I t came as no surprise to read that, following the example of Alaska and Southwest, American Airlines has made the wearing of hats optional for its pilots. A more accurate description might be that the airline, “no longer requires pilots to carry their hats while in uniform.”  

The movie “Catch Me If You Can” captured the time when being a pilot or an “air hostess” was akin to movie stardom. Remember the scene in which, surrounded by a gaggle of doting “stewies” and sporting his white-topped Pan Am skipper’s hat, Leonardo Dicaprio strutted his stuff through an admiring airport full of lesser beings?

So what is the purpose of an airline uniform? Do they influence a passenger’s choice of carrier in any way? Does it really matter whether a captain wears a dark suit with brass buttons, stripes and a hat, or jeans and a leather bomber jacket? Will a hot-panted Hooters uniform attract more business than a mid-calf-length A–line blue flannel skirt? Why can’t we tickle ourselves? So many questions!

My old boss, friend and mentor, Sir Freddie Laker had very strong views on the primary purpose of a uniform. He was always adamant that his cabin crews be readily identifiable at all times, so Laker Airways cabin crew wore only one outfit – a bright red uniform suit and blouse. As he liked to say, “If things ever start to go pear-shaped, I want my passengers to know who they should be grabbing on to!”

When we started Virgin Atlantic we followed Freddie’s very sensible lead and chose red for our uniforms, albeit they were a little more stylishly tailored by people like John Rocha, one of Princess Di’s favourite designers. We also believed that putting young, attractive, outgoing female cabin crew (predominantly blonde) in those smart red uniforms would attract more business travellers than a bunch of grouchy grannies and guess what, we were right. But that’s another story!

It’s interesting that the first thing being shed by the pilot group is the hat, which has always been a bit of an anachronism. Like the stripes that appear on pilots’ sleeves and epaulets (four for a captain, three for a first officer) the pilots’ hat also has their origin with sea captains. A lot of aviation terminology also originates at sea: early airline flight staff became known as “crew”, the person in charge was “the captain” and his assistant “the first officer.” Even the terms “passenger” and “on board” are a direct lift from the shipping world.

At the same time that hats are being ditched however, several airlines are actually bringing back another anachronistic uniform item in the form of the leather bomber jacket. American Airlines pilots have been able to wear blue (not as bad as they sound) leather jackets for several years now – they just had to wear it with a hat that’s all. Southwest pilots have been leathered up for ten years now, as have FEDEX and a number of commuter-carriers.

Newer carriers like JetBlue and Virgin America have never had hats, however their pilots still crave the traditional insignia of rank. Virgin America spokesperson Abby Lunardi commented, “We’ve found that our pilots prefer a uniform shirt with epaulettes that differentiate them from in-flight and other team members.”

In the cabin, uniform hats are pretty much a thing of the past, although quite a few Asian, Gulf and European airlines still insist that their cabin crews wear them. Like those long white gloves however, the top dressing seems to be headed for extinction.

While pilot uniforms, with or without chapeaux, have generally been off-the-peg, boring standard-issue items for a very long time, air hostess/ stewardess/ flight attendant uniforms have been anything but!

In the mid-sixties haute couture suddenly discovered aviation.

One of the first liaisons saw Emilio Pucci designing uniforms for the Caldor liveried Braniff International. The airline’s female “cabinistas” were so enamoured with the deal that they didn’t seem to mind when it earned them the nickname of “Puccis Galore.”

Soon Pierre Balmain and Ralph Lauren took on TWA , Pierre Cardin surprisingly turned up with Pakistan International, American signed up Bill Blass, Hardy Amies took his stodgy designs to stuffy BOAC and Mary Quant used colourful Court Line as her own “runway on a runway”.

For almost two decades fashion took flight. Sometimes the results were sensational and other times, well nothing short of bizarre. My personal favourite fashion folly came from Florida based National Airlines, which launched a new uniform of simulated tiger skin, complete with matching hat. They proudly announced it as, “The Uniform that Purrs.” Believe me; you can’t make this stuff up!

But take comfort. In this ever-changing world it seems unlikely that Air Canada pilots will be bare-headed any time soon. Last week Jay Musselman, director of flight standards and quality at AC, told MSNBC that, “The hat helps identify the pilots and makes them stand out from other crew members, passengers and business people.”

Am I missing something here, or isn’t it the fact that they are sequestered behind a tightly locked cockpit door and not a hat that differentiates them from the madding crowd?

And as they don’t wear their hats in there - then who really cares?

This “Best of Tait” was originally published 05 MAY 2011

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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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