Airlines Still Have Dress Codes for Passengers. Why?

Much has changed since the “golden age” of air travel—but the debate around “dressing up” remains.


Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Print and Picture Collection

“I remember when passengers dressed up for business/first class.”

It was a comment, this time in a travel Facebook group where people easily drop tens of thousands of dollars or millions of frequent flier miles, about my attire. I was on the last leg of a five-day whirlwind trip that took me from Newark to London to Frankfurt. I’d flown to Germany’s financial hub from London City Airport solely to fly Singapore Airlines’ flagship A350 first-class product, which operates a fifth-freedom route—a flight between two countries different from the airline’s point of origin—between Frankfurt and New York. I was tired from flying and whizzing through London on little sleep. I dressed comfortably for the 8 a.m. flight, eager to change into the airline-provided pajamas and climb into the first-class suite’s bed.

Yet in a first class considered one of the world’s best—the cabin is on the second floor of a two-story airline, passengers are treated to a $200 bottle of Dom Perignon upon arrival, and a one-way ticket on this Frankfurt–New York flight costs $6,000—somehow, to internet commenters I’ve never met, I’m out of place. Maybe, to them, my dreads were too long. The gold grill that rests on my bottom molars too gaudy, too flashy. My Washington Nationals snapback that sits low on my brow too unprofessional. The Jordans on my feet too casual.

This was not the first time I’d been criticized while traveling or in a professional setting. At the airport, I’ve been questioned by passengers and airport staff about whether I belonged in the business-class line, even while holding a business-class ticket. In the cabin, I’ve been asked whether I was in the correct seat at the front of the plane, with subtle reminders that the economy section was in the back—an assumption that I was in the wrong section.

I feel the best when I’m in the air. Flying affords a freedom I rarely experience on the ground: the freedom of movement, the ability to fall asleep in one destination and wake up in another. But I can’t escape the nascent racism that my very presence, my body, germinates in people online and in person. While not, perhaps, threatening, my existence is seen as unwelcome at best and imprudent at worst in spaces I occupy but do not fully belong.

“I remember when passengers dressed up for business/first class.”

As the comments on my photo grew, people lamented how travel today—and how people dress—differs from the so-called golden age of air travel. But it’s not nearly that simple.

“The golden age” of air travel

Historians primarily consider the “golden age” of flight anywhere between World War II’s end and commercial jet travel’s advent in the 1960s. Back then, air travel was considered an elite, exclusive experience. It wasn’t unheard of to be served lobster on a flight, and airlines like TWA and Pan Am ushered in an experience from a five-star hotel on a pressurized tin can flying at 35,000 feet. Air travel was such a spectacle that a flight would sometimes be on the front page of the local newspaper.

“Flying at that time was an event—almost a social event,” says Bob van der Linden, a curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum. “People [would] go to the airport just to watch airplanes come in and then leave.” And the people who were flying during the golden age of air travel, he says, were typically those with the wealth and means to do so—and they expected to be catered to. Another part of the experience? The expectation that travelers would show up dressed “appropriately.” (Says van der Linden: “Not quite the ‘Sunday Best,’ but pretty close.”)

At the time, dressing up for travel—or anything else, really—wasn’t uncommon, even if airlines didn’t have formal dress codes themselves.

“Folks just took more time in terms of how they dressed anytime they would leave the house, and travel was that elite experience that dictated a wardrobe to be a little more elevated,” says Elaine Swann, the founder of the Swann School of Protocol, which opened in 2003 and trains people in proper etiquette and social courtesies.

But industry experts like van der Linden say things changed with the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, removing federal control over airfares, which historically made tickets expensive and unaffordable for the average American. With the law, Congress allowed individual airlines to set their own fares and choose their own routes. Long-haul domestic or international flights, says airline historian Shea Oakley, could cost hundreds of dollars each way. Cutthroat competition among U.S. airlines resulted: Carriers like Southwest Airlines found lasting success, while storied airlines like Pan Am folded. And many airlines that survived deregulation jostled to sell the cheapest tickets possible.

With deregulation, van der Linden says, airlines could price tickets however they wanted to, leading to a battle of who could offer the lowest tickets, known as fare wars. Van der Linden says deregulation “democratized air travel in the United States” by making it affordable so virtually anyone could travel.

“All the charm, the grace, the style of the travel of the ‘50s and the ‘60s in the jet age was gone,” he says. “Now, air travel is just our public utility—which is a good thing; that’s what it should be.”

With the move, air travel opened up to people the travel industry had historically excluded from flying, namely tourists and students. And after deregulation, van der Linden says, flying became more of a business and less of an experience: Airports were crowded, and airlines packed as many seats as possible onto their jets. The days of dressing up for travel “went out of the window.” Travelers responded in kind, choosing practicality and comfort over dressing their best.

Airlines, too, matched the tone of the times and focused instead on costs: Where an airline might have offered silverware and a tablecloth in economy, passengers now contend with little legroom and small tray tables for complimentary soda and pretzels.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many domestic first-class cabins offered little more than a predeparture beverage and a snack on short-haul flights. And during the pandemic, many airlines did away entirely with premium cabin perks, some of which have only recently returned.

Despite these changes, myths about dress codes—and whether what you wear can snag you an upgrade—still persist.

The “upgrade” myth

For decades, travelers have heard whispers that flight attendants or gate agents could look at a passenger and decide to upgrade them for any reason, preferring to single out travelers wearing dress shoes over flip-flops. (Some have admitted to doing this.) Travelers would jockey for a position near the gate, hoping an agent would catch a glimpse of them in a business suit (instead of sweatpants) or that a flight attendant might take note of their blouse (instead of a T-shirt).

Swann, a former flight attendant for Continental Airlines, which merged with United in 2010, said she would look for people neatly dressed if there was space in a premium cabin once the doors closed.

“If you dress nicely and look a little more polished and well put together, we would likely give you that upgrade,” said Swann, who worked at Continental between the mid-1990s and 2007.

“It’s the way everything is—but that response doesn’t only exist in travel,” Swann says, noting that people can be judged anywhere, not just on an airplane. “People treat you differently based upon the way you present yourself. That’s just human nature.”

However, the process isn’t nearly as simple today, and computers are almost entirely responsible for determining upgrades. Dave, a former flight attendant for a U.S. Big 3 airline who now works for that airline’s operations team, says upgrading a passenger from economy to business or first class is based on status—not looks. (Dave is not authorized to speak publicly, so we’re using his first name only.)

According to Dave, it is highly improbable that there will be any premium space available if a traveler hopes to score an upgrade at the airport. That’s because of an increase in customers who are more willing to purchase a premium cabin, either paying in cash or using frequent flier miles and credit card rewards to enhance their travel experience.

Delta, for example, has four elite status tiers, all of which include complimentary first-class upgrades. But whether you’ll receive one depends on where you are in the food chain. The lowest-tier members can receive a complimentary upgrade up to 24 hours before departure, while the highest-tier members traveling on the same flight typically have their upgrades cleared five days before departure. The same holds true for the other major U.S. airlines: the higher your elite status, the greater the likelihood that you’ll get a seat at the front of the plane.

And while it’s unclear what percentage of premium seats are being sold on other U.S. airlines, such as United or Delta, top-tier members from both airlines’ loyalty programs have griped in recent years about the difficulties in scoring an upgrade even as a high-spending loyalist.

Dave says there’s a saying among airline professionals that the closer a traveler gets to the aircraft, the more expensive an upgrade gets: If you’re offered an upgrade as an elite member, you typically won’t have to pay for it; if you’re offered one at check-in as a non-elite, you’ll pay a discounted rate. But you’ll pay the most if you’re trying to upgrade at the check-in counter. Taken together? It’s improbable a traveler without some sort of elite status is to receive an upgrade—and the likelihood that attire would be the sole reason for an upgrade on that flight to San Francisco virtually non-existent.

“While we like to say ‘dress for the job you want,’ the same can’t be said for the cabin, especially if you’re hoping to score an upgrade after boarding,” he says. “Not only are flight attendants unlikely to give you an upgrade to first or business due to your dress code, they literally can’t.”

The problem with arbitrary dress codes

Despite pervasive myths about upgrades, dress codes of a sort do remain on airlines, irrespective of where you’re sitting—and, as private companies, airlines have wide latitude in enforcing appropriate attire. Dress codes are something you commit to when purchasing a ticket and are baked into an airline’s terms and conditions, which are often referred to as conditions of carriage.

Take Hawaiian Airlines, which says it reserves the right “to refuse transportation or remove from the aircraft” any guest who doesn’t meet the airline’s standards for attire. Passenger attire “must cover” the upper and lower parts of the torso, and footwear must be worn unless a passenger has a disability or physical condition that prevents them from doing so. United Airlines’ contract of carriage says it can refuse transport or deny boarding to passengers who are “barefoot, not properly clothed, or whose clothing is lewd, obscene or offensive”; Delta Air Lines’ contract of carriage says it can also refuse boarding for barefoot passengers or those whose attire “creates an unreasonable risk of offense or annoyance to other passengers.” Southwest’s customers, meanwhile, are expected to “present a clean, well-groomed, and tasteful appearance.” (Airlines largely cite safety reasons for enforcing dress codes, as well as minimizing the discomfort of fellow passengers.)

On some carriers, dress codes in the sky are indicative of what visitors and locals are expected to adhere to on the ground. Customers traveling on Saudia, Saudi Arabia’s flag-carrier, are expected to abide by a dress code “inline with public taste” or inoffensive to passengers. The Kingdom has one of the strictest dress codes for men and women worldwide: Women (including foreigners) are required to cover their shoulders and knees, and tight-fitting clothing is discouraged.

However, these arbitrary rules—most disproportionately affecting women travelers—have recently landed several carriers in hot water. In July 2019, Tisha Rowe, a physician flying from Jamaica to Miami on American Airlines, was asked to cover up with a blanket as her romper was deemed “too revealing.” “If I were a white woman, you would have not asked me to get off the plane,” Rowe reportedly told the flight attendant who asked her to step off the plane to discuss the issue. Months later, in December 2019, a woman wearing a “Hail Satan” T-shirt onboard an American flight was asked to change or leave the plane; she was allowed to remain after covering up her shirt with one of her husband’s. (American eventually apologized and offered to refund both tickets.) And in August 2021, a clip of police escorting Ray Lin Howard off an Alaska Airlines flight—wearing black leggings and a pink crop top—went viral.

Of course, perceived dress code violations don’t just persist at 38,000 feet: Schoolgirls, particularly those of color, often find their attire (and, by extension, their very bodies) overpoliced. And though airline employees are the ones who determine whether or not attire is “appropriate,” many travelers themselves seem to use attire to gatekeep traveling, commenting on what does—and doesn’t—pass muster. But who gets to decide what constitutes “dressing up”? Why care what other people who aren’t bothering you are wearing? Why say anything? I don’t have an answer. But I do know that attire shouldn’t be a barrier to travel.

Victoria M. Walker is a travel reporter and the founder of the travel lifestyle site and newsletter Travel With Vikkie. She is a special correspondent for Afar.
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