So to kick things off here, my guest today is Heather Poole, the flight attendant and bestselling author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. Heather and I both followed along yesterday and today as the fallout from #leggingsgate spread on Twitter (where Heather has many, many, many more followers than I do), and Heather (as always) has a unique point of view on this as an airline employee.
It's probably worth starting with the basics.
Two female minors were attempting to fly nonrev or on employee travel benefit passes from Denver to Minneapolis while wearing leggings on United Airlines. This was considered a violation of the dress code for travel pass fliers only by United, as it is by many airlines around the world. Paid customers flying on United Airlines are welcome to fly wearing leggings, and male nonrev passengers have their own set of restrictions.
The criticism of this situation comes in two parts --> the first is the notion of the dress code itself and claims that it's unfair to female pass travelers. The second is that United Airlines could have handled the situation better from a PR perspective and immediately clarified the situation.
Heather, what's your take on the first part of that - the notion that the dress code is unfair?
Unfair how? Unfair according to who?
Men and women have to follow a dress code. My 10-year-old son can't wear whatever he wants. I don't know any employees who have a problem with the dress code.
So the premise for these critics as I understand it (and I'm not saying that I endorse this) is that leggings for women are akin to something like shorts for men, and so it's a signal of a sexist and/or unfair dress code for pass travel.
If I told you all you had to do was wear something nice to travel anywhere you want for free, would you do it? Would you ditch your sweats to be able to fly for free? How about flip flops? We all know the rules. It's not difficult to follow the rules. So what if we can't wear athletic gear or a bikini.
So you don't give any credence to people who believe that the dress code policy itself is sexist?
People were enraged because the father wore shorts. Women are allowed to wear shorts too - at United. (What's funny is my airline doesn't allow shorts - in business class or first class. Not sure about leggings.). I don't know when leggings became "sexy" and I don't know anyone who thinks they're sexy. I think this has more to do with dressing sloppy than sexualizing young girls in tight pants. But people only see what they want to see. FYI I believe in women's rights and I write about sexism often. This has nothing to do with sexism.
Sure, and I think that one of the challenges when you have this kind of situation is that the cries of sexism come out so fast that it gets the alt-right fever dreamers out on Twitter and then they escalate the situation by making stupid statements like leggings are "sexually promiscuous" or tying leggings to the decline of western civilization. Then you get the far-left activists trying to fight back with their own hot takes and it all ends up in a sea of horribleness and idiocy.
But you're right I think in that this is an incredible privilege (traveling for free in a seat that other passenger on the plane may have paid hundreds of dollars for) and the rules are pretty clearly defined.
The irony here is that the actual nonrev passengers affected weren't even all that offended, it was some random passenger in the terminal who kicked off this firestorm on Twitter.
Nobody cares how airline employees feel about the dress code. Nobody spoke to airline employees about pass travel. When did Chrissy Teigen become the go to source for airline benefits? See, that story, the real story, is boring. So the media leads with sexism.
How do you feel about the dress code?
Chrissy Teigen was also apparently a critical source of political analysis during the last election so I'm not that shocked that her viewpoint was broadcast far and wide.
The story isn't a story without sexism, which is why nobody bothered to talk to airline employees about airline perks.
So how do you and your co-workers feel about the dress code?
I don't have a problem with the dress code. I do have a problem with other airline related issues, but that's another story
Sure - and I'd imagine that the dress code is much better than it was when you started with your current carrier.
So I always expect celebrities to have surface level takes about almost any issue - the group that annoyed me was the media, and particularly the aviation-specialty media, who should know better. From scanning your Twitter, it seems like you feel the same way.
Sorry I was kicked off for a few minutes
Yeah. AGAIN, it's not about sexism. It's about airline pass travel.
But the aviation media should know that, or at the very least should very quickly be able to confirm that with airline employees, right?
The thing about so many "aviation reporters" that bothers me is they always leave out the very people who work so hard to make the planes they love get off the ground. This is a story about airline passes - travel benefits. This is a story about us, the employees, but you wouldn't know that based on most of the stories I read yesterday. The aviation reporters could have focused on our dress code and how that's changed over the years. A few years ago my airline relaxed the rules. We can were jeans in first class now. I'm still a little uncomfortable doing that because for so long we weren't allowed to wear jeans and you could be denied boarding for it. One time I was almost pulled out of business class for wearing a blue jacket over a dress. Is that sexist? What if I told you the same thing would have happened to my husband if he'd been wearing a blue jean jacket over his button down shirt? That's interesting, right? They could have talked about THAT or the perks of our job. The fact that we accept low pay for the travel benefits. That we follow the rules so we don't lose that amazing benefit.
WEAR...wear jeans. Typing fast.
There's so many things they could have written about and many chose to focus on SEXISM? Why? Because that gets clicks. Because everyone loves a bad airline story. Everyone loves to rage at the airlines. It's like a sport. You better believe when a story like this is framed that way, to incite rage, it affects my job. People are angry before they even walk on board. They think we're power hungry because we think we can tell women what to wear! Then when I check their bag or run out of chicken in first class that rage spills over. That's why I did everything I could to put out the fires today, to set the record straight. These aviation reporters claim to love aviation but they only love a small part of it. THE PLANES. What about the bigger picture?
Well as an aviation reporter, I can't entirely disagree with your assessment - I got into this business because I loved planes and routes, and probably don't spend enough time thinking or writing about flight attendants and the role that you all play in this industry that we love.
The point you make about the media riling up passengers about airlines and the people on the front line suffering the blowback (flight attendants, customer service reps, etc.) is an interesting one. How much do you blame the media at large (and I will say that the mainstream media are worse about this) for fanning those flames in the last 10-15 years, and how much do you think that has affected your job and relationship with passengers in that period?
Back to sexism. I've written a lot about sexism in connection to airlines and uniforms and how flight attendants are marketed. I bet you can't find much on that topic on most of the aviation sites that were screaming sexism today. And yet somehow this story about air travel passes became all about sexism. WHY? That's what irks me the most. I share all kinds of examples of sexism in relationship to my job and I've never heard a peep from the people pushing that narrative today. ONE CERTAIN SOMEONE who pushed hard with the sexism angle used the hashtag #StopShamingGirls while defending her story to me. Stop shaming girls? Stop writing ridiculous stories that have nothing to do with shaming girls! What happened over the last 48 hours is insane.
Well in defense of the certain someone (enquiring readers can go on Twitter to figure out who this is), her site has also done a lot to promote women in aviation and share those stories. So while they may or may not focus on sexism in normal stories, they are very much on the front lines of blending feminism and aviation media.
BTW normally there's supposed to be a modicum of debate here, but mostly I'm just nodding my head and reading along as you walk through this.
The blowback. Happens every time a story is reported in the news. That's why I make it my mission to set the record straight and why I get so angry when people who cover aviation don't do a better job of reporting stories.
Do you feel like sex appeal/sexism are still used to sell air travel in the US today? It certainly is in other parts of the world (most notably Asia), but increasingly in the US the sales pitch seems to be centered on the hard product?
I know some people think I'm a b- because I do go off on them, but if they had my job they would feel the same way I do. If they took the heat for every single thing in the news the way I do they'd probably wouldn't be so quick to write about "the big bad airline". Not long ago The Post ran a story about a passenger who was kicked off for "no good reason." I was like, really??? NO GOOD REASON. Just because YOU don't know the reason doesn't mean it was a no good one. Trust me there's always a reason and 99% of the time it's usually a really good one.
The fact that a well known, respectable travel site shared a story about flight attendants having sex on the plane last year should tell you something about how people view us....still. Do you see many articles about bankers having sex in banks? What about baristas having sex in Starbucks? My job has nothing to do with sex and yet one of the first things a complete stranger asks me when they find out what I do for a living is usually about the mile high club.
LOOKS play an important role in my job. I've been tweeting a lot about another issue lately, a very important issue..... THE UNIFORM CRISIS. Nobody cares. Why don't they care? Name another CEO who can blow off 5,000 sick people by focusing on looks. "75,000 out of 80,000 people like the way it looks" he said recently. WHO SAYS THAT? Who gets away with that? Only in airline world.
Back to the certain someone flinging around the stop shaming girls hashtag.... Tell me about the women in aviation she's promoting. PILOTS? Anyone else?
Pilots... people only care about pilots. And their own agenda.
So let's talk about the uniform issue. My readers tend to skew towards the business/management side of the industry. Can you give them a 60 second overview of what's going on there?
Well the FA profession is more heavily female, and so the media tends to focus on industries or jobs where women are relatively underrepresented (I.e. programmers). But I agree that they don't tend to cover FA issues very much (and neither does my site to be fair)
I'm back! Somehow I missed those last three questions...
Now for the uniform crisis. It will become a business issue when there are too many flight attendants on the sick list to work, when the toxic chemicals in the uniform affect daily operations. I truly believe heat plays a big role in what's going on. It releases the chemicals and opens the pores so you absorb more chemicals.
Summer is coming. My guess is Dallas and Miami will be affected first. Then the company will no longer be able to deny there's a problem, A VERY SERIOUS PROBLEM. I've been very vocal about this on social media because when that day comes I don't want the company to be able to say they had no idea what was happening, because the uniforms tested safe!
My readers know what's happening. NOW YOU KNOW WHAT'S HAPPENING. When this story finally breaks do me a favor and come back to this conversation. Include it in your story. Be sure to mention the date.
The uniform crisis is big. The same thing happened to Alaska. What's interesting is I write about travel and I even shared a few stories about Alaska and their uniform issues but I blew it off too because the words "reaction" and "rashes" don't really sound so bad. Who cares about a rash? So what if the flight attendant is itchy. That's why the company focuses on that, the rashes - from dermal absorption of toxic chemicals in the fabric. There's chemical inhalation happening too. I could go on and on about this but I won't. Just know rashes are the least of our problems and that's why I get so angry when I see news reports focusing on "itchy" flight attendants, like it's cute. ITCHY. You know that game Simon where the lights light up and you have to hit the colored button? That's the best way I can describe the pin pricks I feel when I'm around coworkers in uniform. I feel pin pricks all over my body. Imagine standing in the aisle and all you want to do is scratch your butt and your boob and your face and your head and your leg. That doesn't LOOK attractive, does it? Now imagine not being able to breath. My thyroid is off. My heart races. Normally my resting heart rate is between 70-80 bmp. Being around flight attendants in uniform makes it go as high as 180bmp. Did I mention I'm not even wearing the uniform anymore. I wear a fake uniform. Lookalike pieces.
Google my name and you'll see I've written three articles about what's going on in the series "My Uniform Makes Me Sick." Every time I share a story flight attendants from other carriers reach out to me to let me know they're experiencing the same thing. It's not just uniforms either, it's the garment industry in general. The garment industry is unregulated which is why it's so difficult to prove. In the end our numbers will prove it. Have you heard of the new book about the Radiation Girls who painted watch dials? I think they're making a movie about them, too. That's us. Same thing. They were told radiation was safe until enough of them became sick and started dying. That's when they could no longer deny what was happening and had to admit radiation was unsafe. Flight attendants are the modern version of this story.
Whenever I write about the uniform issue people say, where's the proof! Where's the data! I always respond with, I'm the proof! I'm the data! Me and my 5,000 sick coworkers. We're the lab rats. My question is, what's the magic sick number? How many people have to become seriously ill before the airline can no longer deny this is a problem that requires action? How many people have to suffer until the media starts taking this seriously? Do more important people need to be sick for this to matter? Sometimes I wonder if this situation is easy for so many people to ignore because we're just flight attendants. Other work groups have been affected too, including pilots, just not as many pilots. I have theories as to why that is but I only have 60 seconds and I've already written too much. One question: How many sick pilots would it take to make the company take action? Bet it would take a lot less pilots to get the uniform recalled. Bet the aviation reporters would be all over this story if more pilots were involved. I'm practically screaming about it and all anyone wants to talk to me about is leggings or the mile high club or what I pack in my tote bag. When this all comes to light I'm going to bring this up. I'm tweeting about it all day and....crickets.
Before I walk away from this hot topic I want to share that I sent my uniform to Harvard to be tested. HARVARD. See the company can't ignore Harvard, they can't accuse Harvard of mass hysteria. I'm so thankful there's a group at Harvard who studies flight attendant health. They have a paper coming out soon on uniforms and how they affect the endocrine system (thyroid). I can't wait! I spent 6 days in uniform and my thyroid went from stable to outside the normal range. Alaska had the same issues with their uniform and endocrine disruptors (chemicals) in the uniform. Nobody shared much about it. That's why I won't stop talking about it. It's important. We matter.
Back to Mr. & MRS. Mile High Club, and sexism, has Ms. #StopShamingGirls written much of anything about foreign carriers and flight attendants? How some foreign carriers won't hire flight attendants over the age of 32? WHY? To keep the sexual fantasy alive? And what about the foreign carriers who hire mostly women? Not because more women show up to the interview but because in the ad they place looking for flight attendants they specifically state they're looking for 20 male flight attendants and 80 female flight attendants? They know exactly how many men they want before the interview process even begins. I bet a lot of people reading this won't see a problem with that. And what about the airlines that allow men to work longer than females and also weigh more? Anyone you know write about that, besides me? And why are only pilots at some of these airlines allowed to keep their job after they get married and have children? I guess that's not as interesting as LEGGINGS! There's so much sexism out there it's crazy but nobody sees it because when it comes to flight attendants people still have old school ideas about us.
So what I don't get about the whole uniform thing is that even if you want to prioritize aesthetics, there are hundreds of airlines around the world that do exactly that and yet manage to have material that doesn't make their flight attendants ill. So there's got to be something more to that story. Is it a cost thing? I don't know, but there's a piece of this story that hasn't come out yet that I think will clarify some things.
My one note on the whole media coverage or lack thereof for flight attendants, is that there are some topics which are just more inherently alluring for the media to cover because they draw more clicks. Ultimately reporters cover the stories that get the most engagement, and perhaps flight attendant stories don't get as much engagement. I would say that's probably because with the pilots there's more of a grey area - it's debatable whether they're overpaid or underpaid, they control accidents, etc., so they generate more emotion. Whereas when someone is presented a story about the issues that flight attendants face, we're more or less all on your side, so this generates less engagement and emotion. Here's an article that discusses this concept called the Toxoplasma of Rage that I think really explains it in great detail.
Like I said, I've had several flight attendants at other airlines reach out to me to let me know they're experiencing the same thing. A lot of them are from regional carriers and a few are from a Canadian carrier. They're afraid to speak out or call attention to the issue because they don't want to lose their job. I can talk about it because I made a name for myself, therefore it's harder to make me disappear without anyone noticing or wondering why. I've done so much research I feel like I'm well on my way to becoming a chemist. The more research I do the more I discover that's alarming and, well, when it's all over the aviation industry might be turned upside down. The key word here is "synergy". Remember that word.
Things might be considered safe when they're tested alone, but mix in something else that tested safe and together they may not be safe anymore. We're talking layers upon layers of toxic chemicals: dyes, pesticides, formaldehyde (for starters). My uniform pants might test safe and my shirt might test safe but when I wear them together that might change. Then add a jacket and a coat and... you get the picture. Now mix in the environment - chemicals on the plane. Flame retardants in the carpets and seats. And let's not forget that other thing that makes the news from time to time but is quickly brushed off because "no cause was found." You know what I'm talking about, right? Even I'm afraid to go there but I wonder about it a lot.
Let me put it to you this way: Ammonia is safe. Bleach is safe. What happens when you mix the two together? Don't forget recycled air and dehydration play into this as well. Here's where someone usually brings up the pilots. Why aren't more pilots having reactions? I don't know for sure but I do know pilots are sitting in the cockpit and there's only two of them. In the cabin there are a lot more flight attendants working right on top of each other, brushing up against each other for hours on end. We get hot and sweaty. Environment plays a major role. Cost cutting plays a critical role. What have airlines been doing a lot of over the last few years? CUTTING COSTS. Cheap uniforms. This wasn't a problem in the past because airlines weren't pushing the limit in an effort to save money like they are now.
I know I sound crazy but if you do a little research it will all make sense. Give it time. You'll see.
By the way Southwest has a new uniform coming out soon. It's made out of recycled plastic bottles.
Back to flight attendants in the news. It's not that the media doesn't talk about us, it's that they talk about us for all the wrong reasons. The job sells stories. The word "flight attendant" gets clicks. It's like writing SEX without writing it. I'm a freelance writer, too, so I know how it works. The word flight attendant automatically gives the story an edge, a sexy vibe. Don't believe me? A few years ago The Atlantic asked me to write a story about the flight attendant scarf. They didn't publish my story because they said it was too chatty, and sexual. SEXUAL? It was about a scarf! I ended up publishing it on Mashable. Go read it. Tell me if you think it's too sexy or if my job just makes things that have nothing to do with sex sexy.
Even if a story has nothing to do with flight attendants the media will find a way to use "flight attendant" in the headline if they can, even when it's a reach. Not long ago there was a story in the news about a woman who had a very interesting job, but at one point in her life she'd been a flight attendant. I found it interesting the media used a job she hadn't had in over a decade in the headline? EX FLIGHT ATTENDANT blah blah blah. It happens all the time. This, I believe, is part of the reason why it's so easy to dismiss us when we have serious issues to discuss that relate to the job.
Which brings us back to the uniform crisis. I try to write about important things like toxic chemicals and fatigue and even SEXISM, but the only thing people want to ask me about is silly things like beauty tips and leggings.