On the Matter of Flight Attendant Professionalism

I utilize public transportation to get to and from work at Frankfurt International Airport and run into a LOT of uniformed airline personnel, particularly from Lufthansa and United. United has a crew base in Frankfurt and therefore has a lot of FRA-based FAs who take the S-Bahn to the airport.

Sadly, the difference between the average appearance of a Lufthansa and United flight attendant is astounding--there is no other way to put it. We all take note of how others dress and put themselves together and I take particular note of how airline professionals do. I have been watching intently for the last five months and the United folks simply should be ashamed of the way they look.

Two weeks ago I observed a particularly revealing juxtaposition. I was at Konstoblerwache station in central Frankfurt on my way to the airport and noted two UA FAs (both, oddly, with Belgium pins on their shirts and speaking in Flemish) who looked like they had just rolled out of bed (maybe they had, but it was 19:30). The guy was unshaven and his his shirt was hanging out from the back of his pants. His tie was loose, his trousers were much too short, and his shoes were scuffed. His female colleague was not much better. She was just wearing a short-sleeved shirt that she had not bothered to iron, and you could see the hem marks on her pants from 20 feet away. Her shoes were also heavily scuffed in the front and her hair was messed up.

Standing nearby were two Lufthansa FAs. In stark contrast, their uniforms were neatly pressed, hair groomed, makeup applied, and shoes nicely shined.

I really wanted to take an up-close shot and post it here, but it would have been too obvious: I used the arriving train as a diversion and snapped the picture from a distance. You'll have to trust me that they looked as bad as I describe above. I thought about confronting the two UA FAs but elected to hold my tongue, reasoning that it actually was not my business and that lecturing them on a crowded train might be uncomfortable for all three of us.

I planned to write up a scathing blog post immediately, because the incident reflected what I had been observing all year, but I decided to hold off and observe for two more weeks--just to make sure emotions would not cloud my analysis.

But over the last two weeks, I have observed more of the same, which leads me to this post tonight.

I know times have been tough at United. I know the front-line staff has given up a lot and not received much back in return. I know that many FAs are locked into their career and have no other viable options if they chose to resign. But come on people, can't you show just a little bit of pride in your occupation?

Many--most I'd say--UA folks do take a few extra minutes to make sure they are looking sharp, but many also do not and that does not reflect well on the airline. Over the last two weeks I have observed dozens of LH employees aboard the S-Bahn and have gone out of my way to try to find one that is dressed sloppily or ungroomed. In all honesty, though, I have not found one, not even one! That says a lot.

I served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves and wore a uniform quite often. Naturally, that makes this subject more touchy for me, but it simply comes down to taking pride in what you do. My shoes were always shined and my uniform pressed not just because that was what regulations prescribed, but because I wanted to and because through my uniform I represented something much bigger and more important than me alone. I submit that FA uniforms also represent something much bigger and more important.

This is not the sort of issue you write to UA in a complaint letter, but I am going to make it a point that someone at UA and the Association of Fight Attendants sees this. I do not intend this post to be a hatchet job on United FAs. As you'll hear next week, UA's FRA-based crews have treated me extremely well in my frequent travel between Frankfurt and Washington Dulles.  I have flown airlines from all over the world and still prefer UA's crews over most. But it is essential that UA, the AFA, and the FAs themselves (and to be fair, pilots are guilty of looking sloppy as well) examine this issue now.

Morale will not suddenly improve overnight, but if the UA folks started emulating the Lufthansa folks a bit more when it comes to dress and appearance (and not in other ways, as I will blog about tomorrow), I think they would find morale would go up and they would start enjoying their jobs more, even as CEO Jeff Smisek mulls over seeking more concessions from his "team members" that have already given up so much.


Another, perhaps even better example, is BA. With the occasional exception, BA cabin crew are impeccably dressed and coiffed, and offer a level of service and professionalism that far exceeds US carriers. This despite the fact that they are very poorly paid, and have been dealing with a lot of cost cutting nonsense as well. They have a pride in the service they offer.

I think there is a cultural problem with American FA's, in the sense that in the US, (American citizen here, btw,) there is a culture of entitlement that leads to a general lack of enthusiasm by people in the service industry, unless they are working for tips/commissions.

That said, I think the way to solve this problem on US carriers is to start letting FA's accept tips. When I take the Acela in First Class from DC to NY, I give the attendants $5 or $10 when my first drink order is taken, and usually another $5 or $10 when I leave, if the service has been up to par, (which it always is after the tip.) When I haven't tipped, the service has been terrible.

Joelfreak June 2, 2011 at 04:28 am

I understand where you are coming from, but you have to remember you are commenting on people when they are off work. These are people (just ask Bobby from UpUpandaGay) who may have not gotten much sleep, and are doing a very short turn, and/or they may not be based in FRA. Again, I am not saying your point is not valid, but how people look when they are NOT on the clock is not the companies business as far as I am concerned, and if it IS, then they need to pay the employees at all times they are in uniform.

@Joelfreak: Thanks for your comment, but I just find that a pretty poor excuse--do some FAs have so little pride in their jobs that they cannot take a few extra minutes to iron or tuck in their shirts or shine their shoes?

Whenever they are wearing their uniform, they are representing UA. I think it says a lot about the midnset of an employee if they feel they only have to look presentable when they are actually working a flight.

Jimgotkp October 30, 2011 at 01:16 am

Even though this thread is quite old, I agree with Matthew. When you're wearing your company's uniform out in the public even when your not being clocked in, you still represent your company. I would even say that you are representing your country as well. Yes, the US has no flagship carrier considering there are multiple carriers but it still is an American company.

If they don't want to take the time to make themselves look good then change clothes once you arrive at the airport. It really is disappointing to see FAs look sloppy in their uniforms. I understand it's a tv show but watching the stewardesses in the Pan Am show, it is quite a sight when you see them walking together in the airport.

Jane February 11, 2012 at 07:15 pm

Matthew, You are one dude with way too much spare time on your hands. What qualifies you to evaluate someone's appearance commuting to work? Since you claim fashion superiority as a member of the US military representing your country in uniform, I'd like to tell you about the time I sat next to one of your fellow members who got drunk and threw up over his seat mates, while in uniform. It is just plain wrong to judge people only by their appearances.

Jane, I appreciate your comments but you misconstrue my words. My point is this: those FAs who dressed like slobs had no pride in their jobs, just like the military slob who got drunk and threw up on his seatmates had no pride in his job or uniform.

I profoundly disagree that it is wrong to judge people on their appearances--a person who cares so little about themselves that they walk around town disgracing their employer should be called out for it.

The solution is simple--if you are not going to wear your uniform correctly or act with with professionalism while wearing your uniform, don't wear it. Those two employees represented United Airlines poorly while the Lufthansa girl represented her company well.

TomF March 3, 2012 at 04:52 pm

A couple of years ago I stayed a few days at the Sydney Harbour Marriott, which turned out to be a (if not the) UA layover hotel in SYD. UA crews arriving off TPAC services rolled into the hotel lobby around 830a, just as I was heading out to Circular Quay to procure tea and bacon rolls for my family.

A more slovenly, ill-behaved group of airline employees, and a poorer advertisement for their company, I have never seen. Shouting at each other across the lobby; using profanity loudly and openly; barking rudely at the long-suffering hotel staff; shoving other guests aside to get to their rooms more quickly. Yes, their uniforms were rumpled after the long workday... but the sartorial details were far eclipsed by their crude, vulgar, uncaring behavior.

This was not one crew in particular; it was one after another over the best part of a week: tousled, florid, harsh, and if they cared at all that they were making the UA uniform and brand look repellent, they didn't show it.

We flew Cathay Pacific in and out of SYD that trip and after the show those UA employees put on in the lobby, elevators and hallways of that hotel in SYD, have not flown United Airlines longhaul anywhere.

exibanker April 4, 2012 at 05:12 pm

as a representative of any branch of military.., when you are in uniform you wear it and act accordingly in it. No excuses. Nada!

Sj March 10, 2013 at 08:58 am

I think those professional looking Lufthansa flight attedandants knew the difference between loose and lose, as in " His tie was loose" instead of " His tie was lose.".

Shouldn't you pay more attention to your literary appearance before criticizing others on their appearance?

@Sj: No.

But thanks for the correction.

Sassy Stiles March 11, 2013 at 02:54 pm

@Tom, I have flown UA to Sydney many times and I have never seen any of their crew behaved in such a way. I have to think you are just making this up to be included in this discussion. They may have looked a little disheveled after 14 to 15 hours in flight but acting liking a bunch of raving mad children, I think not.

Debra Bellingham March 15, 2013 at 06:20 pm

You are a complete JERK!!! It's passengers like you, that look "down" on us for whatever reason that make us care less about our jobs! I am a flight attendant because I LOVE to travel, not because I enjoy dealing with assholes like you! I could CARE less what you think!!! And I don't work for United!!

Debbie, what makes me a jerk? Commenting that some people don't give a rip about their jobs and it shows? Sorry if the truth hurts.

Sharon March 15, 2013 at 08:53 pm

Some foreign carriers provide dry cleaning and in-house tailoring for their flight attendants.

United, eliminated dry cleaning expenses during bankruptcy.

United does provide a nominal coupon with each uniform piece for alterations that can only be used at a select list of dry cleaners, which you are responsible on your days off to get your uniform fitted. The value only covers, for example, the hemming of pants.

Have you noticed the material and design aspect of the United uniform has deteriorated over the years. This is no fault to the flight attendants. United was going for a more casual, less military-looking direction for their uniform.

Having said all of the above, that does not excuse not ironing your shirt or brushing your hair.

I am a United flight attendant.

Suzanne Schmidt March 16, 2013 at 09:12 am

I'm a UA flight attendant and in general I agree with your observations. I'm glad you noticed that we had to give up a lot!! About a 40% pay cut and needless to say the dry cleaning that UA used to pay for. Now that also says a lot about our company!! As far as LH goes - they don't pay College tuitions of $35,000.00 and up a year for their kids. They also don't work in domiciles that get shut down and then either have to move their entire family (take children out of school etc) or are forced to commute on full airplanes to work. It's not unusual that it takes 8 hours to get home. Everybody tells me that I always look immaculate -I modeled in my twenties-but it can even happen to me that my shirt sticks to my body and appeared to be unpressed when indeed 24 hours before the journey it looked perfect! It"s also possible that doing a galley position some sauce or oil can land on your skirt and it won't come off....so keep this in mind folks who all had a good night sleep and a shower and fresh clothes at the point you run into these airline people at the S-Bahn. As far as #7 goes ...most people do not recognize uniforms correctly and don't know if it's a DL, AA, UA or Jetblue uniform...they all look the same to them!! With this said I have to agree with the essential idea of the blog....... Thank you for still flying our airline and please come back and let us show you we can do better!!

MrkNire March 16, 2013 at 09:15 am

Matthew, "professional/unprofessional" as you and many in the airline community use it, is a code word for Attractive/Unattractive. Attractive FA's look much better than Unattractive FA's everywhere whether thats at a hotel, in the airport, or inflight.......and you don't need to be an online journalist to know that one. I was a former flight attendant and I remember working with a young man, who was a former model, who always seemed to have his hair all messed up......yet no one complained at how unprofessional he looked..........While I never got any complaints about my appearance...... I always tried would make it a point to be as helpful and knowledgeable as I could be about the airplane, the airline system, airport and destination as I could be to travelers with questions, to me thats what most important. Airlines in Asia, make FA applicants put on their uniform and walk around like they are on a modeling runway, I kind of find that degrading. Recently I took Emirates from DFW to Dubai onto Kuala Lumpur, and every single FA looked professional as you say, yet none could tell me anything about how to navigate through Kuala Lumpur's airport, so to me they looked great.......man did they look great......yet beyond that I thought they weren't very useful.

Pam March 16, 2013 at 07:18 pm

Oh, my goodness, Anyone who would even consider lecturing two complete strangers on a crowded train, or anywhere for that matter, about something that is none of your business deserves whatever reaction you get. You are just a pretentious little douche. Now I get why that fa had you booted from the flight! And to think I was defending you!

greg March 16, 2013 at 07:38 pm

I know there may not be an excuse for those folks....but I would like to add...that as a flight attendant....we have all seen the so called "dress code" of our passengers go WAY DOWN too....it is not uncommon to see work out clothes and passengers in flip flops in first class these days....it does go both ways

flygirl March 16, 2013 at 07:51 pm

I have a super idea for you.... GET A LIFE!

Here's an idea for all of you who are ready to instinctively attack me--think about how egregious it appears for your co-workers to look like this:

The guy was unshaven and his his shirt was hanging out from the back of his pants. His tie was loose, his trousers were much too short, and his shoes were scuffed. His female colleague was not much better. She was just wearing a short-sleeved shirt that she had not bothered to iron, and you could see the hem marks on her pants from 20 feet away. Her shoes were also heavily scuffed in the front and her hair was messed up.

Will anyone defend that?

I don't care that some of you feel it is none of my business. I worked for Star Alliance at the time and that included trying to sell the image of United and the 27 other member carriers to the public so it certainly was in my interest and the interest of United to ensure that FA looks presentable.

And for the most case, I see that. This post was written almost TWO YEARS ago (5/11) and since then I've been to FRA many, many times--guess what? The crews look much better. And I'm sure all of you will look even better once your new uniforms arrive soon.

@Pam: Think about it. I'm not the one who is wrong here...

@MrkNire: I appreciate your post and concede you have a point. But, take your SEA base for example. Let's face it, 40 years and you still cannot hold a line and many of these FAs, well, are showing their age. But despite some who would be classified as overweight or even ugly (and that's not my term--I don't think anyone is ugly), when the shirt is pressed and a smile is present, I could not care less about facial features or weight. It's not like I have anything to boast about.

Pam March 17, 2013 at 04:30 am

Ok, you're redeeming yourself a little bit. I have gained weight in the last two years. I don't like the way I look. I 'm trying to lose the weight, but it's a struggle. But you should know that my people LOVE me. I know how to make people happy on an airplane, and baby, that isn't always an easy task. I have had many people of numerous cultures actually kiss me on the cheek upon deplaning. So I know I'm still an asset to UA even though you may not see it. Just cut us some slack, please, and don't be so judgmental.

Kay March 17, 2013 at 08:48 am

Matthew, I'm on a mission to teach the world how to use the most common phrases of the English language properly. Comment #21 needs a grammar check. When you say "I could care less about facial features or weight" that actually means you COULD care less. This says to me you find facial features and weight pretty important. The proper phrase in response should be "couldn't care less" meaning you already care as little as possible. I really wonder how some people made it through their high school English classes as this phrase is misused hundreds of times daily throughout the blogosphere! I guess I could assume you're German since you seem to be in Germany quite a bit. If so, I shall cut you some slack.

Another Perspective March 17, 2013 at 11:13 am

Perhaps it would be helpful to also understand that United Flight Attendants are at the end of a uniform cycle. The company can no longer secure uniform items because these pieces are no longer being manufactured in anticipation of an upcoming new uniform launch.

The vast majority of United Flight Attendants take pride in their profession and their personal appearance. As in all things in life, there are extremes on both ends of the "appearance scale." It is regretable that you've elected to focus your energy on off duty employees and mischaracterize all United Flight Attendants.

I would suggest to you that there is more than one way for you to have made your point if it was something you really felt you needed to put out in the world. Consider this - in the airports around the world on any given day you can find an unlimited number of United Flight Attendants who wear their uniforms well and, as an alternative, made "examples" of them rather than electing to make your point in the manner in which you have. It appears you made a conscious choice to offend and alienate an entire group of dedicated professionals.

As has been suggested in several of the previous posts on this subject, perhaps it's time for you to find other areas of personal interest that will enrich your life. I wish you well in that endeavor.

Lindsey March 17, 2013 at 07:30 pm

Jeff Smisek came from Continental Airlines and had nothing to do with legacy Uniteds Bankruptcy.
As usual you have your facts wrong.
Many FAs fly 16hrs plus on International flights and there is no changing room on an airplane... Know your facts before you write your blog It's obviously you like to knit pick United

@Kay--Thanks. I won't make excuses, but I had flown about 26 hours straight with little sleep when I made that comment.

@Another Perspective: Remember this post was written two years ago, but I did note above that new uniforms are coming. Furthermore, it doesn't matter how old shoes are--they can still be shined. It doesn't matter how old a shirt is--it can be ironed. It doesn't matter how old a necktie is--it can be tightened.

I focus on UA because I fly UA 150K+ miles each year and because as I wrote, I was just so surprised at the stark difference between Lufthansa and United in Frankfurt.

This is not about alienation, it is about bringing attention to something that a few of your colleagues may not realize. If it is obvious to me, I am sure it is obvious to others too.

@Lindsey: As usual? Perhaps you should read more of my blog first. I wore a "Glenn's Gotta Go" bracelet for over a year every time I flew UA in support of FAs. I am well aware that Smisek came from Continental and I stated, as your side tries to work with the ex-Cons to come up with a unified contract, Jeff is asking you for further concessions--he wants you to work longer hours without shorter periods between flights in exchange for a bit more pay. I call that a further concession.

Laurent March 30, 2013 at 03:42 am

I think this blog article fails to take into account one very important point that determines overall FA appearance, professionalism and how much they enjoy their job. This is called scheduling. Whereas EU carriers such as Lufthansa, BA, Air France etc are regulated by EU Flight Time Limitations, US carriers are regulated by the FAA. The former allows for a maximum flying hours of 900/year and the latter authorises almost unlimited hours. Consequently, US FAs fly much more than their EU counterparts. Their layover time is also much reduced, so is their minimum rest time at home.Inevitably, their appearance, motivation and general fitness to do the job leaves a lot to be desired.

It is not difficult to understand why an Air France cabin crew looks fresh and immaculate after flying a return trip to the west coast when they had at least 2-3 days down time in LA which will in turn trigger at least 3 rest days at home, whilst a US FA could have been flying 3 transatlantic flights within the same period of time.

Danbo June 4, 2013 at 05:56 pm

It's amazing that there are comments coming in several years later on this subject. Let me add my own observations for IAH and ORD.

IAH (Home) - This is a commuter city, there is no "mass transit" worthy of the name, and what there is doesn't reach to the airport. I've ridden the Employee bus from 'the lot' more times than I can count while traveling with my wife. I'm aware of the time she takes to get ready each day. Even as a "ramper" who spends her day in an office where nobody would really care, she takes the time to look presentable. The United Flight Crew in Houston are consistently the best looking folks on the bus. The Gate agents and ground crew are another issue entirely. I actually take notice when their appearance is "good", rather than the other way around. Sometimes that bus has the mood I envision coal miners about to descend into the shaft must have.

ORD - Took the trains everywhere when I was there last fall. On any track that conceivable carried to the airport, I always saw 2+ UA employees onboard. Once again, the FAs looked immaculate, and I saw a gate agent actually getting DRESSED on the train. I'm honest enough to admit that if I'd seen an attractive female going through these gyrations, I might have watched more intently. As it was, this was a 40-50 something year old male, at least 25 points over a healthy BMI pulling on his wrinkled clothing out of a backpack. I looked away when he changed undershirts.

Maybe FRA is a different animal, but I'd have to rate the average appearance of the flight crew as nothing less than an 8.5 (scale to 10) while ground crew, be it CSAs, mechanics, or CSRs at no more than a 5.

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