it. I shouldn’t have been shocked by how quickly the words changed. “Rash” and “hives” were replaced with the phrase “unfit for duty” and more serious-sounding symptoms. Not one paper wrote a cutesy headline about itchy pilots; nobody mentioned sexy pilots with sexy rashes.

I wonder if our CEO will try to blame their symptoms on their grooming products, the way he did when he spoke to flight attendants in a town hall meeting back in December. When hockey star Marian Hossa announced his retirement due to an allergic reaction to his uniform last week, do you think anyone in the NHL suggested it was really his hair gel that made him allergic to the uniform?

Funny how all the papers were quick to report on his allergic reaction — one guy. Okay fine, so he’s famous. But we’re over 5,000 and growing and still many news sites have yet to touch this story — and if they have, they pretty much brushed over it. Like the New York Times did earlier this week in a story entitled Airlines Redesigning Uniforms Find out How Complicated It Is.

Right after that, Bloomberg posted a piece about our uniform manufacturer. The article said investors were wondering when the uniform manufacturer would catch a break. A BREAK. When will I catch a break? When will I be able to go back to work and breathe normally again? I can’t help but wonder who’s paying the media off to write a piece of fluff like that

And so we wait…for more people to have reactions to the uniform. What’s the magic unimportant sick people number? We know it’s not 5,000. Maybe 10,000? Whatever it is I’m sure that number will directly correlate with daily operations being affected. That’s when the airline can no longer deny there’s a problem. That’s also when the airline will pretend they had no idea what was happening because the uniform tested safe. American likes to remind the media how much they spent (a million dollars) to prove it’s safe. Never mind thousands of people suffering.

While we wait, we hope more important people will start to report reactions so the media will cover our story the way it deserves to be covered. I bet if more important people speak up the uniform will be recalled.

Words. They matter.



One comment

  1. Wow Heather! You give it to them! While I don’t fly commercial anymore and I am a corporate flight attendant, the flame retardants are making me curious. I am going to be looking more into this for myself. I just recently said that aviation is the best and worst industry all at the same time to work in and if you never experienced it, you would never understand. AA not giving a damn about the health of their employees is # 1. It’s incredibly frustrating and all it boils down to is money. Chin up and hang in there.

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