Delta's red dresses don't fit, Northwest union says

The red dress with a cinched waist is one of the work-wear options for Delta flight attendants, and it's the type of uniform that makes flight attendants striding through airport concourses stand out.

"Red is a color that attracts attention and someone, somewhere has made a decision that they don't want to attract attention to someone in a dress that's larger than a size 18," said Patricia Reller, vice-chair of the grievance committee at the flight attendants union's executive council at Northwest. "I'm very offended by it."

Atlanta-based Delta closed its deal to acquire Northwest last year, and Northwest flight attendants, pilots and customer service employees started wearing Delta uniforms about three months ago.

The Delta flight attendant and customer service agent uniforms, designed by Richard Tyler, were previewed during Fashion Week in New York in 2005 and debuted on flights in 2006. The designer focus of the Delta uniforms recalls an airline industry of decades past when passengers dressed up for flights and in-flight meals were commonplace.

The Association of Flight Attendants at Northwest filed grievances over the lack of availability of the red dress for females over size 18 and over a requirement that flight attendants who wear orthopedic shoes must wear slacks and not a skirt or dress. Those that wear the orthopedic shoes must obtain a doctor's note.

Delta denied the grievances over the red dress and orthopedic shoes with slacks. The disputes are headed toward mediation.

"There are fuller-figured women who would like to wear the red dress," Reller said. Others want to wear the orthopedic shoes with a skirt for a better look, she said.

Delta said its uniforms fall under its company policy and that most flight attendants from Northwest like the uniforms. Flight attendants can wear other pieces including slacks, tops and blue dresses in larger sizes.

"It's a variety to fit a very diverse group of preferences and sizes, and to continue presenting a uniform collection that is both stylish and very functional," said Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin.

Although the policies on the sizes of the red dress and the orthopedic shoes with slacks are not new at Delta, the flight attendants from Delta are not represented by a union. The merger with Northwest has brought the flight attendant union from that carrier, along with its grievance process, in contact with policies at the mostly non-union Delta. The Association of Flight Attendants hopes to unionize flight attendants at the combined Delta as the work forces from the two airlines merge, while an anti-union coalition of flight attendants from Delta has also formed.

Richard Tyler, who called the Delta uniforms "chic and glamorous" when they debuted, has participated in some of the flight attendants' fit sessions to try on uniform pieces.

"This is Richard Tyler's collection — he designed it, he knows it better than anyone," Laughlin said. "So his perspective on how the pieces were meant to be worn, perhaps how the pieces could be best altered to fit someone — that's invaluable perspective."

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