July 13, 2024

United’s bad policy getting well-deserved criticism

Here’s the thing: a bad policy is a bad policy. No amount of “well, that’s the policy” or “because I said so” will change the fact that a bad policy is a bad policy.

On Sunday morning, social media blew up with the story of the three girls who were barred from boarding a United Airlines flight for wearing leggings (one was eventually able to board because she had a dress she put on over the leggings). The girls were flying on a United employee pass, meaning they were flying either for free or at a steeply reduced rate. Allegedly, United’s dress code policy for the use of these passes explicitly forbids leggings. I say “allegedly,” because all that I’ve been able to see is their policy for “regular” passengers, which states that gate agents can refuse “passengers who are barefoot or not properly clothed.”

However, “properly clothed” is not defined or illustrated. Today, in 2017, opaque leggings are worn as pants – whether you like it or not. In general society, where basically all of us live, leggings are pants. In fact, I wear leggings as pants all the time to my professional office job, as does my boss (who is not a millennial, as if that mattered). Leggings do all the normal functions any other pair of pants do – they cover all the lady bits. So where’s the problem?

Wearing leggings as pants in public doesn’t mean you’re dressing like a slob. You certainly can if that’s your thing. But most of the time I see women wearing leggings in public, they’re paired with a cute blouse or a cute oversized sweater – pretty much fitting the description of “business casual.”

If United wanted its passengers to dress “business professional,” a standard that leggings certainly wouldn’t fit in, then United should have stated that in its policy for all passengers. It’s still bad policy, however, for a mode of transportation to carry a dress code for its passengers.

It’s also worth noting that United’s response to the outrage was first to tweet that the company “shall have the right to refuse passengers if they are not properly clothed via our Contract of Carriage” several times. It wasn’t until hours later that they specified that the passengers were using an employee benefit pass and assured us that regular passengers could wear leggings. This implies that United was fine with the world believing it was their policy to not allow any leggings-clad passengers onto its flights before they flip-flopped and decided it’s fine for that policy to be targeted toward just one specific kind of passenger instead. But, note, that at 9 a.m. United was fine with “no leggings” applying to all passengers.

Some of the arguments I’ve been hearing in favor of United is that the pass holders agreed to the terms of use – which allegedly include a “business casual” dress code – and knew what they were agreeing to, that the users of the employee pass “represent” United and shouldn’t “reflect badly” on the company, and that because sometimes the pass holders will be bumped up to business or first class, the airline wants the users to appear as if they had the money to use those seats.

All of that is bullshit. Here’s why.

First, as I’ve mentioned before, in today’s American society, opaque leggings (as well as other clothing like darkwash jeans) fit under the “business casual” category, so a reasonable person would likely conclude that wearing leggings are fine on flights.

Secondly, no one besides the person using the pass and the gate agent knows that the passenger is using a United employee’s pass. This isn’t something that’s announced to the whole cabin. So how can that passenger represent or reflect badly on a company that no one in the vicinity knows they have a relative working for?

Third, these weren’t grown-ass adults. These were children, teenagers. What 10- or 12-year-old do you know regularly wears dress pants and a blouse or a Sunday church dress while traveling?

Finally, if the airline wanted all of its passengers in business or first class appear as if they’re made of money, the policy would require all passengers – regardless of if they purchased a ticket or not – to dress business professional. As I mentioned earlier, United’s general passenger policy only requires passengers to be “properly clothed,” which they don’t define but instead leave to the discretion of its gate agents. I guarantee you that I could buy any level of ticket from United and walk onto my flight wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt I got for free my sophomore year of college, and no one is going to say shit to me. In fact, I did fly on a United flight in 2014 to a college journalism conference where I boarded wearing yoga pants and an old sweatshirt because if I’m going to have to sit on a three-hour flight crammed in with 75 of my closest complete strangers, I’m gonna do it comfortably, dammit.

No one is denying that United’s policy is policy. That is a factual statement. But we are saying that it’s a dumb and outdated policy. I’m sure there were once policies that women couldn’t fly in pants, they had to wear a skirt or dress. There were probably once policies that women couldn’t fly without a male escort or permission from her husband or father or whatever. A bad policy is a bad policy.

Imagine if every time there was a bad policy in place, we just accepted the answer that “Well, that’s the policy.” Women probably wouldn’t be allowed to vote or own property. Segregation would probably still run rampant. Same sex marriage would still be outlawed. While United’s archaic dress code policy isn’t nearly as culturally significant as those and other “bad policies” of the past, it is receiving the attention and criticism it rightly deserves.

The other party who deserves criticism in this situation is the company’s social media manager. The @united Twitter account constantly trying to defend itself with, “The passengers this morning were United pass riders who were not in compliance with our dress code policy for company benefit travel,” was really just shoving its own foot further and further down its throat. Much of the outrage wasn’t simply about the passengers being barred from their flight – it was about the ridiculous policy that was the grounds for being barred from boarding and that the dress code unnecessarily policies and sexualizes women’s and girls’ bodies. Their policy also targets girls and women while leaving men alone. The father of at least one of the girls was allowed to board the flight while wearing shorts, which usually don’t fit in the men’s “business casual” category. The double standard here is head-spinning. As is the inconsistency of when United gate agents decide to enforce their bad policies.

One of my favorite Twitter accounts to follow, Amanda Mull (@amandamull), had the best response to this PR fiasco for United:


That’s really all United needed to do to keep the monkey of the Twitterverse mostly off its back – admit that maybe they were wrong and their policy might be bad and promise to look into it. That probably would have worked – well, until the next time a gate agent blocks a preteen from boarding a flight because she’s wearing the wrong pants.

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Kelby Wingert 9 Articles
Former Staff Writer

1 Comment

  1. I’m not one to comment on news stories or generally concern myself with the latest outrage sweeping the internet, but as someone who has traveled on employee passes for over twenty years, I feel this story is overblown. My stepmom is a flight attendant for American Airlines, and I have been flying on her passes since I was seven or eight years old. I am intimately familiar with the expected dress code when flying non-revenue (i.e. on a pass). This is not a gender equality issue or some corporate entity trying to police girl’s/women’s bodies. It is about following protocol. Sometimes, you have to follow the rules, even if you disagree with them. These young ladies should have been properly briefed on what they needed to wear while traveling on a pass. I was, and still am, reminded by my stepmom about what to wear when flying on a pass, even though I’m a 31 year old man who has done this since the early 1990’s. If they were never told of the expectations, then that is on the holder of the pass. If they were told and chose to ignore the very clear guideline on dress code, that is on them. The dress code is pretty simple to follow. For coach, pants (jeans, slacks, khakis), a collared shirt (mainly no t-shirts/sweatshirts), and closed toed shoes. If you fly business or first class, no denim is allowed. Woman of course can wear a skirt or a dress if they so choose. I have flown across the country in jeans and a button downed shirt. I did that as an eight year old. Everyone has the necessary clothing to meet these guidelines.

    I will agree that United handled this situation terribly. I’m also not putting a lot of stock in reports that the dad was let on in shorts, which is clearly against the rules. If he did, that agent screwed up. But the policy is not an issue. When I was in junior high, I caught a flight right after school. I had my collared shirt in my carry-on and I went to check in at the gate then I was going to change. The agent informed me that I would not be allowed on the plane dressed as I was. I politely told him that I understood and that I was going to change once I checked-in. They weren’t policing my gender or my body. They were enforcing the rules. I will admit that times do change, and the policy may be worth revisiting, but the rules are the rules until then. Flying on a pass is a privilege. The airline does not have to allow anyone to fly for free. They have the right to place reasonable requirements on that privilege. Those young ladies did not meet the requirements and had to deal with the consequences of not following expectations.

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