What is it with airlines and dress codes? They just can’t seem to get it right.
On the one hand, they revel in trumpeting designer collaborations in the name of modernity and making their employees look and feel as though they are part of the contemporary world.
On the other, they are endlessly stepping on what increasingly accepted forms of self-expression.
Which is to say: the right to communicate your identity through style. The latest dust-up took place this week when a British man, Sid Ouared, said that British Airways had fired him from his job as a customer service representative at Heathrow Airport near London.
His hairstyle apparently violated airline employee appearance regulations, said hairstyle being either a fanned-out topknot at the crown of his head — kind of the ultimate man bun — or a more discreet back-of-the-head pom-pom.
According to Mr. Ouared, who related his experience to several British media outlets, the airline told him that his hairstyle was more appropriate for a woman, and that he would either have to cover it with a turban or make it into dreadlocks.
He pointed out that either option would telegraph his follicular choice as a religious, as opposed to aesthetic, decision, but he was not a member of either of the groups such a move would suggest.
“It’s ridiculous in 2018,” he told the BBC. There are more and more men that have the same hairstyle as me. There’s 100 percent sexism going on.”
British Airways has been noticeably mum on the matter, issuing only a terse statement saying, “We don’t comment on employment matters relating to individuals.”
This is the third time in the last three years that an airline has gotten into trouble for treading on someone’s right to dress how they want.
Last year, it was United Airlines in the hot seat, when it emerged that it had banned a “pass traveler” — an employee or their dependent flying on a standby basis — from boarding a plane in leggings. (Oh, the horror!)
And in 2016, it was Aeroméxico, where employees told the actor and designer Waris Ahluwalia, who is Sikh, that he could not board a plane unless he removed his turban.
Each incident resulted in a public outcry and an airline being named and shamed. You think they would learn.
(To be fair, BA does seem to have learned something from Mr. Ahluwalia’s experience, given airline employees are allowed to wear turbans. But it wasn’t necessarily the right thing, given how narrowly the company seems to have construed the lesson.)
Many industries have dress code problems: Remember the temp worker who got sent home in 2016 for wearing flat shoes? That made it all the way to Parliament.
Still, the airlines do seem to be among the most fraught. Why?
It’s probably, at least in part, because it’s a consumer-facing sector. Hence the core of this issue, which is about the balance of power between the individual and the institution, and where the line lies between representing your employer and representing yourself. It is staring people in the face every time they check in or board a flight.
Then there’s the fact that airlines are a fairly beleaguered lot in general, and a favorite target of complaints about canceled flights, bad service and so on. There’s a bias toward seeing them as culpable.
And their uniforms do seem particularly gendered at a time when the definition between men’s wear and women’s wear is falling by the personal, and legal, wayside.
Indeed, in late 2015, the New York City Commission on Human Rights announced new guidelines for the municipal laws that essentially said employers could institute a dress code, but only if it applied equally to men and woman (In effect, if heels are required, everyone had to wear heels; ditto skirts; ditto pants).
Labeling a hairstyle “male” or “female” is like having a 747 in the hangar: It’s a way of thinking that should be retired.
To a certain extent, the airlines brought all this on themselves with a constant focus on what their employees wear. British Airways itself made a big deal out of this recently by announcing that, as of next year when the airline celebrates its 100th birthday, all customer-facing staff would have a new uniform.
All of which is to say, airlines should not be surprised when the spotlight falls on style. They put it there. Now they have to learn to navigate what that means.