— Airlines to airline pilots: You can leave your hat on. Or not.
Last month, American Airlines changed its operations manual to let pilots know it’s OK to go hatless. The carrier is just the latest among North American airlines that have made the hat an optional part of airline captains’ and first officers’ uniforms.
“The reason we made it optional is because it got to be too hard to police,” said George Tucker, American’s chief pilot at San Francisco International Airport. “Hats just seem to be slowly fading away.”
The rule about wearing a hat “is determined airline by airline,” said Doug Baj, spokesperson for the Air Line Pilots Association, International. “However, there are some uniform manual policies that still technically require it.”
For several years now, wearing hats has been optional for flights crews on Alaska, Southwest and several other airlines.
United Airlines changed its hat policy about four years ago. “Hats are part of our pilot uniforms, but are not required,” said spokesperson Megan McCarthy.
Hat hair and mistaken identity
Pilots have a range of opinions about hats, with some saying it makes them look more professional and others saying that they are frequently mistaken for skycaps.
Mike Cingari, a San Francisco-based pilot for American, is delighted that after 27 years, he’s now free to leave his hat at home.
“I’m against hats. They mess up your hair, promote baldness and it looks really stupid to be walking around with a hat on,” said Cingari. “Plus you have to remember it.”
Cingari has found that sometimes his hat causes confusion inside the airport or out on the curb. “Passengers ask you directions to the bathroom or think you’re a skycap and ask you to take their bags,” he said.
Karsten Stadler, an assistant chief pilot at Southwest Airlines, has also been mistaken for someone else when wearing his pilot’s hat. “I once had a man get very angry with me for not bringing the van around in time. But as many pilots say they’ve been confused for someone else, there are others who say the hat helps them get recognized,” said Stadler.
Although his employer now allows pilots to forgo their hats, Kent Wien says he’ll probably continue to wear his pilot cap to and through airports.
Wien, who writes the "Cockpit Chronicles" column for the Gadling.com travel blog, said: “It kind of finishes off the uniform and gives a more professional appearance. I think passengers want to see that. Otherwise, you don’t look much different than the ticket agent or a crew member.”
There’s also the issue of safety. American Airlines' Tucker makes sure his hat is always with him. “Because if, God forbid, I have that day when I have to do an emergency evacuation on my airplane, part of my responsibility is to get passengers together and move them away from the plane. The hat is a visible symbol, and we know customers respond to authority,” said Tucker.
Hatted vs. hatless
“It’s like the white coat on the doctor,” said Janet Bednarek, a history professor specializing in aviation history at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “You want to be able to tell the captain from anyone else.”
While some airlines are just now ditching the pilot hats, others, such as JetBlue and Virgin America, never had hats as part of the official uniform. “Our pilots’ all black uniforms are functional yet hip,” said Virgin America spokesperson Abby Lunardini. “We do not require caps ... but we have found that our pilots do prefer a uniform shirt that has epaulettes or markings that differentiate them from in-flight and guest service teammates.”
At least two North American airlines still require a pilot to wear a full uniform, including a hat, whenever they’re in the public’s view: Air Canada and Delta Air Lines.
“The hat helps identify the pilots and makes them stand out from other crew members, passengers and business people,” said Captain Jay Musselman, director of flight standards and quality for Air Canada.
Hats reflect “leadership and professionalism,” said Delta Air Lines spokesperson Gina Laughlin. “The hat and double-breasted blazer give Delta pilots a sharp, professional appearance.”
Frank Abagnale thinks the airline pilot hat can also be a test of authenticity.
He should know. In the 1960s, Abagnale gained notoriety for forging more than $2 million in bad checks and for adopting a variety of fake identities, including a doctor, a lawyer and, most famously, a Pan American World Airways pilot. Abagnale, whose exploits were depicted in the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” is now a fraud prevention consultant for corporations and the FBI and explained, via e-mail, why he thinks pilots should keep their hats:
“The emblems on their hats, as well as their wings, are actually two of the most difficult things for someone to obtain ... removing the requirement of the hat makes it one step easier to assume the role of a pilot.”