Airlines are famous for having stringent grooming policies, requiring their cabin crew to sport certain hairstyles and even certain shades of make-up. But not everyone knows that there are rules for pilots, too – including facial hair!
Can Pilots Have Facial Hair?
Many airlines forbid their pilots from wearing beards, partly for aesthetic reasons and partly for safety reasons which we’ll cover later. Southwest and United are examples of carriers with strict rules that require their pilots to be clean-shaven. Other airlines will allow pilots to don facial hair, but only under the condition that it is kept well groomed. For instance, Air Canada permits aircrew to have a beard so long as it is neatly trimmed and no longer than 1.25cm in length.
In general, commercial pilots do not sport facial hair besides the occasional moustache. Facial hair above the lip is frequently tolerated by airlines who forbid beards, as it doesn’t pose the same safety risks as beards.
Beards a Safety Risk?
Airlines often cite flight safety as the reason for their no-beard policies. Pilots must be able to don an oxygen mask quickly and securely in the event of an emergency, and there is a concern that beards may hinder the process. If the cabin depressurises at 43,000 feet, you have around 10 seconds of useful consciousness before you are unable to fit your own mask. So it’s imperative that pilots can put on their oxygen masks as quickly as possible.
It’s thought that facial hair may prevent the mask from getting a proper seal once it’s been put on. The US Federal Aviation Authority, while it doesn’t strictly forbid beards, notes that they could compromise the effectiveness of oxygen masks by causing unwanted leaks. They point out that some manufacturers even include placards within their masks that state: “This mask has not been TSO-qualified for wear over beards or heavy facial hair growth.”
Tests on Beard-Safety
However, the science doesn’t necessarily support these concerns. When Air Canada banned beards due to safety reasons, researchers from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver decided to conduct a study to see if beards were as dangerous as claimed.
The scientists tested three groups of bearded men: stubble, medium length, and bushy, to see if their facial hair had any effect on oxygen delivery through a mask. The subjects were placed into a pressure chamber that simulated depressurisation at altitude, whilst their oxygen saturation levels were measured. The result was that all three groups displayed healthy levels of oxygen throughout, suggesting that the beard was not affecting the seals and causing leaks.
The study was enough to convince Air Canada to repeal its facial hair ban, but other airlines still might not want to run the risk. At the end of the day, this is probably more an aesthetic decision than a practical one. Airlines want to maintain a clean and professional front for their passengers, as it helps them to feel comfortable and safe.
Do you think pilots should be allowed to grow facial hair? Let us know in the comments below!