Social media erupted in an uproar when it was reported on Twitter that a United Airlines gate agent had prevented two teenage girls from boarding a flight at Denver International Airport because they were wearing leggings.
Shannon Watts, founder of gun sense grassroots movement Moms Demand Action, tweeted, “A @united gate agent isn’t letting girls in leggings get on flight from Denver to Minneapolis because spandex is not allowed?”
Watts followed with a series of tweets, including one asking “Since when does @united police women’s clothing?”
The answer, however, is: for years.
While the optics on United’s decision are unfortunate — not to mention antiquated — the fact is that the girls weren’t barred for wearing leggings but because they were wearing leggings as non-revenue “pass riders,” meaning they were likely friends or family of a United employee. Equally importantly, it means they were riding for free.
Pass rides are considered representatives of the airline. As a result, the rules for their attire are extremely strict, hewing to business-casual standards. Passengers’ appearance is required to be “well-groomed, neat, clean and in good taste.” Casual, non-business attire such as flip-flops, for example, are not allowed.
I experienced the draconian, arbitrary pass rider restrictions myself years ago, albeit on a different airline: Delta.
While riding as a non-rev “buddy pass” rider thanks to a gift from my best friend’s father, a Delta pilot, I was denied boarding at LaGuardia for wearing jeans. I was sporting a new pair of Seven jeans that had cost 19-year-old-me a small fortune, and I was outraged.
The gate agent ruefully informed me that she had a strict set of rules to follow. I fumed, reluctantly changed into a pair of black pants from Express in the bathroom, and boarded the flight. When I told my best friend after the fact, however, she shrugged, explaining that such behavior was common. After all, I was flying for free — and rules are rules.
What’s not in dispute is the fact that United’s social media team bungled their response. They tried to defend their gate agent’s decision with a series of tweets, including one pointing to their Contract of Carriage.
The issue here is that the contract applies to regular riders, rather than highlighting the pass rider policy. A follow-up tweet did even more damage, saying, “Casual attire is allowed as long as it looks neat and is in good taste for the local environment.”
However, users immediately pointed out that one of the dads was reportedly allowed to board in shorts, and all United did was open a Pandora’s box debating whether leggings are “in good taste” — and whether or not United should be policing women’s and girls’ clothing at all.
A spokesperson for United, Jonathan Guerin, confirmed to the Washington Post that the two girls were denied boarding in leggings.
However, he said, “Our regular passengers are not going to be denied boarding because they are wearing leggings or yoga pants. But when flying as a pass traveler, we require this pass travelers to follow rules, and that is one of those rules.”
In 2007, Delta changed their rules, reportedly stating, “If the attire is appropriate for a revenue passenger to wear, then a non-revenue passenger can wear the same attire.”
Considering that leggings are now a beloved, integral part of women’s clothing — not to mention, often more expensive than regular pants, thanks to the swanky athleisure trend — it seems time to me that it’s time for United to follow suit.
According to its latest tweet in response to the controversy, however, it looks like United is doubling down on its pass-traveler policy.
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