Can United Airlines fly past American's itchy uniform debacle?

United Airlines wants to spruce up its image by outfitting employees in designer-inspired uniforms. But making such a sweeping wardrobe change isn't always a snap.

That's a hard reality United's archrival, American Airlines, knows a lot about. Late last year, American rolled out new uniforms and has been coping with related troubles ever since.

While typical airline passengers don't spend much time contemplating airline fashions, employee uniforms play an essential role in a company's multimillion-dollar marketing and image-making message.

Determining new uniform designs can take years, and United, or any airline, must invest immense time, money and resources in the process. Foul up and it will mean a significant hit to employee morale and the company bank account.

That's why United's Thursday announcement about embarking on an across-the-board revamp of 70,000 employee uniforms is serious business.

Having suffered a public relations blow earlier because of its embarrassing passenger-dragging incident involving Dr. David Dao, United looks determined to not let this matter spin out of control.

To hedge against problems, it's aligning itself with some heavy hitters in the fashion world.

The Chicago-based company is partnering with designers and apparel companies Brooks Brothers, Tracy Reese and Carhartt, a Michigan-based outerwear manufacturer. Tumi will be the "official luggage provider for all 24,000 flight attendants," according to United.

Hopping on board are the airline's unions, whose members are going to wear and work in the new duds. United's announcement was rife with bullish comments from representatives of the pilots, flight attendants, machinists and techies.

These folks hailed United's management for soliciting employee feedback from the rank and file. The airline knows keeping them happy is essential to the plan's success.

In an often labor-contentious airline industry, this display of public buy-in is not the usual bill of fare. For United, in particular, it reflects CEO Oscar Munoz's ongoing quest to shore up labor relations at the carrier.

United's new uniforms are expected to debut in 2020.

A few years ago, American's uniform adventure got underway in much the same way as United's. The airline held talks and open forums and canvassed employees to get input about style and design.

However, something went wrong once those uniforms ended up on many workers' backs. Thousands of American pilots, flight attendants and others complained. Around 3,500 blamed the uniforms for being itchy and uncomfortable and, more disturbing, fostering heavy rashes, hives, breathing disorders and other ailments.

The flight attendants union called for a recall, but the airline refused. Instead, American said employees could wear their old uniforms until it was determined through chemical tests and evaluation if the new uniforms were toxic.

American, the second-largest carrier at O'Hare International Airport, and its uniform supplier mutually parted ways in June. The airline is picking another distributor and planning to supply new uniforms, according to the company.

It remains to be seen if this debacle will have a detrimental impact on American's already-uneven management and labor relations. I doubt it will help.

United is among the last of the large domestic carriers to recently revamp its employee uniforms. Since late last year, Delta and Southwest introduced new clothing for their people.

A United spokeswoman told the Tribune the airline was "taking our time to do it right."

That makes sense, especially if that time is being spent seeking ways to avoid the employee turbulence that's buffeting American.

roreed@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @reedtribbiz

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
58°