"You know when you go up in a plane and you just bloat in the air?" Ekrem Dimbiloglu asked me the other morning. "Your neck and your feet?"
As Delta Air Lines' director of uniforms, Dimbiloglu has seen what 30,000 feet can do to a person. (The official term is "jet belly.")
So when Delta hired fashion designer Zac Posen to create new uniforms for its 22,500 flight attendants, he was sure to include an elastic tab in the collar of the dress shirts. Necks could expand all they wanted. Problem solved.
That little detail is one of many that Posen worked into the new uniforms, for which Delta's 3,300 Seattle-based employees started fittings recently in a ballroom at the Airport Marriott.
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This I had to see, for it hasn't been very fashionable up there in the air for a very long time. If passengers aren't trying to pass hamsters and peacocks off as service animals, they're dressing like they're headed to Pilates or back to bed, carrying pillows and stuffed-animal backpacks and grease-stained bags of food.
If Delta employees are looking this good, it might just inspire passengers to pull up their proverbial pants.
Since Delta hasn't had new uniforms in a decade, the company made the day's event a party, complete with private dressing tents and a runway down the center, if employees were so inclined to walk it.
Why the fuss?
"It's deeper than a uniform," said Chad Holmes, an aircraft load agent based in Salt Lake City who participated in the design process. "It's something that you feel proud to wear, and if you have an employee that feels good, it's going to transfer to the customer service."
Those are fighting words here in the home of Alaska Airlines, which just last month debuted new uniforms designed by Seattle-based designer Luly Yang. She went undercover for six months, quizzing employees about their uniforms, saying only that she was working on a research project.
Posen, too, traveled to get a sense of what Delta employees needed and then engaged 1,000 flight attendants, gate agents, and cargo, ground and ramp employees in a three-month wear test.
Their suggestions resulted in 65 changes: Everything from the rise in the men's pants to the shade of blue, which was made 20 percent darker to hide dirt and stains.
The pen-pocket in the male flight-attendant suit was deepened a half-inch. There are "sweat shields" sewn under the arms of all the blazers.
The radio clip on the female ground employee's shirt was moved from the chest area to the shoulder. Ground crew shirts are made of Dri-Fit material with reflective panels built in, eliminating the need for safety vests.
All the fabrics have four-way stretch for better mobility, and all over is the Delta widget, placed everywhere from the snap on the pants to the top of the ground employees' gloves to the reflective material on the half-zip pullovers.
"They're not there for the customer," Dimbiloglu said. "We want the employees to feel great and prideful about working for Delta."
The uniforms debut on May 29 – the day after Memorial Day, and just in time for the summer travel rush.
Seattle-based flight attendant Lawrence Knapp has been with Delta since it merged with Western Airlines in 1987. He loves the darts in the new vest and the fact that the backing isn't silk anymore: "It used to get all pilled up."
In the next fitting area, Rebecca Stratton – who works in safety and compliance on the ramp – did a little dance in her new shorts.
When she first started with the airline six years ago, "I guessed what size I would wear and crossed my fingers."
Not only does her new uniform fit, "These shorts are so soft, I haven't even washed them yet and I feel like they're flexible and breathable."
Most people don't understand what the job entails, she said.
"It's a lot of different movements," she said. "One minute you're lifting bags, next you're climbing a ladder and after that you're under an aircraft. It's a lot of physical work.
"It's important to be comfortable in what you do. If you're not, you're going to be stiff and it's going to cause injuries."
Said Holmes: "We have pretty frazzled jobs. Now we'll feel more put together."
And, hopefully, a little less bloated.