The World's Most Controversial Airlines

Do you prefer your flight attendants with bikinis or burqas?

When you think of low-cost airlines—if you live in the United States, anyway—you think of Southwest Airlines. And if you're below a certain age (let's say 40), you know Southwest primarily for its low fares. But older people, particularly older men who once flew the airline for business, remember Southwest differently.

"The stewardesses wore hot pants," my father often recollects, speaking about his travels around Texas on Southwest during the early 1980s. "And they tried to get you wasted, even on 30-minute flights between Houston and Dallas.

"And they wore hot pants," he'll always continue, with an expression on his face that straddles delight and bewilderment.

To be sure, when you look around the world for Southwest cognates, based on today's Southwest, it's tempting to choose traditional low-fare airlines, such as Malaysia's AirAsia or Europe easyJet. But Southwest was a controversial choice long before it was a budget-conscious one. Here are six other global airlines that have created their own controversy.

  • 01 of 06

    VietJet Air

    VietJet Airlines
    ••• This photo says it all. VietJet Airlines

    Picking up the baton where Southwest left off is Vietnam's VietJet Airlines, a low-cost airline—and the country's first privately-owned airline company—many have incorrectly referred to as "Bikini Airlines." Why, you might ask? 

    Well, photos of the airline's stewardesses wearing nothing but bikinis (which actually came from a publicity calendar) went viral on the internet, and this caused many to believe that they paraded around in flight like that. While it's true that VietJet's stewardesses dress in a way most would term sexy, they don't actually wear bikinis on board, I imagine due to health regulations more than rules of social decorum.

    The marketing worked, however. Not only did VietJet Airlines claim nearly a third of Vietnam's air travel market, by dollar value, overnight, but its success led to its CEO becoming Vietnam's first woman billionaire.

  • 02 of 06

    Rayani Air

    Rayani Air Malaysia
    ••• Attendants on Rayani Air, on the other hand, wear hijabs. TheStar

    Not to be confused with Europe's RyanAir (an airline that's controversial in its own way), Malaysia's Rayani Air operates only a few hours' flying time from VietJet, but couldn't be more different. That's because while VietJet sells sex, Rayani Air sells modesty. Specifically, it's Malaysia's first Sharia-complaint airlines, featuring hostesses in full hijab (although not, as I earlier misled you, burqas), halal meals and no alcohol, which to be fair isn't that uncommon among airlines serving Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia's flag carrier Saudia. (It should be noted that Malaysian flag carrier Malaysia Airlines, controversial for its own reasons, does serve alcohol onboard.)

    Or, I should say, it was Malaysia's first Sharia-compliant airline. Rayani Air ceased operations in April 2016, after less than four months in the air, creating further controversy. While Rayani Air executives insisted the airline was "restructuring," officials claimed it had breached the conditions of its contract. Inshallah!

  • 03 of 06


    ••• This plane might look boring, but its parent company engages in one of the most controversial ticketing practices around. Wikimedia Commons

    To be sure, there is a European airline on this list, but probably not the one you think. While the aforementioned RyanAir has created controversy based on its ridiculous fees and cramped airline cabins, Eurowings is controversial because it allows passengers bound for party destinations to make so-called "Blind Bookings," where they pay a fix fee, then board a flight to a random destination.

    No word on whether passengers have to pass a sobriety test before consenting to this, although the price they pay does appear to include transport back to their home country, a fine-print point I hope neither the airline nor the home country will come to regret.

  • 04 of 06

    EVA Air

    EVA Airways Hello Kitty Jet
    ••• Think this plane looks strange? Wait until you go inside. Blue Stahli Luân via Wikimedia Commons

    As a lifelong AvGeek (aviation geek, not to be confused with "audiovisual geek"), I've long been fascinated by Taiwanese airline EVA Airways (pronounced "E-V-A," not "Eva")—and I'm not ashamed to admit that's due largely to the airline's reliance upon the Hello Kitty franchise in its branding. Indeed, while Hello Kitty does happen to be my mother's favorite cartoon character (I have an interesting family—what can I say?), it's not because of this that EVA has my devoted admiration. Watch this YouTube video of Hello Kitty dancing off an EVA Airways 777-300ER jet in Houston last year—to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," no less—and I think you'll have an idea of where I'm coming from.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Norwegian Airlines

    Norwegian Airlines
    ••• This "Norwegian" plane at LAX isn't flying to Norway. Eric Salard via Flickr

    Actually, I lied earlier: There are two European Airlines on this list, although only one of them is based in mainland Europe. "Well that's not controversial," you might insist, noting that Scandinavia (i.e. where Norway is found) is not technically part of mainland Europe. The problem is that "Norwegian" Airlines isn't based in Norway—it's based in Ireland, a decision its founded proudly admits is in order to dodge taxes. Furthermore, the airline disproportionately employs Southeast Asian stewardesses, and doesn't hide the fact that this, like its decision to base itself in Ireland, is for financial gain.

    Further adding to the controversy, many of Norwegian's admittedly popular longhaul flights don't even touch Norwegian soil, where you fly from Los Angeles to London or New York to Copenhagen. This is technically not illegal, of course, although it does seem somewhat deceptive in light of the airlines name—and decidedly "Norwegian" brand identity.

  • 06 of 06

    Honorable Mention: Trump Shuttle

    Trump Shuttle
    ••• Before Donald Trump ran for president, he ran an airline (or tried to). JetPix via Wikimedia Commons

    Back in the late 1980s, when famed carrier Eastern Air Lines was breathing its last breaths, a much younger Donald Trump (who was still mostly unscathed by bankruptcy scandal, and had probably never even thought to run for president), decided to intervene and attempt to salvage the airline's east coast "Shuttle" operation. Unfortunately, the same fate that would later befall Trump's casinos befell his airline, which joined the scrap heap of history alongside Trump Steaks, Trump University and, hopefully, the idea of President Donald Trump.