Flying Naked: What Happened to Airplane Civility?

Proper airplane attire from Mad Men to mini-skirts.

November 18, 2008, 12:10 PM

Sept. 2, 2009 — -- Did you hear the one about the naked fliers? No, this isn't a joke, it actually happened this summer: There were these two fellows -- one on US Airways, one on Southwest -- who felt compelled to take off all their clothes in midflight.

Must have been disconcerting for the other passengers (especially on the Southwest flight -- pretty hard to ignore a 300-pound naked guy in your midst). And yet, my first thought upon reading this was: fashion.

Hear me out: Back in the early days of flying, you got on a plane, dressed to the nines -- sometimes tens, even.

If you're too young to remember that, all you have to do is take a look at a recent episode of Mad Men to see the kind of elegance I'm talking about: men on planes wore suits, women wore dresses, and flight attendants looked crisp and professional (not to mention young and pretty but in those days, that was a job requirement).

I invite you to take a good look at your fellow passengers on your next flight: try to find someone not sporting denim or shorts or sneakers. That's not necessarily a dig -- it's just our culture: on an airplane these days, every day is "casual Friday."

So how did we go from "natty" to "naked"? Or, from tasteful to tacky -- in just a few short decades? I think we can lay this at the feet of one man in particular -- a British knight.

For more air travel news and insights visit Rick's blog at:

Anyone remember Laker Airways? The long-defunct airline was the brainchild of the UK's Freddie Laker (the Queen added the "Sir" later on) -- and the carrier ferried folks across The Pond for rock-bottom prices.

This made Europe possible for many Americans in the '70's and early '80's, especially the nomadic young -- most of whom didn't own ties and thought wingtips were part of a parakeet. It was the era of grab-a-backpack-and-go, and a time when everyone wanted to look cool, not suave.

Oh, there were a few fashion holdouts -- take D.B. Cooper, for instance. Cooper -- no one knows his real name -- was at the center of one of the enduring mysteries of the 20th century. We still don't know what happened to this man who demanded $200,000 before bailing out of a Northwest Orient 727 back in 1971 but, the guy could dress. Witnesses said Cooper wore a dark suit and tie, a "neatly pressed" white shirt, and a mother-of-pearl tie pin. He may have been a mad man for real, but the guy had style.

Alas, onboard attire has been dumbing-down ever since, and the backpackers aren't the only culprits. Enter the miniskirt -- cute, yes, but pretty darned casual -- especially when made out of paper. That's right, paper. A 1967 Time Magazine article praised the virtues of paper dresses -- cheap, chic and disposable -- they never made it as resort wear, despite predictions.

But regular, fabric minis did gain a foothold -- along with their more whimsical cousins -- remember when Southwest Airlines dressed its flight attendants in neon-orange hot pants? Pretty funny, considering that just a couple of years ago, Southwest nearly booted a passenger because she was wearing a skimpy skirt.

As long as we're on the subject of officious airline employees, let's talk feet. On a recent transoceanic family trip, a flight attendant noticed my wife's bare feet and told her to put her sandals back on because "food was being served in the area." Later, we learned the airline had no such food/foot rule. Besides, we're talking sandals here and what are sandals? Naked feet decorated with a couple of strips of leather.

Time to return to our two naked men. I wonder if those two guys mistakenly thought they were aboard last summer's chartered "nudist flight." This was a flight arranged by a German travel agency and proved wildly popular -- every seat was sold out -- but, at the last minute, it was cancelled. Apparently the travel agency got complaints from non-nudists.

I have absolutely no desire to travel "clothing-optional" nor will I ever insist on pearl tie pins or ascots. It would be nice, though, if we could meet somewhere in the middle.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events