Kicking Off Their High Heels, El Al Flight Attendants Are Voting With Their Feet

Many seem to be quietly ignoring the company’s new footwear directive and choosing their health and safety over appearance. Good for them.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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An air hostess (illustration)
An air hostess (illustration)Credit: Dreamstime
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

A public protest against enforced high heels grabbed international headlines a few weeks ago when female flight attendants at the Israeli carrier El Al were infuriated at a company change in policy regarding their footwear. The new directive required them to wear high heels in the plane until passengers were seated.

The world interest sparked because high heels strike a chord among footsore women everywhere. The issue periodically flares up, and it seems as if it hasn’t stayed out of the news in recent weeks: from requiring them on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival to whether they are appropriate to running after dinosaurs in the latest Jurassic Park movie. And last week a video feature of a hapless guy named Brandon Cohen trying to totter through one workday in stilettos - unsuccessfully - has gone viral.

El Al flight attendants have always been required to wear high heels in the airport before boarding their flights. Once aboard, they were permitted to change into flat-heeled shoes as they began the physical work of preparing the plane for the flight and seating passengers, a process which takes an hour and a half, or sometimes even longer.

Changing the policy and requiring them to stay in their heels during the preparation and boarding phase, only allowing them to change into more comfortable shoes after the last passenger was seated and the flight was ready for takeoff angered them. Hundreds signed a petition and sent letters of protest to the company’s management and a Facebook campaign was organized in which they replaced their profile photos with a high-heeled shoe with a plane where the heel should be. The fury stemmed from the perception that management cared more about their employee’s sexy appearance than their health and safety. Navigating the tricky aisles of an airplane while lifting bags and equipment offers clear opportunities for tripping, even in flat shoes, and heels increase the odds substantially.

As someone who can’t make it through a wedding in heels, I fully sympathized when I heard the story. When I arrived at the airport for an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to the United States the first thing I looked at were my flight attendants feet, and their faces. I expected to see the feet in high heels and the faces miserable, but I was surprised. Instead, I saw happy, confident, relaxed women - and a minority of their feet in heels. As they readied the flight for takeoff - and even in the airport - approximately half of them were in comfortable flat shoes; professional, attractive shoes, but definitely not high heels.

I couldn’t help but ask my flight attendant, as she was clearing my tray from a meal, exactly what was going on.

“I see that most of you are wearing flats during the boarding process - even in the airport,” I said to her. “I have to ask - are you getting in trouble for doing so?”

She said that no, everyone is wearing what they want to wear. Women who want to wear heels are doing so, and those who aren’t are forgoing the heels without special permission and without repercussions. “So many of us are just doing what they want. They know they can’t discipline everybody for breaking their rule.”

So it seems that, while El Al has steadfastly refused to publicly backtrack on their policy, since their press statement in mid-June defending the high-heel policy as being “accepted in the aviation industry throughout the world,” they are having a hard time enforcing it. The flight attendants and their feet seem to have won the war, at least for now.

And so it should be.

Female flight attendants, formally known as “stewardesses” represent the final frontier when it comes to sexist legislation of their appearance for women. Battles have been fought against corporate policies regarding their age, weight, the amount of makeup they are required to wear, and, of course their clothing. Flight attendants at various companies at various stages have fought for everything from the right to keep working after they turn 40 to the right to wear pants, in corporate efforts to create the image of sexy geishas in the sky instead of trained professionals.  

Though these struggles are familiar, one has to admit that it is particularly amusing to watch it play out on El Al. After all, the airline's other big international controversy has centered around how their staff deals with ultra-Orthodox men delaying and disrupting flights because they refused to sit next to women, which takes place during the boarding phase of the flight that is central to the high heels controversy.

The absurdity of flight attendants being required to wear heels in order to make their legs more attractive at a time when they have to deal with men who are trying to avoid sitting next to women kicks the level of irony up to the height of an airplane flight - or a pair of heels.

El Al did not respond to requests for comment.

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