'That was it for me': Why an American Airlines flight attendant had to switch uniforms
Wendy D’Olivo won’t even keep her new American Airlines uniform in the house.
The longtime Charlotte-based flight attendant had just taken her new uniform out of the washing machine last fall and hung it out to dry when she had trouble breathing. She’d noticed on an earlier trip that wearing the newly issued scarf left her dizzy and made her eyes red, but this was much worse.
“It felt like glass shards in my lungs,” D’Olivo said. “It was awful.”
Her mother took her to the emergency room, and she took a month off work. In the coming months she would be diagnosed with occupational asthma and reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, neither of which she’d had before. Her uniform is now sitting in a bag outside her garage.
D’Olivo is one of thousands of American Airlines employees who say the uniforms the company rolled out last September have caused health problems. The ailments range from skin reactions to respiratory issues to thyroid problems.
Nine months later, employees are concerned that the uniforms are still in use, but the airline – one of Charlotte’s biggest employers – says $1 million of testing has proved they’re safe.
Employees are allowed to wear their old uniforms or order alternatives, but some still say they would like the company to do more. Some are worried about secondhand contact, and the dispute continues to cause tension in the workplace, they say.
“I just want to do my job,” D’Olivo said, “but I need a safe environment to do it in.”
American, which has its second-biggest hub in Charlotte and 11,000 employees here, will continue to offer alternatives but doesn’t plan to recall the new uniforms, spokeswoman Katie Cody said.
“We want our employees to feel comfortable and safe,” Cody said. “We feel that we’ve given several different options to address any personal issues they’re having with the uniform. The uniforms are safe, and the vast majority have really enjoyed wearing them and wear them with pride.”
An ongoing issue
American gave its 70,000 employees new uniforms in September for its first major uniform change in 30 years. They’re made by a Houston-based company called Twin Hill, which is a subsidiary of Men’s Wearhouse.
By November, more than 1,600 flight attendants had filed complaints with the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American’s 26,000 flight attendants. The union asked the airline to recall the uniforms completely.
“Our members should not only look good in the uniform, but also feel good in the uniform,” the union said in a press release.
As of early June, 3,453 flight attendants had reported uniform-related health problems to the union, according to APFA spokesman Shane Staples. Of Charlotte-based flight attendants, 416 –15 percent – have filed complaints. Pilots, gate agents and customer service employees have also reported problems. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents a broader group of flight attendants, has also demanded the uniforms be recalled.
Only a fraction of American’s 70,000 employees have filed workers’ compensation claims related to the uniforms, Cody, the airline’s spokeswoman, said.
American, the union and Twin Hill have all done chemical tests on the garments. American declined to release lab results, but none of the tests found chemical levels in the fabric to be above industry standards, Cody said.
In a January letter to the flight attendants’ union, Twin Hill managing director Daryl Stilley reiterated the safety of the garments and called the union’s public statements “inaccurate and damaging to Twin Hill’s reputation.”
In a statement to the Observer, the company said it has “worked closely with American to accommodate reports of team members’ complaints or concerns about alleged reactions, although we have never been presented with any evidence linking the uniforms to the symptoms reported.” The company added that it stands by its products.
The flight attendant union’s test results show detectable levels of formaldehyde, cadmium, chromium and other chemicals commonly used in pesticides and detergents. All chemical levels except cadmium were below the industry standard, but the union expressed concern about the potential effects of combinations of chemicals.
Industrial toxicologist Paul Blanc said clothing reactions typically come from chemicals added to fabrics or used in laundering.
“When you look into chemicals such as formaldehyde and related chemicals, sometimes the standard view of what won’t cause irritation is perhaps too liberal,” Blanc, a University of California, San Francisco professor not associated with the case, said. “That’s been seen with formaldehyde, where people are getting irritant effects at levels that are supposedly below the level at which you should see irritant effects.”
The flight attendants’ union and American discussed working together for additional uniform testing, but failed to reach a joint agreement, the union said in May.
American hasn’t recalled the uniforms, but has allowed employees to wear their old uniforms or provided reimbursement for them to purchase similar items. In May, it allowed employees to order an alternative uniform with Aramark.
American Airlines’ pilots’ union has also asked the airline not to use the Twin Hill uniforms after wear-testing caused health problems more than two years ago, according to a memo sent to union members.
Testers reported experiencing hives, rashes, shortness of breath, vomiting and flu-like symptoms, all of which subsided when they stopped wearing the uniforms. The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s 15,000 pilots, recommended a different manufacturer, but management ignored the request, according to the memo.
Six hundred pilots have filed complaints with the union since last fall, spokesman Dennis Tajer said. Their symptoms have been similar to flight attendants’, and several have been unable to fly or have had to leave trips. The pilots’ union did not have Charlotte-specific statistics.
Pilots experiencing reactions will soon be able to order an alternative uniform, paid for by the airline, from M&H Uniforms, Tajer said. Cody, the American Airlines spokeswoman, confirmed they will be available for shipment in late June.
Some speculate that the secondhand problems could also affect passengers, although American has not received any passenger complaints. Family members of pilots have suffered adverse reactions from being around the new uniforms, according to a pilots’ union memo.
One Charlotte-based gate agent, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her job, said she has scars on her arms from itching and has experienced breathing problems, heart palpitations and headaches, none of which she’d had at work before. She’s taken time off work because her eyes have been swollen and sensitive to light.
She flew to Australia on a personal trip but still had problems. She wasn’t wearing her uniform, but thinks being seated near flight attendants who were wearing them caused reactions.
“I woke up scratching and my eyelids were almost swollen shut,” she said. “I was scared because we were over the ocean, seven hours from land.”
Philadelphia-based toxicologist Allison Muller said the reported symptoms don’t line up with one particular chemical, and the effects of combinations of chemicals are difficult to explore scientifically. But she’s inclined to believe the thousands of reactions aren’t coincidental.
Some employees could have increased sensitivity to chemicals after their initial exposure, which could explain the sustained symptoms, she said. But it’s hard to test for secondhand reactions, when people aren’t wearing the uniforms.
Could passengers be at risk? Experts say it’s unlikely. Warning passengers of potential health risks would be “sounding an alarm for something we don’t quite understand,” Muller said.
‘We just want to do our jobs and be healthy’
Flight attendant Brian Lindsay, who lives in Cincinnati but works out of Charlotte, has been with US Airways and American Airlines for 35 years. He calls himself “the picture of health” and said the fluctuating schedule of a flight attendant has never caused problems for him.
When he took the new uniforms out of their packaging, they smelled like medicine or alcohol, he said. His eyes itched when he wore the uniform and he got more frequent headaches, but he initially didn’t think the uniforms were the cause.
But after he worked nine days in a row in February and couldn’t stop coughing, he decided to stop wearing the uniform. Routine bloodwork in March showed that his liver enzyme levels were elevated, which he’d never experienced before.
In April, he sent American CEO Doug Parker a letter detailing his experiences and asking him to take action.
“We really loved the uniforms and were so excited about how they looked, and it’s a real downer,” Lindsay said.
The new gray uniforms were designed to unite the company, but they’ve done the opposite, multiple employees said. People are wearing gray, replacement gray, navy, black and white.
“I wish they’d completely retire them and go with a company that doesn’t use all these chemicals,” the Charlotte-based gate agent said. “There are so many people having problems that it makes us look kind of mismatched as a company.”
The thousands of affected employees have a Facebook group where they discuss symptoms, share photos of their reactions and offer support. Meanwhile, crew members who haven’t experienced symptoms will ask people why they aren’t wearing the new uniform. It’s created a hostile work environment, D’Olivo said – for employees who are feeling sick, matching is the last thing on their minds.
“At this point we don’t really care what anybody’s wearing,” added Lindsay, the flight attendant. “We just want to do our jobs and be healthy.”
Taylor Blatchford: 704-358-5354, @blatchfordtr
Twin Hill uniforms have faced scrutiny before
Manufacturer Twin Hill has faced scrutiny in the past for its uniforms.
In 2011, hundreds of Alaska Airlines flight attendants reported that their new Twin Hill uniforms were causing similar health problems, including skin and eye irritation, respiratory issues and hair loss, according to Alaska Commons.
Twin Hill acknowledged that one of the bolts of fabric used in the uniforms was contaminated with tributyl phosphate, a sealant which can cause skin irritation. Alaska gave its employees money to dry-clean their uniforms, but the health problems didn’t go away.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded in October 2012 that the number of flight attendants reporting symptoms didn’t appear to be unusual. The fabrics used contained many chemicals, but it’s unlikely that one specific agent was responsible for the various problems, according to the institute’s report.
The next month, a group of 164 flight attendants filed a class-action suit against Twin Hill, claiming a dye called Disperse Orange 37/76, which is banned in apparel in the U.S., was causing allergic reactions. The U.S. District Court in central California rejected the employees’ claims in 2016 and wrote in the decision that they had not provided sufficient evidence to overcome NIOSH’s findings.
“We have always known that our uniforms are safe for our customers,” Twin Hill Vice President Christopher Collopy said in a statement. “It is good to have this issue behind us.”
Alaska recalled the uniforms in 2014 and switched to one from Lands’ End. Delta Airlines also selected Lands’ End for its new uniforms in 2016, citing Alaska’s experience as a factor in its decision.