Business and First Class Etiquette: To Dress Up or Dress Down?

Last fall I wrote a review of flying ANA Business Class on their Dreamliner from San Jose to Tokyo. In one of the pictures, I was shown wearing shorts, and this started a bit of a debate. Comments flew in from both perspectives, from supporting my decision to be comfortable, all the way to veiled threats. This topic was revisited lately when a friend of mine who works at a small airport in the western United States said:

You wore flip-flops…in business class? I’d drag you off the damn plane.

So that led me to once again wonder about business and first class etiquette, and also to wonder…why? Why is dressing comfortably for an 8, 10, 12+ hour flight so looked down upon? And if it really is, why do airlines give you slippers and pajamas in upper class and actively encourage you to change into them before departure? If you’re wearing pajamas for most of the flight, does it really make a difference if you board the plane in a button-up shirt & slacks, or in shorts and flip-flops?

A lot of people choose to dress up when they fly in premium cabins. That’s fine. I totally respect their decision to do so, but I would hope they would share that respect of people who choose not to. This isn’t the 1950s and 60s, when flying was an event with more of a “social club” vibe. Now you’re either crammed like a sardine in economy, or you get lie-flat sleeping quarters in front. In either case, why look down upon someone choosing to be comfortable?

I think the far more important factor is how you act, and not how you dress. Despite often wearing shorts and flip-flops on planes, I am well-manicured, polite, courteous, and respectful to both the airline staff and fellow passengers. In exchange, I’ve always received the same top-notch service and respect as anyone else on the plane.

The bottom line is that I understand why some people choose to dress up for upper class, but I do not understand why they pass judgment on others who don’t. It’s a personal choice, and should be more about how you act than whether you choose to dress up or dress down.

Michael Prodanovich is a contributor to Point Me to the Plane, and author of The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel

Comments

  1. I think business is fair game for casual wear. But in International First I always try for at least business casual. My theory is that you wouldn’t wear flip flops and shorts to a restaurant where you’re ordering an expensive meal with $400 champagne would you?

    It just provides a level of respect to the highly trained crew.

    Now if we’re talking United or American F, then crocs and a wife beater it is.

    • I understand your point about the restaurant, and I’ve heard that analogy. However my counterpoint would be that upscale restaurants don’t suggest that you change into their complimentary slippers and PJs prior to dining. Interesting distinction between business and first, too (and international and UA/AA first), as yes they definitely should be looked at differently.

      • If the fine dining example doesn’t work, then think of it as arriving at a nice resort. Even though you might be going straight to its beach, you still arrive in a nice outfit. There is something to setting the expectation that you’re not a slob or not acting like you’re still in high school.
        Arriving business or first in gym shorts and a t-shirt is definitely unacceptable. I’ve never been encouraged to change into PJ’s immediately. I’ve seen people do it immediately on flights departing at a late hour, but those people also opted for the executive dining ( they quickly went to sleep). Even PJs are better than gym shorts and a t-shirt. On long flights without PJs, I wear my Patagonia pants to have the best of birth works. They mimic dress pants, but they don’t wrinkle, they breath well and keep your body temp just right, and they’re flexible. I still get to look like I have it together and be super comfortable.

  2. What airport does your judgmental friend work at? I’d love to see him/her drag me off the plane for wearing flip flops and shorts!!

  3. Being comfortable ON the plane and being comfortable GETTING ON the plane for me are two different things. I dress up every time I fly long haul. Once on board I put on my PJs – in First the ones I get, in Business the ones I bring. It is a matter of class – at least to me.

    As for wearing Flop-Flops: having naked feet o a plane for me is gross.

    I like Mikes analogy about the restaurant. I think he hit the point.

    • Interesting distinction between getting on the plane and being on the plane. It seems a lot of people think how you do on that!

  4. dress down comfortable but with minimum standards. nothing hideous like a fish-net or a sequin-tube-top.

    i know someone who insists on full suit and tie whenever he flies in long-haul first class …. never understood his mentality.

  5. Michael – while I agree that being comfortable is important, I totally disagree with being barefoot in closed quarters. First of all it’s a safety hazard for you as the most dangerous time on an airplane is takeoffs and landings. Do you really want to do an emergency exit from a plane in bare feet? Secondly as a fellow passenger I don’t want your bare feet around me on a plane so I consider that rude to the others around you.

    Now being comfortable I agree. I travel mostly in economy on domestic flights but occasionally get upgrade like my trip next week. I also travel internationally in business class and regardless I fly in business casual attire down to jeans and a polo shirt if I don’t have to go straight to the office.

  6. If its a flight for work, suit or business causal at a minimum. If its for vacation, especially to warm climate, who cares about sandals and shorts? Bottom line I think its a personal choice on whether YOU want to be taken serious or not and all the things that go along with that. I can tell I get treated much nicer wearing a suit than shorts and t-shirt.

  7. My rule is to err on the side of being overdressed. You can always take off a jacket or tie. I’ve never had any trouble sleeping in a shirt and trousers. More important to me is that feet don’t stink and I don’t see too much of anybody’s body. Business casual is the safe way to go. No one will complain and it’s reasonably comfortable.

  8. It depends on if pajamas are provided. If they provide pajamas, I would wear nice clothes onto the plane, and then change to get comfortable. If they don’t provide pajamas, all bets are off.

  9. Being comfortable is priority #1, and as long as your attire isn’t offending anyone else like being overly revealing or having questionable content printed on it, then you’re good to go. I agree, behavior is 100x more important than your attire. If you act like an entitled clown, or do anything that would get you featured on the “Passenger Shaming” page on Facebook, then you deserve to be called out for it. A long flight is the perfect time to be comfortable, and there is NOTHING wrong with that. I personally fly in Adidas track pants whenever I fly. They are great for short trips and long flights. The reason? They are super comfortable, and easily turn into “shorts” by pulling up the pant legs when the cabin is too hot. When you step on a 6AM flight when the heat was left on all night, or step onto a plane in PHX in July, they come in handy.

    • Agreed…track pants or something along the lines of yoga clothes I think are perfect for long-haul flights, even in upper class. You are comfortable, yet still look put together.

  10. I think another variable to consider is where you’re going. What if you’re flying LA to Nadi on Fiji Air in business, on your honeymoon? Are you really going to wear a suit? I mean, when would you ever wear the suit once you’re in Fiji? Even wearing business casual, are you ever going to wear slacks and a polo shirt on the island?

    • That was definitely something else I was thinking about too, but didn’t bring up in this post. The particular flight on which my friend commented was leaving Bali…where nearly everyone was in flip-flops and shorts!

  11. I care less about dress and more about hygiene. Then again, I care about hygiene whether it’s F, J, or Y.

    I’m probably the wrong sample person to ask since I’m always dressed for business (dress shoes, slacks, dress shirt and jacket) even in Y.

  12. Business and Class are the operative words here! Flip flops and shorts are Beach Class and an excuse for Slob Class. You don’t have to resort to the latter to be in Comfortable Class!

  13. Flying F would naturally mean a few hours downing French in the spectacular SYD QF F lounge. I would be incredibly disappointed if someone chose not to dress appropriately in said venue. The staff go to great effort and so should their guests. On the slim chance the QF staff let someone through the door in shorts and thongs I’d have no trouble in sharing my views via a strategically directed glare or ten.

    Thankfully QF have a dress code for their clubs and lounges.

    I have a personal hang up about take off / landing wearing shoes or boots, no matter what class I’m flying. If the plane crashes I don’t want to be walking on burning surfaces in bare feet. Or thongs.

    Yet another personal hang up – I usually fly in a shirt with a collar and pocket. Once again if the plane crashes I want my phone and passport as close as possible.

  14. Style matters, not formality. One can wear a suit and still look like trash.

    Pax A: Wearing Diesel Jeans, D2 trainers, & a hoodie. Pax B: Wearing a rumpled Zara suit. I know which one will look more at home in J.

    • How about everyone mind their own fucking business and wear what’s good for u–if u want to wear a suit good for u. If I want to wear ball shorts nikes and a t shirt and a hat good for me. People need to stay in their own lanes

      • Yes stay in your own lanes. Social lanes are not yours. They are social ie. Among other people so your Own lane is for when you are alone. When you are with OTHERS then you are not in your own lane, you are in a lane with other humans whom you should CONSIDER!

  15. The only people wearing suits in First are those who’ve been upgraded, those of us who’ve paid to be there will be the ones wearing jeans, sweatshirts, etc.

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