Fort Worth, Texas — When American Airlines introduced 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 Houston-based 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.”
Kennedy is one of thousands of American flight attendants who have reported reactions after the uniforms were introduced 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 tests 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.”
American offered a fourth uniform option to affected employees from a different vendor, Aramark.
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 when she’s working a flight even though she’s not wearing the new uniform.
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.
Scarpuzzi said he noticed a strong “new car smell” when he opened the box. 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. “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.
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.
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.
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.
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,” McNeely said. “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.”