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

by Michael

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

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

33 comments
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33 comments

Dave June 14, 2017 - 12:24 pm

On long haul flights, first or business, I wear airline PJs and try to be as comfortable as possible!

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mike June 14, 2017 - 12:45 pm

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.

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Michael June 14, 2017 - 12:58 pm

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.

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Jeff June 15, 2017 - 6:28 am

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.

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Tracie Fowler June 15, 2017 - 9:19 pm

Tell me more about these nonwrinkle pants

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Jimmy June 14, 2017 - 12:53 pm

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!!

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Michael June 14, 2017 - 12:59 pm

It’s a small airport in California, and funny, as that was exactly my comment to him!

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Alex June 14, 2017 - 12:58 pm

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.

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Michael June 14, 2017 - 6:11 pm

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

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henry LAX June 14, 2017 - 1:05 pm

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.

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Michael Karpiel June 14, 2017 - 1:10 pm

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.

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Neo June 14, 2017 - 1:25 pm

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.

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David June 14, 2017 - 1:46 pm

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.

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Pat June 14, 2017 - 2:27 pm

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.

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Captain Kirk June 14, 2017 - 2:52 pm

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.

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Michael June 14, 2017 - 6:16 pm

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.

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Christopher June 14, 2017 - 3:10 pm

Across the Atlantic most airlines don’t provide PJ’s in Business, so I’ll dress comfortably!

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Aaron June 14, 2017 - 4:31 pm

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?

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Michael June 14, 2017 - 6:12 pm

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!

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J June 14, 2017 - 5:57 pm

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.

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Lemon June 14, 2017 - 11:50 pm

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!

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Comeinteresting June 15, 2017 - 5:17 am

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.

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Rob June 15, 2017 - 6:24 am

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.

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Cane June 15, 2017 - 10:24 am

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

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Barbara June 23, 2017 - 9:53 pm

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!

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Tobi June 15, 2017 - 11:12 am

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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Erock April 14, 2018 - 3:14 am

Pretty sure I’ll wear whatever I want since I’m paying a pretty penny for my F or J international flight.
The crew could care less how you dress, just be kind and have good hygiene.

In honor of this article I’ll wear sandals and shorts on my upcoming Qantas first class flight. Nothing like seat 1A on a A380!

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BC July 20, 2018 - 11:58 am

Everyone is talking about changing clothes once you’re on the plane. Are you doing this in the tiny airplane bathroom? Or does first class provide a changing room? Or do you just stand up at your seat, strip down, and put your airline jammies on in front of everyone?

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AARON July 20, 2018 - 12:23 pm

Most F class bathrooms are slightly larger than the standard size Y and J bathrooms. So yes, there is enough room to change your clothes. There is no dedicated changing room.

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John July 21, 2018 - 4:36 pm

Some aircraft do have changing/powder rooms available for first class passengers. See: Etihad, Emirates, Singapore A380.

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Tracie F. July 20, 2018 - 1:37 pm

Yes, F international usually has a bit more room but you can also ask if there is a larger lav. Sometimes I find one that has a changing table so it’s significantly larger.

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John July 21, 2018 - 4:35 pm

On international flights on wide body aircraft there are always at least two lavatories that are ADA compliant. Plenty of room to change.

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Stefanie September 8, 2018 - 2:04 am

In every situation in life, I find that dressing well and appropriately will never hinder you. Our family tends to choose clothes that are in the dressier end of the spectrum of appropriate for whatever activity we participate in, but it’s no big deal if not everyone does that. What I don’t understand is why people *choose* to dress sloppily but are surprised when they are often treated with less care than someone well-dressed. Your clothes and your basic public behavior combined are your packaging, your visual marketing. In an ideal world, everyone would be treated the same, but we are not in an ideal world.

Looking ratty on an airplane is as undesirable as wearing evening gowns and tuxedos.

Take something as simple as the packaging when you buy a bar of soap.
One box is beautiful, perhaps invoking exotic ingredients or traditional production methods.
The second box is your basic mass market brand name soap, something like Dove, in perfect condition.
The third box is a brand you’ve never heard of, the box is a bit beaten up, the corner is crushed, and it clearly has been relabeled by multiple retailers who were not able to sell it.

Either of the first two are perfectly acceptable, but the third is questionable. It may be fine, or it may give you a rash.

We judge people in a similar way. All creatures make assumptions to survive and live efficiently. Your clothes are how you choose to market yourself. It’s the easiest way for you to choose how others will snap-judge you.

So to me, it’s fine if you choose to wear anything from a nice suit down to “smart casual” for a flight, but if your clothes are worn out, tattered (even in a trendy way), stained, ill-fitting, or like something you’d wear to clean out the basement or that a teenager would sleep in, you may find that you are treated accordingly.

I do think that shoes should be closed-toe and easy to move in without them falling off, for safety purposes. I don’t think flip-flops or stilettos are an appropriate choice for flying. I favor a well-fitted slip on loafer, for ease of getting through security but also they won’t fall off or trip me in case of evacuation.

Finally, on the pajamas subject, I think changing into pajamas is appropriate on the plane precisely because you have worn nice clothes to board. On long-haul flights, to avoid looking like a rumpled mess when you arrive, it is best to neatly fold (or hang in there is space) your clothes and wear modest pajamas, whether provided or your own for the bulk of the flight.

For our routine, I typically wear a dress and a jacket or cardigan, weather depending, and sturdy flats or loafers, and minimal makeup. My husband wears wrinkle-free trousers or jeans (no fading or holes!), a dress shirt, and a blazer and/or sweater. We both wear suits if traveling for business, as we go right to meetings. I will change at the beginning of the flight in the lavatory into black jersey trousers and a jersey long-sleeved loose-fitting top, or the provided pajamas, and compression knee-socks. I also remove any makeup and put on moisturizer. A sleep mask and earplugs and I am off to sleep. My husband hangs his jacket and folds shirt, changing into similar jersey pajamas or the provided pajamas. We re-dress before landing, feeling reasonably presentable and ready to hit the ground running.

We got into this habit after arriving on one particular trip looking rumpled and not getting the chance to freshen up all day.

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