A simple question with no simple answer. Matters of grooming and style are oven interwoven with ethical issues of inclusivity and equality, religious reasons and cultural expectations. In aviation, these questions go even deeper. Is it even safe for pilots to have long beards?
How will an inked pilot reflect on the company as a whole? Like it or not, airline pilots are ambassadors for their industry and their employers.
As a result, airlines put a lot more thought into how their flight crews look, act, and sound than you might realize.
Professionalism in Aviation
It’s impossible to discuss what is and isn’t allowed at the airlines without looking into professionalism as a pilot. It has always been a hot topic in aviation that airline pilots pay special attention to. If you’re eyeing a career in the airlines, then chances are you’re interested in the image of being an airline pilot.
For the airline, having the most professional pilots it can is simply good business. It means safer flying, fewer delays, and higher customer satisfaction. But how do you communicate that you have the most professional pilots? The easiest way is to ensure that they look the part.
When the nervous-flying grandmother in 34B sees the flight crew, she probably expects to see something in particular. It’s probably a middle-aged person wearing a dark uniform suit and tie, sporting epaulet stripes, shiny shoes, and a hat worn with an air of authority and confidence.
There are issues with this, of course. The business person in 15C has different expectations, as does the college student in 8A.
Who’s to say one person’s idea of what makes a professional pilot is any better than anyone else’s?
Then, of course, there’s an entirely different conversation to be had about what actually makes a pilot a professional and how big a part their appearance should or should not play in that.
Let’s save that discussion for another day and examine why things are the way they are. What can be agreed is that there’s a cultural expectation that has been built up over a century of aviation history. And it’s generally not in the airline’s interest to change that very much.
A Brief History of the “Pilot Look”
To trace the roots of today’s pilot dress codes, you’d have to look back to the origins of the modern pilot. For decades, most experienced pilots came from the military. As a result, the airline industry has long taken cues from military aviators.
The “fly boys” came home from the war and brought the pilot image with them. Leather bomber jackets, military-issued sunglasses, short haircuts, perpetually clean-shaven faces, and no visible tattoos have been the hallmarks of the look of the professional pilot for a century.
Some of these things trace their origins to much older Navy and Army dress and conduct codes. Others are matters of practicality.
For example, some believe the oil in a man’s bread could pose a fire risk when breathing with oxygen masks. And the issue of getting a good seal on an oxygen mask, which might be less likely if the pilot sports a long beard, is another theory that pops up often.
Recent Airline Policy Shifts
Pilots are an airline’s most visible and impactful first impression. To comfort a nervous flying public and instill trust in their skills, they should look and play the part of the consummate professional pilot. They must wear a recognizable uniform and be meticulously groomed to a high standard.
Airlines have been shifting their policies recently to accommodate different cultural norms. As a result, you’ll find a few companies with more lenient policies than ever before. But most legacy carriers retain more conservative policies from years past as part of their brand images.
In the end, to find the answer to whether or not airline pilots can have beards or tattoos, you’d have to research each company’s policy carefully.
No FAR (Federal Aviation Regulation) covers it; it all boils down to the company’s policy and workplace culture.
Which Airlines Allow Tattoos?
For years, the standard airline policy has been that tattoos were not allowed if they were visible when wearing the standard uniform. But, like other matters of style, this is a polarizing topic among airline execs and pilots.
Several carriers have relaxed their rules to allow visible tattoos so long as they are deemed “not offensive.” United and Alaska Airlines are two examples–both have a “badge rule”–your ink cannot be larger than your uniform’s badge.
In 2022, Virgin Atlantic announced that all crew members could have unlimited visible tattoos of any size, so long as they are tasteful.
If you’re considering a pilot job and don’t yet have any tattoos, the best policy would be not to get any.
While a few companies might be easing restrictions, it will still be a roadblock to your future career. When you look at the overall picture, nearly every airline–both in the US and worldwide–has a no-tattoo policy.
So, what do you do if you’re already inked? You could have it removed, a costly procedure that isn’t always 100 percent effective.
Or, you might be able to wear long sleeves and jackets, being very conscious of keeping covered all the time. A better plan is to look for airlines that have permissive policies.
Finally, you might consider a flying career outside of traditional airlines.
For example, many cargo and corporate operators have more permissive policies.
Which Airlines Allow Beards?
Most airlines are now more accepting of facial hair in some cases. The caveat is that each airline has an official policy you must abide by. The good news is that it’s much easier to change a grooming style than it is to change a tattoo!
It’s worth noting, however, that the image of the military airman has not changed much over the last century. For example, the United States Air Force still does not allow beards, save for a few exceptions for skin conditions or religious observances.
Plus, the idea that an oxygen mask might not fit a bearded pilot as well as a clean-shaven one persists. The FAA published an Advisory Circular (AC 120-43) in 1987 that states, ” Bearded crewmembers should be aware that oxygen mask efficiency is reduced by the presence of facial hair.”
But, regardless of whether or not it’s true, airlines are obligated to err on the side of safety. Hence, beard policies are unlikely to change until multiple reliable studies prove that facial hair makes no difference.
Policies aren’t limited to beards. Some airlines allow short and well-trimmed mustaches or goatees, and some airlines may grant exceptions to the full beard rule on religious grounds.
The rules vary greatly from one company to the next, and it’s impossible to make generalizations. Plus, these companies change their policies as time goes on.
Here are a few beard and mustache policy examples floating around. You’d have to research the company carefully to get the real scoop.
- Air Canada – Allows beards if they are trimmed less than 12.5 millimeters
- United and Delta – No facial hair on pilots allowed
- Southwest – Mustaches are allowed so long as they don’t cover more than 50 percent of the upper lip
- Hawaiian – Full, trimmed beards allowed
The Clean Shave – Wrap-Up
So, there you have it. Unfortunately, there’s no real answer to the question–yes, it is possible to work as an airline pilot and have beards or visible tattoos, but it is uncommon and generally discouraged.
Since there are no pertinent laws or aviation regulations to look to, it is a question left to each carrier and set out in the company’s policy manual.
So, if you want a real answer, you’ll have to start digging deeper about the airline in question.
Finding official and current internal policy documents can be tough. One good source may be the company’s job listings, which should list limits like these. You can also start searching web forums, looking for anything reliable in the press, and chatting with existing employees.
Keep in mind that pilot standards are usually stricter than cabin crew standards.
As a result, confirm that a report or policy applies to your desired job. Assume nothing.
From the airline’s point of view, a lot is riding on the appearance of the flight crew. These questions are as much about branding and marketing as they are about personal freedom. When you become an airline pilot, you are an ambassador for the company.
As their ambassador, the company wants you to appear as their ideal of a professional aviator beyond reproach.
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