United’s order for cabin crew to focus on “personal grooming” is the least of its problems

Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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United has had a tough 18 months. They dragged a doctor off a plane which promptly went viral, three times as many pets died on their flights as all other airlines combined, they policed female passengers’ clothing, and tried to wade into America’s hyper-divisive gun debate only to have it backfire.

So when you think about the many avenues United might consider taking to revamp its image amongst its customers, rumpled shirts and “personal grooming” standards are not the first things that spring to mind. And yet, according to reporting from Skift, it is currently a matter of corporate priority.

In an internal memo sent to staff, United’s vice president of in-flight operations said: “Perhaps because of the distractions of our industry or the merger of our airlines, over time, we became too relaxed in compliance with established standards. We lost our focus on the value uniform standards have on our customers’ perception of our company.”

The memo as reported by Skift made no specific mention of gender, other than mentioning skirt length. However, as roughly three quarters of cabin crew in the US are female according to the US Department of Labor—and there is a long history of sexism related to serving people in the skies—it’s hard not to detect a gender-tinged note to the memo.

There are no shortage of articles on the internet “ranking” various international cabin crews by their attractiveness; restrictions on height, weight, and body ornamentation are all standard in the industry. Singapore Airlines’ image-conscious crew are rather condescendingly referred to as “Singapore Girls.” Meanwhile Virgin Atlantic flight attendants are required to wear red lipstick while they’re in flight, and part of their training program is focused on the kind of fastidious grooming that founder Richard Branson believes creates the “Virgin flair.” 

It was reported that the renewed attentiveness to image was called for by some of United’s own flight attendants, who felt their colleagues had verged into the sloppy territory. The memos were reportedly well-received by staff, and there are plans to hold “image fairs” at the airlines crew bases around the country to make sure everyone is clear on acceptable standards.

In a statement from the airline to Quartz, a spokesperson said: “Part of putting our customers at the center of everything we do means making sure our employees are representing care and professionalism in their actions as well as their appearance. When our employees feel and look their best, it makes it easier for them to deliver the top-notch service our customers deserve.”

That all being said, here’s hoping upper management doesn’t limit its brand overhaul efforts with personal grooming alone.

Update: This post has been updated to add United’s statement to Quartz.