Update (9:30 ET): United has released the following statement regarding today’s incident.
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.
Earlier today, Twitter user Shannon Watts started a storm of anger when she reported on United allegedly denying boarding to girls wearing leggings.
1) A @united gate agent isn't letting girls in leggings get on flight from Denver to Minneapolis because spandex is not allowed?
— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) March 26, 2017
The internet was quick to react, almost entirely negative. Some made speculations that the race of the girls was involved and others were outraged at the agent’s action. The Verge journalist Walt Mossberg publicly accused United of “shaming women,” and a large of number of Twitter and Facebook users vowed to never fly United again.
What United Did Right
Lucky at One Mile at a Time suggests that the girls may have been traveling on “buddy passes,” which are essentially free tickets that are given to friends/family members of United employees. These “pass riders” are considered non-revenue passengers and are subject to a stricter dress code, compared to regular, revenue passengers.
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
The dress code was imposed not because the passengers were flying in a particular cabin (Economy or Business or First Class), but because “pass riders” represent the airline and are held to a higher standard, which includes the dress code. As we now know, this is exactly what happened. United has confirmed that the girls were indeed “pass riders.”
Whether this dress code could use some updating is a topic for another day. Gary from View from the Wing points out that Delta used to have a similar dress code, but loosened it significantly in 2007. Their current “dress code” is basically universally applied to both non-revenue passengers (“pass rider”) and revenue passengers. But as far as following rules go, it appears that the United gate agent did it by the book.
Of course, the gate agent could have had a bad attitude. Maybe the girls felt humiliated because they weren’t aware (or forgot) about the dress code and perhaps bystanders felt the need to stand up for the girls. But regardless, this is United’s policy regarding non-revenue passengers.
What United Did (Horribly) Wrong
Twitter has become an important medium for airlines to interact with passengers, and one potential downside (for the company) is that it leaves a paper trail, and the airline’s mishaps are out there for all to see. Let’s ignore how United’s response about the girls being “pass travelers” may have appeared to be pretty condescending.
I think this is potentially the most problematic tweet:
United didn’t have to involve the Contract of Carriage to explain why the girls in leggings were denied boarding—they had another (technically speaking) perfectly good reason. This essentially invited netizens to check out their “Contract of Carriage, Rule 21” regarding a “dress code” for all passengers. Here it is:
As you can tell, the rule is extremely vague, only requiring passengers to be “properly clothed.” Does that include leggings or yoga pants? Does this mean United’s rules actually prohibit all passengers (revenue and non-revenue) from wearing leggings onboard?
The message United sent on Twitter was “if the gate agent doesn’t like what you’re wearing, they have sole discretion in denying you boarding.” With United invoking the contract in carriage in their response and “girls wearing leggings” being the subject, United invited themselves to a whole storm of criticism.
But we know that’s not United’s rule for all passengers. After all, United can’t actually be serious about banning leggings on planes, right?
This could be a PR nightmare for United. The gate agent likely denied the girls from boarding because they were pass riders that didn’t follow the non-rev dress code, the merit of which might be debatable. Shannon Watts on Twitter probably saw the incident, and tweeted about it because she wanted to bring light to something potentially scandalous. The Twitter team likely wanted to cover the gate agent’s butt and tweeted out “gate agent has the sole discretion to deny boarding” as a response.
I think the real lesson here is that if you have “buddy passes” to give out, make sure the recipients are aware of all the rules that come with them to avoid embarrassment or incidents like this in the future. Perhaps United needs to take a hard look at their “non-rev dress code” and see if changes may be warranted. After all, United simply follows whatever Delta does, so why not the non-rev dress code as well?
Flying can be stressful enough. There’s no denying that there are plenty of gate agents out there making it harder for people because of power trips. But this isn’t one of those cases. If we want to have a ground to stand on when gate agents are unfairly power tripping, I think we ought to distinguish when they’re just doing their job from when they’re making up rules.