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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Project Runway: Delta, Northwest and the (Not-So-Little) Red Dress

Of all of the challenges facing Delta and Northwest as they merge, who woulda thunk that a flap about a dress could create so much hemming and hawing? But indeed, as Delta is trying to sew up the details of its takeover of Northwest (the acquisition took place in October 2008), fashion on the airport runway is in the spotlight.

You see, the Northwest chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA has filed a grievance with Delta, asking it to provide its hip Richard Tyler-designed red uniforms in sizes up to 28. The little red dresses are currently offered only in sizes 2 to 18, although a Delta spokeswoman notes the airline offers a range of other outfits that go up to 28.

Delta hired Tyler in 2004 to reshape its drab gray employee uniforms. Tyler was quoted as saying his designs would make flight attendants "look sexy and great, but classic as well." The uniforms, including the red dress, debuted in 2006.

Patricia Reller, who handles grievances for the union's executive committee, sums up the complaint. "I think red is an eye-popping color and it's not subtle, and to me by not offering it in a size over 18, Delta is saying, 'We don't want you wearing that if you are over size 18,'" Reller says. "But the job isn't about being sexy. It's about safety." Reller also says the dresses just don't measure up. While vanity sizing (labeling a true size 12 a size 10) is in vogue among designers selling to mass retail, apparently, the opposite is the case for Delta. According to Reller, the dress is "a very small size 18, so that makes the numbers a lot larger." In other words, even a true size 16 could not fit in the 18 dress.

Given how few female flight attendants I have ever seen who weigh more than 180 pounds (a size 18 for a five-foot-one woman, which is the legal height minimum), methinks this is much ado about nothing. Hardly model behavior on the part of Delta's newest flight attendants...

It's truly a good thing Reller wasn’t around when airlines had weight restrictions on female flight attendants (the few male flight attendants flying pre-1990 were allowed “extra baggage”). In the earliest days of commercial flight, stewardesses (as they were then called) had to weigh less than 115 pounds. Apropos of nothing, they also had to be single. Even though they were allowed a little more heft through the years, the scales of justice were only tipped in favor of size 10-plus flight attendants in the 1990s (even though the equally-loathsome marriage bans had ended way back in the 1960s).

One footnote: While Northwest’s prime beef is with the dress, it’s not their sole complaint. The flight attendants are also upset with Delta’s requirement that flight attendants who wear orthopedic shoes must wear slacks instead of a skirt or dress. Furthermore, those who want to wear said shoes must obtain a doctor’s note.

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