American’s uniform crisis: Airline shirks responsibility as people keep getting sick

After President Bill Clinton stated, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” the world focused on two words, “sexual relations” and what those words meant, exactly, in determining whether Bill Clinton had committed perjury. Paula Jones’ legal team asked Judge Susan Webber Wright to approve a very precise, three-part definition of sexual relations. Based on the outcome of the trial, Clinton gave a “technically true” denial. I bring this up not because I care about Bill or Monica or who’s REALLY having sex with whom, but to remind you that words matter and people in a position of power know how to use them. In court. On camera. To the media.

When it comes to the uniform crisis, American Airlines has become crafty with words. The script they share is “technically true,” but ask a few very specific questions and the picture they’re painting looks totally different.

In the latest video that American posted on Jetnet this week, Robert Isom, President of American Airlines, addressed the uniform crisis only after a pilot shared his concerns about working in an unsafe environment. To ease the pilot’s mind, Mr. Isom stated that American didn’t just go with any vendor, but that “time, energy and attention went into designing the uniform and selecting the manufacturer and fabrics.”

What Mr. Isom didn’t mention was that the manufacturer American chose — Twin Hill — had produced uniforms for both US Airways (before it merged with American) and Alaska Airlines that had led to the sorts of reactions that AA pilots and flight attendants are having now. UPS has also had issues with Twin Hill uniforms. And if that weren’t bad enough, the Allied Pilots Association announced last month that the pilots who wear-tested the Twin Hill uniform reported having reactions two years ago. Knowing all this, American Airlines continued to push forward with Twin Hill. Did American take any of this information into consideration when they put all that “time, energy and attention into selecting a manufacturer?” Or were they focusing on the lowest bid?

“Corporate leadership, frontline folks and the union were involved in every step along the way,” stated Mr. Isom, in an attempt to shirk some of the responsibility. I have questions. Were the “frontline folks” that were included in every step the same ones who reported reactions to the uniform over two years ago? Perhaps we need to ask American to define the word “involved.” Why were union leaders required to agree on how tests would be interpreted before the airline was willing to move forward on the fourth round of testing? (This, by the way, is why the fourth round of testing fell through.)

If our uniforms are indeed safe, why does the union need to agree to how the test results are interpreted? Why don’t the test results stand on their own?

Which brings us to the test. In November’s video, Doug Parker and Hector Adler mentioned Oeko-Tex standards in connection to the uniform. I’ve seen the test results. The uniform was not tested to Oeko-Tex standards. The uniform wasn’t tested to any standard. The data is not stastistically relevant as the lower and upper bound ranges are not present. Mr. Isom can make a technically true statement about tests not showing anything of concern when there are no standards to compare things to.

This also explains how American Airlines can make a technically true statement about the uniforms being safe. Never mind that over 5,000 employees are sick, including 1 out of 10 flight attendants. What concerns me is how easy it is for American to blow off the fact that something is obviously wrong with the test when so many people have become ill since the uniform rolled out on September 20th.

How many people have to get sick before American admits there might be a problem? 10,000? 20,000? What’s the magic sick person number? When do we stop leaning on data from questionable test results and start focusing on why so many people are getting sick and can no longer be around the uniform? When does it become cost effective for the airline to do the right thing?

“Some people have allergies, some people will react,” Mr Isom stated. As if that’s an OK response to the severe reactions many of us have experienced. For the record, we’re not talking about typical allergies. The words “allergy” and “rash” and “hives” and “skin issues” don’t even begin to describe what I’ve seen, which is exactly why those words continue to be used by management.

Have you seen the photos? We’re talking about rashes that look more like chemical burns all over people’s bodies and faces. And the company has the nerve to focus on the number of people who like the way the uniform looks. Here’s a fact. The uniform doesn’t look so hot when your face looks like someone tossed a bucket of acid on it. Or when your face is so swollen you resemble The Elephant Man.

The thing American forgets to mention is we’re not just dealing with “skin issues.” Since September 20th there’s been a drastic increase in flight attendants’ dealing with thyroid issues and respiratory problems. Bloody noses. Swelling. Eye infections and flu-like symptoms that don’t respond to antibiotics. Rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure. Now women are reporting changes in their menstrual cycles. Oh, and let’s not forget the drastic increase in flight attendants who’ve been issued inhalers, prescriptions for steroids and Epipens since the new uniform rolled out or the number of flight attendants who’ve been diagnosed with RAD (restrictive airways disease).

What we’re talking about isn’t resolved by popping a Benadryl. That said how many Benadryls are too many Benadryls — on the plane? Asking for a friend.

My favorite part of the video is when Mr. Isom compares the Twin Hill uniform to retail clothing. (Doug Parker did the same in December.) Count the number of times they say RETAIL clothing when addressing the uniform crisis. The word “retail” makes what they’re saying technically right. American wants you to believe that because Twin Hill manufactures clothing for retail outlets, the uniform that it makes for crew members must be safe.

Pay attention because this is important. Retail clothing has nothing to do with our uniform. Retail clothing isn’t a uniform. Retail clothing is made to different standards. This is why I can’t wear an off-the-rack suit from the Men’s Warehouse the same way I can wear a Twin Hill uniform. An off-the-rack suit would fall apart in no time if it were worn as often as a uniform.

There’s a reason a uniform looks good and lasts for years. Because of the chemicals it’s been treated with. Mr. Isom and Mr. Parker know this. They know full well we are not having reactions to retail clothing, we’re having reactions to the uniform. Whenever management brings up thousands of passengers wearing COMMERCIAL clothing on our planes, know this is their way of tricking people into believing there’s nothing they can do about our situation since they can’t control what passengers wear. They’re trying to make people think it’s us that’s the problem and therefore out of their hands.

Now for some facts. I’ve worked for 2 airlines. I’ve been a flight attendant for over 21 years. I’m 46 years old. I’ve never never had an issue with a uniform or retail clothing before September 20th. I’m not allergic to wool. Most of my co-workers are not allergic to wool. (Many have been tested to prove it.) So offering us a non-wool option is not really an option, is it? But it sounds good, doesn’t it. Kind of like American is actually doing something, as if they care.

Keep in mind we’ve been offered three uniform options from the same company. It’s a fact that we don’t know what’s causing so many different severe reactions. It’s also a fact that it’s kind of hard to solve a problem when you don’t know what’s causing the problem, correct? So how can Twin Hill produce a uniform that’s safe when they don’t know what’s making people sick?

This brings us to Aramark, uniform option number 4. Even though it’s sold by a different company, I still had a reaction to the Aramark uniform. So did my son. He’s 10. He ended up on beta blockers to slow down his racing heart. Two days after I removed the Aramark uniform from the house, his mysterious heart condition disappeared. Needless to say, I won’t be wearing Aramark.

In wrapping things up Mr. Isom stated, “introducing something new can create issues.” This is true. Except we aren’t just talking about any issue, we’re talking about health issues. We’re talking about thousands of sick employees. We’re also talking about workers comp cases that have been denied. Our reactions are classified as allergies, and allergies are considered personal, not work-related, even though we are required to wear a uniform to work. In other words, we’re talking about people having a safe place to work.