Image: pilots
Brian Losito  /  Courtesy Air Canada
Air Canada pilots are still required to wear a full uniform, complete with hat. At many other North American airlines, however, it's OK for pilots to go hatless.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/19/2011 9:25:57 AM ET 2011-04-19T13:25:57

Airlines to airline pilots: You can leave your hat on. Or not.

Last month, American Airlines changed its operations manual to let pilots know it’s OK to go hatless. The carrier is just the latest among North American airlines that have made the hat an optional part of airline captains’ and first officers’ uniforms.

“The reason we made it optional is because it got to be too hard to police,” said George Tucker, American’s chief pilot at San Francisco International Airport. “Hats just seem to be slowly fading away.”

The rule about wearing a hat “is determined airline by airline,” said Doug Baj, spokesperson for the Air Line Pilots Association, International. “However, there are some uniform manual policies that still technically require it.”

For several years now, wearing hats has been optional for flights crews on Alaska, Southwest and several other airlines.

United Airlines changed its hat policy about four years ago. “Hats are part of our pilot uniforms, but are not required,” said spokesperson Megan McCarthy.

Hat hair and mistaken identity
Pilots have a range of opinions about hats, with some saying it makes them look more professional and others saying that they are frequently mistaken for skycaps.

Mike Cingari, a San Francisco-based pilot for American, is delighted that after 27 years, he’s now free to leave his hat at home.

“I’m against hats. They mess up your hair, promote baldness and it looks really stupid to be walking around with a hat on,” said Cingari. “Plus you have to remember it.”

Cingari has found that sometimes his hat causes confusion inside the airport or out on the curb. “Passengers ask you directions to the bathroom or think you’re a skycap and ask you to take their bags,” he said.

Karsten Stadler, an assistant chief pilot at Southwest Airlines, has also been mistaken for someone else when wearing his pilot’s hat. “I once had a man get very angry with me for not bringing the van around in time. But as many pilots say they’ve been confused for someone else, there are others who say the hat helps them get recognized,” said Stadler.

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Although his employer now allows pilots to forgo their hats, Kent Wien says he’ll probably continue to wear his pilot cap to and through airports.

Wien, who writes the "Cockpit Chronicles" column for the Gadling.com travel blog, said: “It kind of finishes off the uniform and gives a more professional appearance. I think passengers want to see that. Otherwise, you don’t look much different than the ticket agent or a crew member.”

There’s also the issue of safety. American Airlines' Tucker makes sure his hat is always with him. “Because if, God forbid, I have that day when I have to do an emergency evacuation on my airplane, part of my responsibility is to get passengers together and move them away from the plane. The hat is a visible symbol, and we know customers respond to authority,” said Tucker.

Hatted vs. hatless
“It’s like the white coat on the doctor,” said Janet Bednarek, a history professor specializing in aviation history at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “You want to be able to tell the captain from anyone else.”

While some airlines are just now ditching the pilot hats, others, such as JetBlue and Virgin America, never had hats as part of the official uniform. “Our pilots’ all black uniforms are functional yet hip,” said Virgin America spokesperson Abby Lunardini. “We do not require caps ... but we have found that our pilots do prefer a uniform shirt that has epaulettes or markings that differentiate them from in-flight and guest service teammates.”

At least two North American airlines still require a pilot to wear a full uniform, including a hat, whenever they’re in the public’s view: Air Canada and Delta Air Lines.

Vote: Should airline pilots be required to wear hats? (on this page)

“The hat helps identify the pilots and makes them stand out from other crew members, passengers and business people,” said Captain Jay Musselman, director of flight standards and quality for Air Canada.

Hats reflect “leadership and professionalism,” said Delta Air Lines spokesperson Gina Laughlin. “The hat and double-breasted blazer give Delta pilots a sharp, professional appearance.”

Frank Abagnale thinks the airline pilot hat can also be a test of authenticity.

He should know. In the 1960s, Abagnale gained notoriety for forging more than $2 million in bad checks and for adopting a variety of fake identities, including a doctor, a lawyer and, most famously, a Pan American World Airways pilot. Abagnale, whose exploits were depicted in the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” is now a fraud prevention consultant for corporations and the FBI and explained, via e-mail, why he thinks pilots should keep their hats:

“The emblems on their hats, as well as their wings, are actually two of the most difficult things for someone to obtain ... removing the requirement of the hat makes it one step easier to assume the role of a pilot.”

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for USATODAY.com. You can follow her on Twitter .

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Vote: Should airline pilots be required to wear hats?

Photos: Style in the skies

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  1. Early uniforms

    Designed by Fiolel Colangelo, this is the second generation of the early Boeing/United Air Lines uniforms circa 1933-1936. In the years 1935 and 1936, a “United Air Lines” armband was worn by cabin attendants on the left arm to celebrate the birth of the airline from the union of four smaller carriers. The photo is part of the temporary "Style in the Aisle" exhibit at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Wash., which runs through May 30, 2011. (The Museum of Flight Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Seasonal look

    Delta flight attendants model the 1940-42 summer uniform, left, and winter uniform as they pose with a DC-3 plane in September 1941. (Delta Air Lines) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Delta style

    A group of flight attendants model the Delta winter uniform worn between 1965 and 1968. (Delta Air Lines) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Futuristic flight attendants

    Fashion designer Oleg Cassini created a futuristic look for Air West flight attendants during the carrier's brief existence prior to its purchase by Howard Hughes. The basic uniform, worn 1968-1971, consisted of a textured polyester dress and a jacket with an unconventional side-buttoning configuration. The pieces came in a selection of bright, solid colors inspired by the natural colors found at Air West's destinations, including fern green, Pacific blue and canyon red. (The Museum of Flight Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Aloha spirit

    In this United Airlines publicity shot, a stewardess serves a passenger. The photo is believed to have been taken during the 1970s on a Hawaii flight, given the clothing. (United Airlines via The Museum of Flight) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Style Down Under

    Flight attendants for Qantas Airways wear uniforms designed by Emil Pucci between 1974 and 1985. In 1974, Qantas made history by evacuating 673 passengers from Darwin, Australia, in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy, setting a world record for the most passengers on one flight. (Qantas Airways via The Museum of Flight) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Cabin service

    A Delta flight attendant, wearing the 1968-1970 uniform, serves alcohol to passengers. (Delta Air Lines) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. All-American image

    Leonard Fisher sought to invoke a pioneering spirit with his “American Field Flowers Collection” for American Airlines circa 1971-74. The uniform consisted of a solid-color dress with either short sleeves or a shoulder-covering yoke across the top. The dress came in a choice of red, white or blue with contrasting colors along the border. A matching jacket could also be worn over the dress. Perhaps the most memorable component of this uniform was a flower-print smock worn over the dress during in-flight meal service. The frilly, white garment was decorated with prints of poppies, cornflowers, daisies and sprigs of wheat. The apron's design evoked the image of resilient frontier women carving a life for themselves in the American West. (American Airlines C.R.Smith Museum via The Museum of Flight Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A new airline

    This 1971 photo shows almost all the Southwest Airlines flight attendants at the time. The airline's uniforms for its first air hostesses, as flight attendants were called at the time, included hot pants and were introduced on June 18, 1971. (Southwest Airlines) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Service with a smile

    A flight attendant models a Pacific Southwest Airlines uniform circa 1973. The discount airline, also known as PSA, was known for the iconic smile painted on the nose of its airplanes and operated from 1949 to 1988. (Pacific Southwest Airlines via The Museum of Flight) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. When plaid was fashionable

    A United Airlines stewardess is seen in the early 1970s in this Boeing 747 publicity shot. In 2010, United and Continental decided to join forces in a deal that will give the new airline United's name with Continental's logo. (The Museum Of Flight Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A new look

    In the early 1970s, American artist and designer Mario Armond Zamparelli was contracted by Howard Hughes to create a new corporate image, as well as flight attendant uniforms, for Hughes’ recently acquired airline, Hughes Airwest. (The Museum of Flight Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A wholesome image

    A Delta flight attendant uniform, circa 1979-1983. (Delta Air Lines) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Crew coordination

    Qantas Airways flight attendants model uniforms designed by Emil Pucci. The crew wore the uniforms between 1974 and 1985. (Qantas Airways via The Museum of Flight) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Helpful attendants

    A Southwest Airlines flight attendant takes beverage orders from passengers circa 2000. In 1999, Southwest flight attendants were named the most helpful, according to a J.D. Power and Associates report. (Southwest Airlines) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Ladies in red

    Delta Air Lines flight attendants pose in the Richard Tyler-designed uniforms. The uniforms, inaugurated in 2006 and still in use today, include a signature red wrap dress. (Delta Air Lines) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Sophistication in the skies

    Delta flight attendant Faye Brown wears a Richard Tyler-designed uniform. The uniforms are meant to evoke a time when air travel was "glamorous and sophisticated," according to Tyler. (Delta Air Lines) Back to slideshow navigation
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