What are the airline dress codes?
Airlines expressly forbid certain types of clothes – or lack of clothes – in their ticket contract.
- American Airlines has a section in its conditions of carriage that require passengers to “behave appropriately and respectfully” and “dress appropriately,” which means no bare feet or offensive clothing.
- Delta Air Lines’ contract of carriage says it won’t transport passengers whose “conduct, attire, hygiene or odor” creates an unreasonable risk of offense or annoyance to other passengers. Also, no bare feet.
- Southwest Airlines’ passenger contract doesn’t allow anyone on the plane who wears clothes that are “lewd, obscene, or patently offensive.” Bare feet are also not allowed unless you’re under 5 years old or have a disability.
- United Airlines. No surprises in its contract of carriage: Passengers can be removed if they are “barefoot, not properly clothed, or whose clothing is lewd, obscene or offensive.”
You get the idea. But these rules just deter the thoughtless passengers who try to board a flight in a Speedo or T-shirts with offensive slogans. And even then, it doesn’t catch them all.
What are the benefits of an airline dress code?
There are at least two reasons to adopt a more formal dress code. First, people who dress up don’t act up. At least that’s airline pilot Ken Schulte’s assessment.
“Well-dressed people never cause drama on a flight,” said Schulte, who runs an aviation merchandise site. “You might not think pilots would notice all this, but every incident of bad behavior leads to a report to the flight deck. The troublemakers are the ones who look like they just rolled out of bed.”
Although there’s no proven link between dressing up and socially acceptable behavior on a plane, there is some compelling research linking behavior and attire.
Second, and maybe more important to you, is that well-dressed passengers get treated better.
Sharon-Frances Moore, a business etiquette expert, has seen it countless times. The better-dressed, polite passengers get more upgrades, freebies, latitude and respect from the cabin crew.
“Wearing a jacket and tie will get you a different result than flying in your pajamas,” she said.
What kind of dress code do we need when we fly?
Maybe we need to do more than ban inappropriate clothing. Maybe we need to define “appropriate.
Many passengers remember a day before airline deregulation when passengers voluntarily dressed up to fly. They wore their Sunday best – coats and ties for the men, dresses for the women.
“When I started flying, I always wore a suit,” remembered David Kazarian, a retired pharmacist from Tampa. “I still do.”
Most air travelers would settle for a business-casual dress code.
“In my perfect world, passengers would wear lovely, lightweight, loose-fitting, long-sleeved and long pants outfits,” said Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette consultant from Marblehead, Massachusetts. “And there would not be any inappropriately exposed body parts or offensive slogans on T-shirts and caps.”
Etiquette expert Lisa Mirza Grotts said the unwritten dress code for passengers in business class might be worth following.
“Men typically wear suits in business class, since they will most likely be traveling with only a carry-on. Women in business class usually wear a suit or overcoat,” she said.
Could we ever agree on a dress code?
Coming up with a dress code for airline passengers would be difficult, but not impossible.
Many other businesses impose dress requirements on their customers. Some fine dining restaurants require jackets and collared shirts for men and dressy attire for women. Many casinos and nightclubs do, too. Country clubs have some of the strictest dress codes. And in the travel industry, some luxury hotels require elegant resort wear in public areas.
What, exactly, would an airline dress recommendation look like? That is for the airlines to decide. But maybe we could start with something basic, like a light version of business casual. Long pants, collared shirts, dresses. Please, no bare feet or T-shirts with offensive logos. Dress modestly and respectfully. Remember, you’re in a public place.
“I think a basic dress code could bring value to the air travel experience,” said Neil Chase, a frequent air traveler and filmmaker in Denver. “It isn’t about stifling individuality, but fostering respect and comfort for all.”
What airlines should say about appropriate attire
Today, except for the narrow dress codes outlined in their contracts, airlines don’t tell passengers what to wear. They do, however, offer some guidance for employees who are traveling off-duty.
For example, Southwest Airlines advises passengers using a nonrevenue guest pass to “dress to impress.” It adds, “While Southwest’s dress code is relaxed and casual, you will be expected to present a clean, well-groomed, and tasteful appearance.”
It might be asking too much for us to go back to the days when everyone dressed up to fly, but people like Grotts and airlines like Southwest make a valid point.
What if we could eliminate many unruly passenger incidents by simply suggesting that passengers spiff up a little before they leave for the airport?
The Federal Aviation Administration’s punitive “zero tolerance” policy toward unruly passengers isn’t bringing the number of in-flight incidents back to their pre-pandemic levels. But maybe a dress code will.
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.