Posted by Chris Pilarski on Jan 18th 2024

Airline Uniforms and Roles of Airline Pilots

How To Identify Rank of a Pilot Uniform

Modern airliners are commanded by two pilots, a first Officer and captain. The captain is also referred to as the Pilot-In-Command or PIC for short. Together, these two professionals are referred to as the flight crew or more specifically, the flight deck crew. When boarding a long-distance flight of over eight hours duration, you will see more than two pilots making their way down the jetway. These additional pilots are the relief pilots and are required by the governing aviation body. This will be either the FAA on US Carriers or ICAO for all other nations.

Captains can be identified by their four rank stripes on both their pilot uniform shirt or their pilot uniform blazer while first officers wear three stripes. Captains are further identified by additional embellishments on the visor of their pilot hats. This embellishment is commonly referred to as oak leaves or scrambled eggs in aviation parlance. A less obvious difference in pilot uniforms between Captains and First Officers is their wings. Captains commonly have and extra star and oak leaves above their airline’s logoed metal wings.

Roles Of First Officers and Captains

First officers are the more junior flight deck officers. While first officers are usually the less experienced pilots, this is not always the case as a pilot’s seniority rank within a company is determined by their date of hire. Some first officers have had a more circuitous career and may have spent years at carriers that experienced financial hardships that resulted in layoffs or furloughs. Some first officers have sufficient seniority to hold a captain position but choose not to upgrade their position in favor of having more seniority in their respective seat in the schedule bidding process.

The standard delineation of duties between the flight deck crew is universal. First officers and captains alternate the actual flying duties between flight segments. This ensures first officers remain proficient in the handling of the aircraft and build up their skills over time so they are well prepared to maneuver the aircraft once they achieve the rank of captain. First officers are also charged with the external pre and post flight checks of the equipment they are flying. While the first officer is conducting these external checks, the captain is focused on determining the state of the equipment based on maintenance records. The captain also uses their additional time to consider all the planning required including navigating the airport from gate to runway, the weather, and other pertinent information about the route they expect to be navigating.

Equipment Specific Assignments

Once operating an aircraft over 12,500 lbs., pilot training becomes much more specific to each model of aircraft. The costs and time to obtain this training is significant. Because of this, a pilot will be only assigned duties on a single type of aircraft. For example, they may be trained to fly the Boeing 737 or the Airbus A320. For Captains, a change across types is more difficult because they are expected to have achieved a higher level of proficiency and knowledge. All training events can be highly stressful as a training failure goes on their permanent record with the governing body or could lead to a termination.

Corporate Aviation

A much smaller segment of pilots has focused their skills on operating what is commonly referred to as private jets. These aircraft can be just as complex as an airliner and similar training standards are common. In this realm, there is more variability among crew seniority and equipment types flown. Corporate pilots often wear a traditional pilot uniform as this is the expectation of customers used to seeing pilots in this uniform. It is also required that pilots identify themselves with a full traditional pilot uniform in many non-USA countries. However, corporate pilots operating for a corporation or individual will often be seen working in business casual attire.

Uniform Programs

Complete uniform programs with all items provided are more commonly found outside of the USA. These programs would have a designated uniform program supplier which provides suiting, shirting, and accessories. In the US, while most airlines have specific uniform requirements including a specific color, many airline pilots do not receive an annual uniform allotment as they are highly paid and work under a union led employment contract which negates many of the state laws requiring that uniforms be provided.

Flight Attendant Uniforms

A flight attendant group is also referred to as the inflight department. Airlines and even corporate aviation place a much higher value on flight attendant uniforms than their flight deck uniforms. Flight attendant uniform programs are more curated as a brand identity as these individuals interact with customers much more than pilots. Flight attendant uniform programs often address all aspects of appearance including luggage and shoes. These uniform programs include more variety of items including dresses, skirts, multiple shirt types, knitwear, neckwear, and outerwear.

Customer Service Uniforms

Airlines also employ a significant number of personnel to run the boarding gates and check-in counters. These uniform programs are generally comprised of trousers, shirts, knitwear, and neckwear. The requirements are simpler than flight attendants as they are not expected to operate in as many varied climates as flight attendants and pilots. These groups also have higher turnover than their flight crew coworkers. Seniority within a unionized group is highly prized and results in less employee turnover.

Under The Wing Uniforms

All personnel working outside at an airline are broadly grouped into the under-the-wing group. This includes maintenance technicians as well as baggage handlers and aircraft servicing teams. Baggage handlers are also typically also assigned to be wing walkers as well. Wing walkers are the personnel holding a lighted wand and walking alongside the aircraft as it is pushed back or maneuvered from the gate. Most maintenance personnel are employees of the airline and are provided uniforms by the airline. Many baggage handlers and aircraft servicing crews work for a contracted service provider.


Uniform programs and their components play a significant role in identifying the people that make flying possible today. Their uniforms identify their specific roles. With so many roles being required to operate and airline, operating a corporate uniform program is complex and necessitates substantial logistical and technical solutions to properly outfit many individuals, across many cities and even countries.

Furthering the complexity, cost efficient apparel manufacturing expertise constrained by corporate budgets is only found in a limited number of areas globally. As a result, these products begin their journey far from the crew member that will eventually rely on these for their comfort, safety, and image. The world is indeed complex.