JANET STREET-PORTER: Sorry Branson, staff can wear whatever they like

JANET STREET-PORTER: Sorry Mr Branson, but airline staff can wear whatever they like for all I care – as long as we don’t have to endure another tortuous summer of cancelled flights, passport chaos and lost luggage

Let’s give three cheers for Virgin Atlantic, who want their staff to ‘be their true selves at work’ and claim to be the first airline on the planet to offer ‘gendered uniform options’. In other words, if the person in the cockpit wants to wear a skirt, it’s fine. In the gender-fluid world of Virgin, staff happiness is paramount.

But what about the poor sods sitting in economy who have parted with their hard-earned wages to travel? What about their mental well-being and comfort?

Increasingly, air travel has become a form of torture. Staff shortages, cancelled flights, lost baggage. It’s been the story of the summer and it’s not going away. Last week, I spent hours trying to get through passport control at Frankfurt airport, where just three border officials were monitoring the travel documents of thousands of travellers entering the EU from all over the world. Hundreds of passengers would miss their connecting flights and God knows where their baggage would end up.

That scenario is being repeated at major hubs in the Netherlands, France and the UK every single day. This week, the CEO of Schiphol airport resigned after a summer of strikes and cancellations. The reason? Not enough security guards, so departures have been cut by 20% for the foreseeable future. To try to reduce passenger numbers even further, KLM has imposed a whopping 250-euro surcharge on all flights out of the airport.

At Heathrow, similar staff shortages led to passenger numbers being capped at 100,000 a day, forcing BA to cancel over 10,000 flights until next March. It’s the same story at Frankfurt and Paris. As for ensuring a happy work force, there have been a long series of disputes with staff affecting most major airlines as they attempt to recoup losses they suffered during Covid travel bans.

Let’s give three cheers for Virgin Atlantic, who want their staff to ‘be their true selves at work’ and claim to be the first airline on the planet to offer ‘gendered uniform options’

Virgin was founded by Richard Branson, a man never short of a publicity stunt or two, generally with a gorgeous woman a few feet from his side

Lufthansa pilots went on strike in Germany recently, resulting in over 800 flights being cancelled. French air traffic controllers went on strike the other week and plan more disruption, which could impact up to 50% of the fights over Europe. Budget airlines Ryanair and Vueling are also facing strike action from disgruntled cabin crews.

The people who seem to be getting forgotten in all these disputes are those whose hard-earned cash is keeping the air travel industry afloat. The passengers. We continue to be treated no better than truckloads of cattle being sent to slaughter. In fact, there are probably more rules about transporting a heifer to its death than there are for taking a trip on a budget airline to the Costa del Sol.

Put bluntly, passengers seem to be a secondary consideration to airlines. The staff can wear crinolines and corsets for all I care, as long as they do their job with professionalism and treat me with dignity. I am not their new best friend, we are not in a nightclub or at a rave, we are embarking on a potentially stressful journey together.

When exhausted air travellers eventually reach their seats on the plane, I am sure it will be reassuring for them to know that the person offering them the choice of a lukewarm cup of weak coffee or a bottle of water is being allowed to wear whatever version of the official uniform they choose.

Of course, the LGBTQ+ community deserve to have their rights respected and celebrated, but what about a traveller’s right to a decent journey through an airport or the right to be completely sure we will be able to pick up our luggage at the end of our journey? Our right to move through passport control in less than two hours of shuffling?

Virgin Atlantic were already the first airline to allow staff to display their tattoos. Now, a new ‘Be Yourself’ campaign is encouraging onboard staff to wear whatever version of the official uniform they are comfortable with. Previously, the suits designed by Vivienne Westwood were red for female staff, and burgundy for men, but ‘gendered’ uniform rules have been scrapped.

Increasingly, air travel has become a form of torture. Staff shortages, cancelled flights, lost baggage. It’s been the story of the summer and it’s not going away

In other words, if the person in the cockpit wants to wear a skirt, it’s fine. In the gender-fluid world of Virgin, staff happiness is paramount

Michelle Visage, a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, fronted the new campaign, and said it meant a lot to her, stating ‘people feel empowered by what they are wearing’ and claimed it would make them feel happier at work.

Virgin proudly claim to be the world’s ‘most inclusive’ airline, and plan to hand out pronoun badges for customers in their Clubhouse lounges, so (if you’ve paid enough for your ticket) you can let staff know how you would like to be addressed on board.

British airlines, not to be outdone, dropped referring to passengers as ‘ladies and gentlemen’ in onboard announcements a while ago.

Personally, I’d like to be called ‘madam’ or ‘the person who is funding this airline’ rather than nothing at all.

Airlines are struggling to recover after suffering huge losses during the pandemic. When travel restrictions were lifted, passenger numbers soared and airports were completely unable to cope. Security staff, cleaners and baggage handlers were in short supply, with thousands laid off during lockdown.

There has been a challenge to recruit replacements and train them in the stricter regulations, and many old employees have found other work with better pay and conditions and family-friendly hours.

But what about the poor sods sitting in economy who have parted with their hard-earned wages to travel? What about their mental well-being and comfort?

Which brings me back to Virgin Atlantic and their ‘Be Yourself’ campaign. Airline uniforms have always been a way for brands to make an impact, with designers like Vivienne Westwood being chosen because of their high profiles and international reputation.

But we are not choosing an airline in 2022 because of the colour of the crew’s skirts or the extraordinary tattoos we can enjoy instead of a movie. Reliability and cost are the two main considerations.

Virgin was founded by Richard Branson, a man never short of a publicity stunt or two, generally with a gorgeous woman a few feet from his side.

The current boss, Shai Weiss has been complaining to anyone who will listen that the new UK Prime Minister and her Chancellor are seriously bad for business. Mr Weiss is furious about the impact that Kami-Kwasi’s mini budget has had on the value of Sterling against the dollar.

Two-thirds of Virgin Atlantic’s costs are in dollars, but the company only receives one third of their income in the currency. In 2021, the airline made a loss of £486 million and had to be bailed out with an injection of £400million from shareholders. It does not expect to be profitable until 2023 at the earliest.

You can understand why branding itself as the airline that’s super-friendly towards the LGBT+ community might be attractive. Virgin Atlantic need every passenger they can get, at a time when the cost of living is rising- air travel is expensive and not that attractive.

It might be praise-worthy, but I don’t think dishing out pronoun badges is the solution.

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