“Twelve hours on your feet, flying to Kyiv to Zanzibar and back. If you wear high heels, you are hardly able to walk afterwards,” says flight attendant Daria Solomennaya, 27.
“Four hours of security checks and cleaning are included.”
She works for SkyUp Airlines, one of Europe’s newest low-cost carriers but one of the largest in Ukraine.
It has now decided to replace the old uniform with a far more comfortable alternative beginning next month. It is not the first country in Europe to do so, but it is a sign for Ukrainians that some of the old traditions are being swept away.
An icy wind buffets the tarmac of Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport, and this stewardess, for one, is relieved that her company’s dress code is about to change.
SkyUp’s female employees were fed up with their high heels, tight blouses, and pencil skirts, according to a survey of its crews.
“Many of my colleagues are regular podiatrists; their toes and toe-nails are constantly damaged by high heels,” she laments. Other common problems include varicose and spider veins.
Several other airlines have already abandoned previously accepted industry standards in their dress codes, including:
- Virgin Atlantic allowed their flight attendants to give up make-up
- Japan Airlines scrapped obligatory high heels, giving their employees the option of trousers instead of pencil skirts
- Norwegian Air allowed flat shoes and dropped the requirement for women to have mandatory cosmetics on board.
Ukraine’s low-cost airline has gone even further: high heels, skirts, and tight blouses have been replaced by trainers, loose orange jackets, and trousers.
“The job of a flight attendant isn’t particularly romantic. “It’s difficult,” says SkyUp’s marketing director Marianna Grygorash. “We recognised that our female flight attendants did not want to be perceived as “sexualized and playful.”
For decades, airlines exploited women’s beauty to boost their profits, often at the expense of their basic comfort and health.
According to gender expert Olena Strelnyk, “the typical image of a stewardess is probably more sexualized and associated with femininity than any other.”
This was especially true in Ukraine, where women have long been stereotyped as being more concerned with their physical appearance than Western women.
But, in recent years, Ukraine has changed dramatically, and Olena Strelnyk believes it has begun to shed many of its sexist traditions.
That doesn’t mean SkyUp’s Ukrainian competitors aren’t changing their uniform policies as well.
Ukraine International Airlines has a sizable market share, and after 30 years of operation, it sees no reason to change.
“Our flight attendants have plenty of time for breaks, and their heels aren’t that high: they’re rather token,” the airline claims. UIA is determined to uphold airline industry traditions and believes that each company should determine its own future.
The issues with heels and pencil skirts are obvious to Daria Solomennaya.
What if an aircraft had to make an emergency landing on water and a colleague had to rush to open an exit door over the wing, she asks. She’d have to clamber over seats as passengers waited in the aisle.
“Imagine how I’d look in a pencil skirt.”
In an emergency, high heels are equally useless, so she would have to go barefoot under strict security rules.
DRESS CODES: What they mean for cabin crew
But it’s not just during emergencies that the airline’s old uniform feels out of place for what is a physically demanding job that involves flying between different time and climate zones on irregular schedules.
At the start of a flight, all eyes are on the flight attendant, who is demonstrating what to do in an emergency.
“Because all of the seats are occupied by passengers, you put a life vest, a mask, and a belt on the ground,” Daria explains.
“In your tight skirt, you carefully bow down to pick up one item after another. It’s as if you’re on stage, and your blouse has jumped up above your skirt.”