Amid employee complaints, American Airlines won’t renew contract for uniforms

American Airlines said Wednesday that it’s searching for a new uniform supplier after it decided not to renew a contract with a manufacturer that has been the subject of ongoing employee complaints.

More than 4,000 airline employees say the uniforms made by Houston-based Twin Hill have caused health problems including skin reactions, respiratory issues and thyroid problems since they were rolled out last September. The airline has provided alternative options and allowed employees to wear their old uniforms, but some are displeased that the uniforms haven’t been recalled entirely.

In a letter to its 70,000 employees, American Airlines said the search process will take two to three years and include employees and union leaders. Both companies called the decision not to renew their contract a mutual agreement.

“It is clear we need a long-term solution because the current approach simply does not work,” the airline wrote. “We now have team members in many different versions of the uniform and that is just not a sustainable path going forward.”

Twin Hill will continue to provide American with uniforms until the contract ends in 2020, the company said in a statement.

“Twin Hill has determined that the reputational risk, management distraction, and legal and other costs associated with serving American in the future would be unacceptable to our business, given the likelihood of continued unfounded allegations about the safety of our garments,” the statement reads.”

Twin Hill and American both said testing has proven that the uniforms are safe, and none of the tests have found chemical levels in the fabric to be above industry standards.

Charlotte is American’s second-largest hub, and the airline employs 11,000 in the city. As of early June, 416 Charlotte-based flight attendants had filed complaints with the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, according to a union spokesman.

The union also tested the uniforms and found detectable levels of formaldehyde, cadmium, chromium and other chemicals commonly used in pesticides and detergents. No chemical levels except cadmium were above the industry standard.

“We’re pleased that American Airlines has announced today that it will begin the process of ordering and delivering new uniforms for flight attendants and other American employees,” union president Bob Ross said in a statement. “Management at American is taking a positive step by stating that front-line flight attendants and our union will play a key role as the process for delivering new uniforms goes forward. We’ll continue to aggressively monitor this issue, as well as any other matter that affects the health and well being of our members.”

Six hundred pilots have also filed complaints with the Allied Pilots Association, a spokesman said. Pilots experiencing reactions can order alternative uniforms produced by M&H Uniforms, which will be available for shipment in late June.

Twin Hill has faced scrutiny for its uniforms in the past – in 2011, hundreds of Alaska Airlines flight attendants reported that their new uniforms were causing health problems, according to Alaska Commons. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health determined that the number of flight attendants reporting symptoms didn’t appear to be unusual.

In its statement Wednesday, Twin Hill said that American personnel have frequently cited the Alaska Airline situation to suggest a pattern of problems but emphasized that NIOSH scientists “determined that they could not relate the symptoms the Alaska flight attendants claimed to experience with the uniforms Twin Hill had produced.”

Taylor Blatchford: 704-358-5354, @blatchfordtr