Do clothes make the controller?

“Cessna 123, cleared for takeoff, runway 13L.”

Do you really care what the person issuing the instructions is wearing?

I don’t. But apparently the FAA does. All across the country air traffic controllers are being disciplined for dress code violations. Some of the male controllers have rebelled by wearing dresses.

Given the problems the FAA is having staffing towers and retaining controllers, I have to ask why FAA officials are wasting time and energy on what controllers are wearing. I’d rather that effort go into making sure that the control cabs are properly staffed and that the controllers are well trained, adequately compensated and well rested.

It’s not like the general public sees the controllers. They could be up there in silk gowns, tuxedos, coveralls or even loincloths and you’d never know it.

Recently I learned about an air traffic controller who had his closet gone through and was told what ensembles he could wear to work. I am amazed that someone actually got paid to do the FAA’s version of Garanimals.

Unless you are in the public eye and have clothing protection requirements, like a fireman or police officer, dress codes seem to border on the frivolous. Note I said “border.” I can understand employers not wanting workers to wear clothes that could be distracting or offensive to others. To that end I can see banning kilts on men (a personal weakness), the muffin top (too much belly, not enough shirt), low-cut tops, butt-crack baring jeans, mini-skirts, and T-shirts with sexually, racially or culturally offensive slogans and symbols. But I have to draw the line at going through an employee’s closet to make sure that the clothes match. Who cares if employees take their fashion cues from Mike Brady as long as they do their jobs?

I’ve had jobs where a dress code was an issue. At my first TV job we were not allowed to wear jeans on the set, although the audience only saw us from the waist up, because the station manager INSISTED that it made us sound sloppy.

When the “casual dress Friday” movement came around, it created issues at another job where what was too casual became very subjective and hinged on your relationship with the boss. To explore this, a coworker, who had been at the station for five years, and I, a new-hire, dressed alike in red polo shirts, khaki pants and Weejuns. The boss said I was too casual but my coworker was fine. Incensed, my coworker pointed out that we were dressed identically, right down to the brand of the clothes. The stunned and embarrassed boss apologized to me and we got a good story out of it.

Sometimes the method of enforcing a dress code, such as the one facing air traffic controllers, is more an exercise in control than anything else. I ran into this at a flight school. We were allowed to wear walking shorts with company-issued polo shirts. Usually, however, I wore pressed khaki pants and, as a devotee of Greg Brown’s “Savvy Flight Instructor,” a starched white shirt with an aviation tie and black boots buffed to a high gloss shine. But it was summer and hot so I was in the shorts and polo combo. Then the walking shorts season extended into early October for me when I moved and couldn’t find the box with my long pants in it.

I wear cargo shorts that hang down to my knees, yet the guy that ran the ground school had an issue with them. He was known as Spock around the flight school because of an attitudinal, intellectual and physical resemblance to the “Star Trek” character. I don’t think I ever saw him in shorts, although I did notice that he often wore a brown belt with black pants and white sweat socks with dark shoes.

One evening as we prepared for class he announced, “I want you out of those shorts by tomorrow.”

The first response that came to mind was an arched eyebrow and a withering “Excuse me?” Instead, I replied, “I could take them off now, but at least one of us is going to be embarrassed.”

I delivered this line evenly, with a straight face and the biggest set of innocent doe-eyes I could come up with. I may even have sprouted a halo.

Spock went red and cringed like a child who is being forced to eat a brussels sprout. He squeaked out a clarification and muttered something about knowing better than to give me a straight line like that, then rushed out of the room giving me the Vulcan Look of Disapproval over his shoulder.

I found my long pants the next day.

I’ve had my own fashion faux pas, such as the unfortunate incident when I was in the chorus for a high school musical production. My choir sang “Age of Aquarius” from “Hair.” The show is set in the late 1960s, so we were supposed to dress like hippies. I found a baggy green and blue batik tunic in my mother’s closet with a matching belt and headband. I wore it for the show. After the performance my mother came up to me and asked how it was to be on the other side of it. I was confused.

“It’s a maternity top,” she explained. “I wore it when I was carrying you.”

Meg Godlewski is GAN’s staff reporter and a Master CFI.

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