Think of an iconic pilot — from fictional hero Goose in Top Gun, to real life heroCaptain “Sully” Sullenberger of Hudson River fame. Aside from excellent pilot skills, they’ve got one thing in common, a rather impressive moustache!
Despite the fantastic moustaches, there’s a clear lack of famous pilots with beards. So, what’s the deal? Can airline pilots have facial hair?
The short answer:
Pilot facial hair remains a 50/50 mix. While many airlines have relaxed the rules on facial hair for their pilots, others maintain a total ban on anything other than clean-shaven aviators.
Let’s take a closer look at these rules and why they exist.
Why did pilots have to be clean-shaven?
Firstly, it’s important to understand that the airline industry originated from the military, where rules and regulations are taken very seriously. As a result, many of the rules regarding uniform standards — from those fancy hats to the number of pilot stripes — may seem stuffy or uptight in the modern world, but they have a legacy background.
There’s also a safety aspect:
In addition, many airlines have strict rules regarding the appearance of their pilots for branding reasons. Clean-shaven faces are often polled as more professional and presentable, and ever safety-conscious airlines are keen to portray this image.
For these reasons, the majority of pilots were once required to be clean-shaven or have neatly trimmed moustaches only.
What has changed?
Believe it or not, there is scientific research behind the relaxation of pilot beard rules! In 2016, Canadian researchers looked into modern pilot oxygen masks and smoke hoods, and whether they would be affected by pilots’ facial hair.
Using a combination of a hypobaric chamber, stannic chloride gas (causing watery eyes and stinging) — alongside some very unlucky volunteer pilots! — their findings determined that there was no longer a safety case against beards!
The researchers found no adverse effects on bearded subjects within the two parameters of the study, and that the masks maintained protection, irrespective of varying amounts of facial hair. The study provided the basis for Air Canada to change its facial hair policy for aircrew.Facial hair on pilots: Study busts myth — ScienceDaily
By removing the safety argument, airlines were now able to update their uniform standards rules and give pilots more freedom around their facial hair. After reviewing the data, Air Canada did just that, and now allows neat beards up to 1.25 cm in length.
Following this, many airlines have relaxed their facial hair policies and allowed pilots to have neatly trimmed beards or other facial hairstyles. This move is also seen as a way to attract a more diverse range of pilots and make the industry more inclusive. Without a safety argument, it’s also feared asking for facial hair to be removed could open Airlines up to legal challenges if, for example, a beard has been grown for religious or medical reasons.
However, it’s worth noting that while some attitudes are changing, other airlines are taking a more conservative approach. They argue that pilots look more professional with a clean-shaven look, and that the ex-military traditions including pilot stripes, and detailed uniform standards build trust with passengers and enhance their brand.
Some airlines are pushing back against relaxing uniform standards, making their own rules even stricter. Air India is leading the way, banning their male cabin crew from having grey hair or even receding hairlines!
Crew cuts aren’t permitted. No beards (male crew members must be freshly shaved and carry a shaving kit on every flight). High top knots and low buns are banned for female crew members. Women can’t wear pearl earrings—only plain gold or diamond studs.Why One Airline Is Banning Grey Hair (And More) For Flight Attendants — Forbes
In conclusion, while the rules regarding facial hair may seem strict, they exist for a reason. Or, at least they did.
It was once argued that a smooth seal around the neckline is crucial for the proper functioning of smoke hoods and pilot oxygen masks. However, newer research has shown that a clean shave isn’t particularly important when using modern safety equipment.
As a result, some airlines have relaxed their policies, enabling their pilots to have moustaches and beards. It’s part of a general relaxation of airline uniform standards to appear more modern and welcoming to all. This drive has seen some pilots given permission to have tattoos, and some flight attendants can even swap high heels for trainers!
However, not all airlines are onboard with the relaxation in grooming standards, and a large portion of pilots are still required to adhere to strict uniform guides which ban facial hair apart from neatly trimmed moustaches.
Now there is no longer a clear safety case for prohibiting beards, it’s likely that the trend towards relaxing uniform standards and allowing pilots to have facial hair will continue.