Nothing like a dishonest tweet exploding into a firestorm on an otherwise quiet Sunday…
I’ll address United’s pass rider dress code policy and the specific incident below, but let’s start with the tweets that set this all off:
2) She's forcing them to change or put dresses on over leggings or they can't board. Since when does @united police women's clothing?
— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) March 26, 2017
@shannonrwatts Are you speaking with this passenger, Shannon? ^NJ
— United (@united) March 26, 2017
— United (@united) March 26, 2017
Turns out, not surprisingly, that there was a lot more to the story.
I outlined the timeline of events here. Shannon Watts got the story wrong. Even when presented with the fact that these were pass riders who must adhere to a stricter dress code, she dug in, writing hours after the incident–
This weekend, my husband and I took off for a much-needed week away. As we were waiting at our gate, I witnessed a bizarre situation: a gate agent was barring two girls in their early teens from boarding a United Airlines flight Sunday morning from Denver to the Twin Cities because the leggings they were wearing were considered “improper.” Another girl, roughly 10 years old, also was singled out for having on leggings, but she put on a dress from her backpack and was allowed to board.
Point one: United informed her this was a pass rider situation. The omission of that information constitutes a deliberate attempt to mislead.
Point two: the other girl was never “singled out” for wearing leggings and never asked to change her clothes.
As a frequent traveler and a mother of four daughters who live and work in yoga pants, I couldn’t help but wonder why the father — who was wearing shorts — was allowed to board the plane showing so much leg. How many times has United stopped young boys or men for “improper” clothing?
Fact: the father was allowed to wear shorts and the little girl was entitled to wear leggings because they were paying passengers, not pass riders.
This United Airlines policy — whether intentional or not — is sexist and sexualizes young girls. Not to mention the added travel stress to these fliers who were suddenly mortified and inconvenienced by a policy that makes no sense.
Repeat: United’s policy did not apply to the little girl who changed into a dress. Her change of clothes was predicated upon a misunderstanding of the situation.
She did respond to United’s clarification in the following way:
— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) March 27, 2017
What does that mean? She has still failed to concede these were non-rev passengers.
United Welcomes You in Leggings
United’s dress code for passengers does not ban leggings. United made this clear yesterday in the following statement—
We care about the way we present ourselves to you, our customers, as we believe that is part of the experience on board our flights. One of the benefits of working for an airline is that our employees are able to travel the world. Even better, they can extend this privilege to a select number of what we call “pass riders.” These are relatives or friends who also receive the benefit of free or heavily discounted air travel – on our airline as well as on airlines around the world where we have mutual agreements in place for employees and pass riders.
When taking advantage of this benefit, all employees and pass riders are considered representatives of United. And like most companies, we have a dress code that we ask employees and pass riders to follow. The passengers this morning were United pass riders and not in compliance with our dress code for company benefit travel. We regularly remind our employees that when they place a family member or friend on a flight for free as a standby passenger, they need to follow our dress code.
To our regular customers, your leggings are welcome.
Summary: you’re more than welcome to wear leggings as a paying customer.
What is the Dress Code for United Pass Riders?
Here is United’s pass rider dress code:
Dress attire for pass riders traveling space-available or positive-space should always meet or exceed the casual standards outlined in this policy. In general, casual attire refers to clothing that is appropriate for the local environment, allow you to feel comfortable while pass traveling, yet looks neat and professional.
- Pass riders’ overall appearance should be well-groomed, neat, clean and in good taste.
- Attire should be respectful of fellow revenue passengers, employees and pass riders.
- Pass riders may wear denim attire (such as jeans), shorts that are no more than three inches above the knee and athletic shoes when traveling in Coach or Business cabin.
- The following attire is unacceptable in any cabin but is not limited to:
- Any attire that reveals a midriff.
- Attire that reveals any type of undergarments.
- Attire that is designated as sleepwear, underwear, or swim attire.
- Mini Skirts
- Shorts that do not meet 3 inches above the knee when in a standing position.
- Form-fitting lycra/spandex tops, pants and dresses.
- Attire that has offensive and/or derogatory terminology or graphics.
- Attire that is excessively dirty or has holes/tears.
- Any attire that is provocative, inappropriately revealing, or see-through clothing.
- Bare feet
- Beach-type, rubber flip-flops
These guidelines are not intended to be all-inclusive, but rather should help set the general parameters for appropriate attire. Pass riders should use good judgment and common sense about items not specifically addressed. If you are uncertain about what is acceptable attire for pass travel, please ask your supervisor or your Human Resources partner.
Clearly, “Form-fitting lycra/spandex tops, pants and dresses” mean that leggings as outerwear are not permitted.
Employees and their family and friends should be aware of this policy prior to boarding. I’ll discuss the validity of the policy below.
United’s Twitter Team Screwed This Up
Unfortunately for United, its Twitter team botched the initial response. Instead of asking for more information or just stating United would look into it, the Twitter team jumped to the defense of the gate agent.
— United (@united) March 26, 2017
The gate agent deserves defense, but not for the reason United did.
It is true that passengers in inappropriate clothing will be denied boarding. But leggings are mainstream, not inappropriate. United verifies this in the statement above and even in its tweet on International Yoga Day–
— United (@united) June 21, 2016
Let’s dispense with the notion that that United is somehow sexist or regressive in its thinking on passenger dress and appearance. It has taken a very liberal stance on almost all social issues and does not want its passengers to dress like the Amish. It does require pass riders to look “neat and professional”.
United’s Dress Code for Pass Riders Is Not Unreasonable
Back in the days of stricter dress codes for pass riders, it used to be so easy to spot who was non-reving. Think coat and tie in Hawaii. But times have changed. So has United’s dress code for pass riders. Tennis shoes, shorts, and denim are permitted. Leggings still are not.
Personally, I think United should revisit prohibitions on wearing leggings. The fact they are so widespread is a testament to the fact that society does not view them as prurient or inappropriate. At the same time, I understand why UA would simply ban them. I’ll use an analogy to try to explain.
U.S. federal law forces all pilots to retire at age 65, regardless of their health.
Such a bright-line rules offer a compelling alternative to vague standards, often reflecting a summary of wise decisions. People over the age of 65 are banned from piloting commercial airplanes, because such policy represents a generally accurate summary of good individual decisions, and is much less costly to administer than any alternative. (Just think about the expenditures that would be necessary to assess competence on a case-by-case basis). United may derive abundant short-term benefit from keeping an experienced pilot beyond a predetermined retirement age, but such a decision will likely lead to high long-term costs from having to monitor every pilot individually and from insuring against mistaken decisions.
Not all spandex is created equal. Some spandex is modest, some leaves nothing to the imagination. In order to avoid leaving the decision to gate agents and thus making the policy potentially highly arbitrary and capricious (not to mention sexist), United has said, look, just wear something else when you are representing our company as a pass rider. That’s fair. It would also be fair if United simply said the spandex must not be see-through. But how see through is too see through? There is wisdom in United’s decision. It avoids a potential thornier problem by simply eliminating a problem potential.
All Ms. Watts did was get a United employee in trouble. And I mean the parent of the teenagers, not the gate agent. The gate agent in Denver simply followed United’s dress code policy for pass riders. I’ll examine what the consequences may be in my next post.
I focus on Ms. Watts because I find her follow-up comments to be disingenuous and deliberately misleading. I don’t begrudge her for wondering why teenagers were told their leggings were not permitted. Indeed, I would have the same question (and my wife wore leggings on our recent trip to London). But I do have a problem with her failure to clarify her commentary when presented with the reason why.
United’s pass travel dress code policy strikes a balance between personal responsibility and a desire to ensure these travelers avoid even approaching the line of so-called decency. Sexism is not implicated by telling William Shattner he cannot wear leggings if pass riding on United–
And I don’t mean that as a joke. I wear legging when I go out running.
While I think United should loosen its policy in regards to most leggings, calling it sexist goes too far. What amazes me most out of this whole situation is that leading news outlets — even the New York Times — have not clarified the timeline of events I laid out here. Read the NYT and you’ll still think the girl who changed into a dress was instructed to do so by United. She wasn’t.
Oh the power a misleading tweet…