When American Airlines debuted new, modern-styled gray uniforms last fall, flight attendant Jaz Kennedy loved the new look.
“I was very excited,” said Kennedy, a Dallas-Fort Worth based flight attendant. “We’ve been wearing those navy blues as long as I’ve been there, since 1991, and we were all very excited about getting new uniforms and having something different, finally.”
She wore the short-sleeve jacket and gray pants, manufactured by Twin Hill, on a three-day trip in late September and felt great in her new uniform. But when she returned home from her second work trip, having worn the same uniform after it had been washed, she noticed her throat was scratchy.
“I scratched all night and my throat closed and I was wheezing,” Kennedy said. “It scared me to death.”
She went to her doctor’s office the next day and was given Benadryl, a steroid shot, a prednizone pack and an EpiPen.
“I thought it’s got to be the uniform,” Kennedy said. “I’ve never had a reaction like this.”
She wasn’t alone. Kennedy is one of thousands of American flight attendants who have reported reactions after the uniforms were rolled out in September. Flight attendants said they have had rashes, hives, migraines, respiratory issues and thyroid problems.
The Fort Worth-based carrier set up a hotline within days of the uniforms being introduced for employees to call if they had problems. The manufacturer added polyester and cotton versions of the uniforms for employees to order. And American allowed employees who said they were having severe reactions to wear their old uniforms or other clothing that looked similar to the new uniforms.
“This has been a priority since we first heard of the reactions,” said American spokesman Ron DeFeo, noting that the company has conducted additional testing on the uniforms and found the clothing to be safe. “Science might say one thing but if we have team members that are uncomfortable, we are going to do whatever we can to help find a solution.”
Six months after the rollout, American offered a fourth uniform option to affected employees from a different vendor, Aramark. Over 4,600 employees have ordered the Aramark option in the past week, DeFeo said.
But some flight attendants say just being around co-workers who are wearing the new uniforms is making them sick and that the company hasn’t done enough. Beth Henry, a New York-based flight attendant, said her throat starts swelling and her eyes sting and itch when she’s working a flight even though she’s not wearing the new uniform.
Henry, who has worked for American for 17 years, said she has also had migraines and thyroid issues. She has seen 13 doctors in 27 office visits and had lab work and MRIs, to rule out auto-immune disorders and other possible causes of her symptoms.
“The only thing that will make us safe is if there is a total recall,” Henry said.
‘My whole body was just crawling’
Joshua Scarpuzzi started training as a flight attendant in January 2016 and was fitted for the new uniform even though he wouldn’t be able to wear it right away.
The 26-year-old said he was excited when he received the large box with the uniforms last fall although he noticed a strong “new car smell” when he opened the box. Thinking nothing of it, he washed all of the uniforms and sent them to the dry cleaners so he could begin wearing them in September.
At first, Scarpuzzi didn’t have any reaction to the uniforms. He wore them on trips in October and November, not noticing until December that he seemed to itch every time he wore his work clothes.
“I thought I had scabies,” Scarpuzzi said, adding he was in denial that his symptoms could be related to the new uniforms. “My whole body was just crawling.”
Then on a trip in December, his right eye started to tingle and swell up. He also started getting bumps on the inside of his lip. For about two weeks, Scarpuzzi said he kept dosing himself with Benadryl every time he went to work.
“It was always within a day of flying so a friend of mine said you’re having a reaction to the uniform and I was in total denial,” Scarpuzzi said. After a trip to the emergency room for difficulty breathing, Scarpuzzi stopped wearing the uniform and purchased a Calvin Klein gray suit and Banana Republic shirts to wear to work instead.
Philadelphia-based flight attendant Amanda Arkebauer noticed right away that the uniforms seemed scratchy. To make them softer, she looked for solutions on the Internet, where people suggested soaking the clothes in vinegar or powdered milk.
“I did a lot of that stuff,” Arkebauer said, noting she even soaked the uniform in a big vat of hair conditioner. “I washed them twice and dried them and they were still rough.”
She was in the middle of back-to-back work trips shortly after the uniforms were introduced and immediately began having reactions.
“By the end of the six days, I had a rash on my legs, in places where the fabric touched my skin,” the 51-year-old said. “I thought I was getting sick and I had all this nasal congestion.”
She went on vacation and her nasal congestion cleared up. But within hours of putting the uniform on for her next work trip, the congestion and leg rashes returned. As a legacy US Airways flight attendant, Arkebauer’s old uniform was manufactured by Twin Hill and she had never had a problem with it. Her doctor tested her for allergies and found a dust allergy and slight reactions to grass and pet dander but no reactions to wool or cotton.
“I’ve never had a reaction like I did with these uniforms,” said Arkebauer, who is wearing her old uniform to work.
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, who represents the 26,000 flight attendants at American, said it has received complaints from more than 3,000 flight attendants. Many report skin irritations and respiratory issues but some of the more serious medical problems reported have been imbalanced thyroids, migraines and endocrine issues.
Henry said she first went to see a doctor in October for joint swelling, not thinking it was related to the uniforms. Her doctor tested her thyroid, which Henry says has been stable on medication for the past 16 years, and found that her thyroid was very high.
“I had so many invisible symptoms, I thought I was dying of cancer. I was so fatigued,” Henry said. “I had at least five migraines that month [Oct.] when I was working. I felt like I had such bad allergies with the runny nose, the itchy eyes and I was taking three different types of antihistamines. My chest was so itchy that even talking to school teachers [at my kids’ schools] I couldn’t stop scratching myself.”
Are uniforms the problem?
While flight attendants point to the uniforms as the source of their symptoms, American and its uniform vendor, Twin Hill, said they are safe to wear.
Twin Hill, which also made the uniforms for US Airways starting 2007, said it has worked with the fabric mills and manufacturers used to produce the American uniform for years. Together, they helped produce more than 40 million garments worn by more than 5 million people.
“Though each garment style incorporates a different variety of fabrics and other materials in its construction, the results of every test revealed that the [American] uniforms did not contain any prohibited chemicals and were at or below the established limits for those chemicals commonly utilized in garment manufacturing,” Twin Hill said in a statement Friday. “All the scientific evidence we have available to us tells us these uniforms are safe for wear.”
The APFA, which has conducted its own tests on the uniforms, said it found several chemicals including formaldehyde, nickel and chromium present but all within acceptable industry standards. Only one chemical, cadmium, found in the short sleeve jacket, was found at higher-than-normal levels.
“Two or more chemicals at different concentrations also may contribute to a particular health effect, and concentrations of different chemicals may have different effects on individuals,” the union says on a fact sheet about the new uniforms. “So it is very important to not place too much emphasis on the concentration of any single chemical found in the testing to date.”
San Francisco-based flight attendant Cathleen Rusk del Rio said skin reactions and bronchitis caused her to cancel a birthday trip to Montana.
“It was like overnight I turned into an old lady and I could not get better,” said Rusk del Rio, 61, who has called in sick for various work trips because she can’t get rid of a nagging cough.
Rusk del Rio said information she received from American after filing her complaint made her believe that the uniforms are toxic.
“I called the [employee hot]line and said I wanted to go back to my old uniform and the girl told me to box it up and take it out of my house and keep it away from animals and small children,” Rusk del Rio said. “I realize the company doesn’t want to say it was a big mistake but I think they need to come up with a solution.”
Despite numerous tests on the uniforms, Harvard professor Eileen McNeely said it is still unknown how they could be making flight attendants sick. McNeely, co-director of the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise at Harvard, has studied flight attendant health for more than a decade including a case at Alaska Airlines where hundreds of flight attendants said they were sickened by Twin Hill uniforms.
“We know relatively little about chemical exposures through apparel,” said McNeely. “It would be judicious to consider a uniform connection in light of some kind of historical events like Alaska Airlines, like other chemical reactions such as flame retardants. … but the jury’s still out.”
In the Alaska Airlines’ case, uniform reactions were noticed immediately but it still took the union and the company over three years to negotiate a solution to replace them. Over 150 Alaska Airlines flight attendants filed a lawsuit against Twin Hill but the court ruled in the manufacturer’s favor in October.
McNeely said she was not hired by Twin Hill, American or the union but has been sent uniforms by individual flight attendants for testing. She plans to test the garments over the next several months under various conditions.
“The issue for flight attendants is they have an unusual environmental context,” McNeely said. “So anybody who is wearing something from [a clothing manufacturer] might not have a chemical reaction from the apparel and textiles at sea level but when you put them in an aircraft cabin at altitude with different ventilation and different humidity and temperature and other exposures, they do react.”
McNeely said chemical agents can cause allergic reactions and other symptoms, such as thyroid problems, could be caused by endocrine disrupting chemicals.
“We may have a population of reactions to clothing from the chemicals in the dyes or the fungicides that are used in the shipments to prevent mold growth,” McNeely said. “We just don’t know.”
For some flight attendants, the uniforms are definitely the problem.
“I made the connection really quickly and I think it’s because I had three weeks off [in between work trips],” Arkebauer said. “I was fine out of it and when I put it on I was sick again. There are a lot of people out there that are having issues but are in denial.”
No long-term solution yet
In a meeting with employees last month, American chief executive Doug Parker called the uniform problem one of the most difficult issues he’s had to deal with as a manager.
“Some have said, well just go and recall the uniforms. That can’t be the answer. We have 75,000 people who like this uniform,” Parker said. “So that’s not the answer. We know that. But also the answer can’t just be deal with it. This is a real issue for a large number of flight attendants. We will keep working through it. I’m hopeful we’ll figure out some equilibrium where we can at least get people feeling good about wearing something to work that looks awfully close to the uniform that we rolled out. But we’re not there yet.”
American spent two-and-a-half years designing and producing the new uniforms, which included an initial design that was universally panned by employees. With the rollout, American shipped over 1.8 million new garments to pilots, flight attendants, ground workers and customer service agents last summer, offering professional alteration services to make sure the new clothes fit properly.
So far, over 800 injury-on-duty claims have been filed with the company, DeFeo said. Six hundred of those are from flight attendants and 200 customer service agents, he said.
Flight attendants, including Scarpuzzi, Henry and Kennedy, say they have filed injury-on-duty claims but the claims are routinely denied.
Ron Manuel, a flight attendant for American’s regional carrier Envoy Air, said he didn’t file an injury-on-duty claim even though he’s been sick because he didn’t want it on his employee record. Instead, he got permission to wear his old uniform and ordered the non-wool option from Twin Hill.
“I’m kind of scared to wear it,” Manuel said of the non-wool uniform. He received two blazers and a sweater but hasn’t even taken them out of the bag yet as he’s waiting on the pants to arrive. Manuel, who had sore throats, blood-shot eyes and migraines, said he’s thought about quitting despite having worked for American for almost 23 years.
“If this new uniform doesn’t make it better, what am I going to do? … I would probably retire,” the 48-year-old DFW-based flight attendant said.
Since American announced a fourth option manufactured by Aramark, more than 4,000 flight attendants have ordered it.
APFA president Bob Ross called the new uniform option, “a significant, although interim, victory,” for flight attendants.
“I do not consider this issue put to bed,” Ross said in a hotline message to flight attendants. “APFA will continue to document and investigate the reports we receive and press the company to implement a long-term solution.”
A divisive workplace
The uniform problem hasn’t only affected flight attendants physically. Some say unaffected flight attendants treat them differently at work.
“It seems like everyone I fly with, they notice I’m not wearing the new uniform,” said Scarpuzzi, adding that some co-workers are initially doubtful that they are causing his symptoms. “I show them my pictures and they are just shocked.”
Flight attendants that have not had reactions think the sick flight attendants should take leaves of absence and believe the uniforms are safe, Henry said. But for her, she said even if she is within a couple of feet of a flight attendant with the new uniform, she gets an allergic reaction.
“I’ve limited my schedule so I don’t have to be around it anymore, but I’m taking a hit in pay for that,” Henry said.
Some flight attendants say they are getting sick from sitting on jumpseats where flight attendants with new uniforms have also sat. Without a full uniform recall and comprehensive cleaning of the aircraft, some flight attendants believe they will continue to have reactions to chemicals in the uniforms.
New York-based flight attendant Kimberly Terpening has only worked for American for one year and now hasn’t been back to work since she had a reaction in October.
“When I got home that night, I took a shower and my skin burned when it got wet,” Terpening said, noting she developed a deep cough as well. “It took two weeks before I could breathe fully again.”
The 23-year-old said she was getting sick just being near her roommate, who is also a flight attendant. Eventually, Terpening moved to another apartment and now works for a homeopathic chiropractor to help make ends meet while she’s on sick leave from American.
“I don’t want to be part of a company that is not taking responsibility for its actions and is putting people in danger,” said Terpening, who may not return to flying.
Kennedy said she has continued to fly because it’s her career. But she’s worried about the long-term effects on her health.
“This is not an allergy. This is poison in my body,” Kennedy said. “Just give me a safe work environment that doesn’t have chemicals.”