Female cabin crew must wear heels - unless they have a doctor's note, airline says

Annabel Fenwick Elliott
Rule book: the shoes are only the start - istock

“The year 1950 rang and it wants its rulebook back." This was the response of one Norwegian politician to the news that the nation's largest airline requires its female flight attendants to wear high heels as part of their dress code.

Norwegian Labour Party's Women's Federation spokesperson Anette Trettebergstuen released a statement branding Norwegian Air’s rule "embarrassing", adding: “Uniform requirements are one thing, but to impose heels [...] is going too far."

The low-cost, long-haul carrier, which serves 152 destinations worldwide and transports more than 33 million passengers per year, confirmed to Telegraph Travel: "Female cabin crew are expected to wear heels when not on board as part of their uniform unless there are medical reasons preventing them for doing so."

Indeed, a doctor's letter to be carried by staff at all times is currently the only way they can get away with flat shoes. Given how much walking is involved at airports, and how uncomfortable heels tend to be, some argue it’s a draconian policy.  

A Norwegian spokesperson insists, however, that its policy is "the same as most other international airlines", British Airways included. They also stress that this rule only applies while flight attendants are not on-board, where flat shoes are always worn for safety reasons. 

High heels are mandatory for female cabin crew while not on board Credit: Tony Pick Photography

“Like all global airlines, Norwegian has a comprehensive set of uniform guidelines to ensure that our flying crew represent our brand in a smart and consistent manner," the spokesperson said.

"The guidelines were drafted with input from our pilot and cabin crew colleagues and have been well received, sharing many gender commonalities in addition to some specific male and female requirements.”

These guidelines, part of a 22-page dress code document obtained by Norwegian newspaper VG, also reportedly state that female cabin crew must wear "eye make-up and light foundation or a tinted moisturizer or powder at work". Men, on the other hand, are not permitted to wear make-up unless it's to cover bruises and blemishes.

British Airways, on the subject of footwear for female staff, says: “All shoes must be of the classic court style, which leaves the top and side of the foot exposed."

British Airways staff pictured last month Credit: ba

Bucking the status quo, Virgin Atlantic made headlines in March after it became the first premier airline to tell female flight attendants that they will no longer have to wear make-up in the air. It also now provides female crew with trousers as part of their standard uniform to wear instead of a skirt.

As for footwear? "We provide our cabin crew with three heights of heel, including a flat shoe," a spokesperson for the airline said. "Our crew have the option to wear any of these shoes on the ground." Following the move, Aer Lingus also announced it will no longer require female cabin crew to wear makeup or skirts.

Of the airlines contacted by Telegraph Travel, Easyjet confirmed that heels were not mandatory as part of their uniform. 

Flight attendant requirements, a bizarre history

If you think Norwegian's guidelines are outdated, observe the standard requirements of yesteryear. A 1936 New York Times article described the ideal air hostess as "petite; weight 100 to 118 pounds; height 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches; age 20 to 26 years. Add to that the rigid physical examination each must undergo four times every year, and you are assured of the bloom that goes with perfect health."

Short skirts were the order of the day for Pan American Airways in the 1970s Credit: getty

Three decades later, in 1966, a classified ad from the same paper seeking stewardesses at Eastern Airlines listed these requirements: "A high school graduate, single (widows and divorcees with no children considered), 20 years of age (girls 19 1/2 may apply for future consideration). 5'2" but no more than 5'9", weight 105 to 135 in proportion to height and have at least 20/40 vision without glasses."

These demands have been toned down substantially over time, but still remain out of sorts with the dress code demanded in most other sectors.

Lee Cobaj, a Telegraph Travel writer who flew with Thomas Cook as a stewardess for 18 years, remarks: "The uniform is a big part of projecting an airline’s image. The grooming standards that go along with that are extremely stringent too, a certain size of earring, say, and permitted ways to colour and wear your hair – I can’t think of any other industries that would get away with it.”

In 2015, Air India warned 600 of its crew to lose weight within six months or risk being taken off flights. The airline announced plans to remove nearly 130 workers from cabin crew duty because their BMI levels were above the prescribed limit.

BA's latest staff handbook, as of March 2019, states: “For women, you will need to have a styled look with hair and make-up that would be appropriate in a professional environment and complements our uniform.

"For men, your hair must meet a conventional style which is appropriate for a professional environment, shaven or sculptured styles and long hair are not permitted. Dyed hair must be of a natural colour for both men and women.”

Some airlines are reported to have drilled down even further on the details of the physical appearance of their cabin crew. American Airlines is said to advise that: "Noticeable hair in nostrils and in/on ears or underarms must be cut or otherwise removed.”

Meanwhile Hawaiian Airlines is reported to advise: “Hands and nails should be kept well groomed at all times, with nail length not exceeding an eighth of an inch beyond the finger tip."

Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air's rulebook, as of 2016, read: "Employees must have a full frontal complement of teeth. Dental retainers must be gum toned or clear. Braces should be clear or silver. Good oral hygiene should be practiced to ensure that the teeth present a clean, natural appearance. Breath sprays and mints are encouraged.”

United Airlines takes a strong stance on facial hair on men, saying “trendy facial hair styles are not permitted" and "mustaches may not extend more than ¼ inch below the sides of the mouth"; while Jet Airways is said to require “a clear complexion (scars, pimples and blemishes not acceptable)".

Do you care?

How important is the appearance and presentation of cabin staff to you as a passenger? Would a make-up-free, trouser-donning female flight attendant put you off an airline? Would you be disheartened to see a Norwegian stewardess striding through an airport in flat shoes rather than heels?

Comment below to join the conversation.