British Airways’ female flight attendants have found a clever way to skirt a ban on trousers

Lots of leg at Virgin Atlantic.
Lots of leg at Virgin Atlantic.
Image: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
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In the face of tightening security measures and budget cuts, airlines have tried to maintain a sense of old-world glamour by requiring their employees to follow strict uniform requirements.

These requirements have been particularly restrictive for female cabin crew. Female flight attendants at Virgin Atlantic Airways must submit a personal request for permission to wear trousers as part of their high-fashion designer uniforms, while European budget airline Ryanair and Saudi Arabian luxury airline Etihad both ban female flight attendants from wearing trousers on duty, according to The Telegraph.

At British Airways, female flight attendants who joined the company before 2010 have been allowed to wear trousers as part of their uniform for the last 15 years, according to The Guardian. But women recruited since 2010 do not have a trouser option as part of their uniform. These flight attendants, hired after a series of employee strikes, have a different uniform, as well as lower salaries, than veteran flight attendants, and could only request trousers on religious or health grounds.

Now, thanks to a creative workaround orchestrated by the union representing 2,100 of the 3,000 new employees covered by the more restrictive dress rules, getting that permission will be a lot easier, the union says.

“We filed a collective grievance with British Airways, which you can do under UK employment law,” union representative Matt Smith told Quartz. “They batted that back, so we then put in a request on behalf of one of our female members. We told them we were running that as a legal test case, and, before we submitted another grievance, it was granted.” 

The labor group, called Unite, used the letter submitted by the union member to create a template for other crew members to use in requesting permission to wear trousers. ”Every woman who has gone through has been granted trousers,” Smith says. 

The no-trousers rule was first raised by Unite on behalf of female employees two years ago. Unite polled its members and found that more than 80% of female employees represented by the union who did not have the option to wear trousers wanted the rule changed.

“A lot of our members have been waiting for this. Thankfully British Airways decided to do the right thing,” Smith says.

Putting aside whether or not women’s legs should be a selling point for modern airlines, forcing female flight attendants to wear skirts has some potentially serious safety implications. In the case of a fire, nylon pantyhose can melt, producing serious burns, while trousers made from natural fibers—like British Airways’ 80% wool, 20% polyester blend trousers—provide protection.

And for flight attendants flying to South America, increased leg coverage can provide better protection from Zika virus-carrying mosquitos, Unite pointed out. Given this consideration, British Airways’ concession has come at an especially good time.