Ethics Quiz: The Nicely-Dressed Factor

(NPR says this was an actual passenger.)

When I fly, I always wear a sports jacket. No tie, often a sports shirt. Usually dress shoes, though not since I got mt neato-keen Boston Red Sox canvas deck shoes. Why do I do this? Apparently because I’m old, but also because of that old, archaic value, respect. If I’m in public, and especially if I’m going to be in close quarters with someone, I want the experience for them to be as pleasant as possible.

The airlines exercise very little dominion over what its passengers wear. Bare feet will keep you grounded; a T-shirt  with profanity or a lewd message may get you barred from a flight, but not much else. However, the airlines do notice what you wear, and what you wear may have benefits:

George Hobica, founder of the travel fare advice site Airfare Watchdog, said that “everyone believes no one gets upgraded anymore based on how they look.” But, he added, “It does happen.”… [Hobica] then relayed tales of friends who had been upgraded while wearing clothes they considered nicer than what they might wear to the gym or the grocery store, and a conversation he once had with a gate agent friend at Lufthansa.

“She told me she would upgrade people based on how good-looking they are, how pregnant they are, or how nicely they’re dressed,” he said. “She said: ‘Look, we oversell flights and, of course, we go down the status list first. Absolutely, we look at your miles.’” But if no one on the flight warrants special privileges, the absence of ripped jeans or tattered sneakers can help, Mr. Hobica said.

The Times got uniform denials that attire was rewarded when it contacted various airlines, but a flight attendant vaguely confirmed Hobica’s account.

“I will say that when I see someone come on the plane and they’re dressed nicely and their children are dressed nicely, I do take notice,” said …a United flight attendant since 1978. “When someone is a little dressed up and looking like they made an effort, it’s almost like they’re showing respect for themselves and for everybody else on the plane…My personal opinion is that when you take pride in how you look, you take pride in how you act,” she said.


The Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the day is…

It is ethical for polite attire to confer benefits for flyers over passengers who dress in flip-flops, tank-tops and torn jeans?

My view is that I wish I could in good conscience answer this question in the affirmative, but I can’t. Such a practice would help reinforce good manners and civility, and that is much to be desired.

To endorse this practice, however, is to endorse bias, and not just bias, but some very pernicious biases: age, weight, height, attractiveness, gender, race, ethnicity, attractiveness, and especially economic status.

If the airlines want customers to dress better, then announce up-front that those who are well-groomed, well-washed and well-dressed will get superior treatment. Otherwise, it is unethical not to treat everyone the same.


26 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Nicely-Dressed Factor

  1. I would be more inclined to dress nice on a flight if I wasn’t shoved into my seat like a sardine. I am usually changing out of suit (or dress) in the ladies’ room before the flight and into yoga pants/capris and a t-shirt.

    I also have been upgraded several times even when I don’t have status. I find this happens if I smile at the gate attendants and treat them like human beings.

  2. First class passengers get perks. If you are handing out those perks you do not want someone who will cause problems in flight. The odds say that a well dressed person will not cause a problem. Odds can be wrong, but it is the best game in town to avoid random selection with random results.

    Bias or not, this is the same as profiling. It is not bias to suspect a Muslim man, age 16 to 40, of being a terrorist as opposed to your wheel chair bound granny. It is simple statistics, and every system we have would fail if you could not apply some sort of discrimination to the decision process.

    Self evident, and used to be assumed.

    So, is it unethical to use the odds to help predict better outcomes?

    • ^This is what I came here to say. If Jack Marshall is on a business trip and he paid good money for a first class ticket across the Atlantic on a 10-hr flight then I would hope the gate agent making seating assignments would fill the seat next to him by picking someone who won’t offend his senses. A smelly hippy who will chew down their toenails in yoga poses for 3 hours would probably be less preferable. If the seat mate causes a problem for someone who paid their fare the airline will have to “make it right”. Better to get it right in advance before there’s a problem.

      • Except, the stewardess is in not real position to judge what will offend Jack’s senses. Sure, a smelly hippie will offend the senses (literally) of most, but for all the stewardess knows, a well dressed Asian, put together woman with a child, a “chatty Cathy or Cliff” in a suit, all might offend his sensibilities.

        I just feel like a stewardess who said, “yeah, I pick all of the well-dressed blacks to get bumped to 1st class, y’know, to settle the score”, we’d all have a problem with that. There has to be a more objective way (sort people by the # of times they’ve flown with that airline, or sort passengers by how much they paid for the ticket, or even 1st time passengers, as a way to engender loyalty) that would be more fair/make more business sense.

        • Chris,

          I think the thought process is that all things are equal, in that no one deserves the seat more from any but a subjective judgement call made by someone.

          If that is the case, then the ‘ethical’ call is for what will server the airline best: a passenger who will not cause a problem for them. Jack’s bias and preferences are not known, so cannot play into the decision maker’s judgement (other than societal norms being predictors of who causes trouble, and that can fail. What can you do? Go with the odds)

  3. How you dress and choose to present yourself to the world, does and often should matter, especially when the subjective opinion of another has influence over you (job interviewer, date, etc). And even when it the opinion of others does not matter, you are still sending signals out to the world, and the world can judge accordingly. Books DO still have covers, and we DO make judgements based on them, even though we should temper how much that judgement sways our opinion, and certainly collect more information about what’s inside (both person, and book), before letting our opinion become settled.

    Having said that, someone’s who’s subjective opinion absolutely should not matter being able to provide perks to those they deem *worthy* is wrong, because what a stewardess deems, in this situation, means little with regards to a passengers deserving-ness of perks.

    I do agree that making an effort is often indicative of showing respect for yourself, and the people around you.

  4. I haven’t read the comments yet, so I’ll just throw this out to spur discussion.

    How about making the choices to upgrade less in-your-face obvious by having a base set of flying public standards that’s well above that photo Jack shared above. I’m not talking about Sunday go to meetin’, suits and ties and Easter dresses, just reasonable casual business, no shredded jeans, heck no jeans period, and decent sleeved non-transparent shirts that actually tuck in and don’t show massive cleavage and of course don’t smell like a goat or like you bathed in a tub full of perfume. Encourage passengers to dress decent and reasonably modest at all times.

    Do you think an airline business would decrease or increase with a reasonable set of standards?

    There is always the bus if you don’t want to dress decently.

    • “Being fair” doesn’t seem to me necessarily alto be an ethical mandate: People who fly first class as we know pay big bucks for their seats and expect their seat mate be properly dressed and not some unwashed slob wearing a speedo. Certainly a dress code for airlines could be introduced and I think would make airline travel more pleasant for all of us.

      • I think the airlines would get sued. A unwashed man in drag could claim to be ‘trans’ in his heart (plumbing is irrelevant to the claim) and blame the airline for being transphobic.

  5. I can just remember that scene in “Being There” when Chance speaks to a park service worker about the condition of a tree. The worker looks at his fine clothing and responds that he will take action.

    A local stand where I live sells mostly corn. A few years ago I stopped by after a run in my pickup truck, trashy clothes and a slobbering dog hanging out the window. I asked the price of corn (they never post prices) and was told “50 cents an ear.” I bought some and drove away.

    I have a toy – a flashy yellow Corvette convertible. The very next day I was at a function in New Bedford and dressed to the tens. I stopped by for corn and was told the price was “A dollar an ear.” Sometimes it pays to look like a bag of manure.

    • I never go furniture or car shopping with my college ring and nice watch. I dress casual: neat, clean, and well groomed, but do not flash ‘yuppie.’

      I DO bring the above and business casual dress to the financing department, if I am not paying cash outright (for cash I might not even bathe /snark)

      Both make a difference.

  6. I don’t know if this is a Canadian thing, or maybe where I’m flying, or what… Maybe I’m like… significantly better looking that I think I am. Regardless, I’m actually upgraded a lot. Maybe it’s the look of absolute abject misery I gave the flight crew when they try to squeeze me and two other guys in a single row, and they felt sorry for me, but of my last five flights, I was actually moved up twice.

    And ooooo…. The first time I was bumped up, and they gave me a sammich… for free… Oh I was in heaven.

  7. I am upgraded a lot, twice I have scored first class when I was flying half way around the world, a freaking bed on a plane! it was awesome. I am clean shaven and generally wear business casual on most flights but that is not why I am usually upgraded, it helps but the real reason is I am a Marine, most of the time I get free upgrades I am flying for work. I have no qualms about it and it doesn’t break any rules, it benefits me and it makes the gate/flight crew feel good to do it, the vast majority of the time it is done quietly with no drama. There have been a few occasions that the crew felt the need to announce their deed, it then isn’t accepting appreciation on behalf of my fellow service members, and acting accordingly, but being the tool for the crew to virtue signal to everyone that they are patriots, after the last time this happened I turned down several until one flight it was ether take the upgrade or miss the flight. As with the flight I almost missed military tickets are bottom of the run of ticket holders but the airlines are not supposed to bump us from the flights so often on overbooked flights we get bumped up front as the business class to fill the cheap seats to make their flight.

    I would be fine with anyone who serves the nation to be chosen but it just happens that military members are the most identifiable. I have also seen doctors, firefighters and a nun get upgraded, not for dress, well maybe the nun, but because what they do.

  8. It is ethical for polite attire to confer benefits for flyers over passengers who dress in flip-flops, tank-tops and torn jeans?

    I agree that this is unethical. But I’m not understanding the idea that flip-flops, tank-tops and torn jeans are so offensive. I’m not sure about now, as I don’t keep up with fashion, but torn jeans were “in” for a very long time. As long as you shower regularly, flip-flops shouldn’t be offensive either; just make sure your feet don’t smell. Similarly, if you’re not a sweating mess, there is nothing wrong with a tank-top, though I am way too skinny to pull them off, and wouldn’t wear one unless I actually had more muscle tone to show off.

    Am I just too relaxed? The idea that the above outfit is trashy or inappropriate for an airplane strikes me as snobby.

    • Possibly flip flops, torn jeans and tank tops are dog whistles meaning slob in spite of the occasions that there can be clean and neat flip flops, torn jeans and tank tops. And FYI even though you may have noticed this on your first day back to school, artistically torn jeans are very much in.

    • Chris,

      Having lived in Cali, I understand your attitude. It makes perfect sense, based on Cali’s climate and relaxed outlook.

      Most of the rest of the country still thinks torn jeans are tacky (my daughter just got her first pair, and I still give her crap: I can take a cheaper pair and my belt sander to get the same effect 🙂 ) and that tank tops resemble underclothes. Flip Flops are beach wear, to most here. Things are changing (schools now allow torn jeans but not tank tops or flip flops, for instance, and flip flops will not get you thrown our of an eatery in most places)

      It is a cultural thing, I guess.

  9. Jack knows I’m not alarmist. But when we fly, we actually wear clothing that’s been proven to keep your body safest if there’s an emergency. Like plane crash survivors fared better because they wore it. We wear cotton or other natural fabrics, never polyester. Long pants and sleeved shirts. Well-fitted, securely fastened shoes that will stay on if you have to exit the plane in an emergency, and though it seems ridiculous, fare well if you’re literally stranded on a desert island. When you wear polyester and a fireball goes through the cabin (these happen in quite a few crashes), it will often not burn you outright, but will melt polyester, nylon, etc. right onto your skin. This led to changes in flight attendants’ requirements for pantyhose, actually, and they have the option of cotton tights now. We aren’t slovenly looking, but we’re not especially dressed up. I even have a pair of bright green cotton pants I call my traveling pants, because they’re obvious for finding me in a crowd AND memorable in case my kids get lost. I also have a skeeve factor about walking through the TSA area bare-footed, so we wear socks with our sneakers. That said, I also scored my ONLY first class upgrade by wearing a matching bright green shirt (cotton, of course) with my hubby and bubbling up to the counter, being nice, and telling the gate agent we had gotten married the day before (true). I didn’t ask, she offered. On our actual honeymoon, they couldn’t move us up, but gave us a bottle of bubbly and glasses on arrival in Dublin. You never know for sure what’s going to get you an extra edge for something nice. But like someone above said, being NICE sure does help. So there’s some info that might inform your next choice of clothing for a flight…

    • Being prepared is never alarmist, Becky. Like having a budget, or brushing your teeth, you are playing the odds for a better outcome.

      Most people do not have a emergency savings account or stash. When the unexpected expense happens, it is suddenly an ’emergency’ because they chose to cruise Alaska instead of having a cushion. Car breaks down? Use the credit cards! Bad idea to not plan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.