On Sunday, United Airlines received negative attention when a passenger noticed that two young girls had been detained at the boarding gate because they were dressed in leggings. One girl, who was about 10 years old, was able to board the plane only after putting a dress over her “inappropriate” leggings. Shannon Watts, the woman who witnessed the incident, tweeted in disbelief that such a dress code was “sexist and sexualizes girls.”
Many celebrities commented on the incident, and model Chrissy Teigen refuted the “inappropriate” clothing policy by tweeting that she has actually flown on the airline without even wearing pants.
Another United Airlines passenger echoed the uneven policy by saying that she was currently wearing leggings on a United Airlines flight. Other critics pointed out that that United Airlines welcomes leggings as attire since they recently used a photo of a woman wearing leggings in an ad.
So why are gray leggings acceptable attire on 20-something woman doing yoga in the middle of the airport but not acceptable on a 10-year-old girl not in a yoga pose?
According to United Airlines, the clothing policy being enforced was for “Pass” members – passengers who travel as a company benefit and therefore “represent” United Airlines. United Airlines stressed in their statement regarding the incident that fare-paying customers are welcome to wear leggings.
The reason that United Airlines gave – Pass members have a separate dress code because they represent the airline – is unconvincing. If passengers are compensated to represent a brand, it should be obvious to all the passengers which fliers are “Pass members” – but this was clearly not the case, since Watts was unable to identify the young girls as Pass members. If she had, she might not have tweeted her displeasure, since it was probably caused by her misunderstanding that the policy was for all passengers, including paying customers.
A more likely reason that companies enforce seemingly arbitrary rules governing personal attire is simply because they can. Since free flights are a benefit reserved for employees, companies can set rules which are acceptable to fewer individuals because there are more people willing to abide by those rules than there are available seats (at a profitable airline, anyway!).
Many people were not upset with the attire policy for non-revenue passengers and some defended it by saying that companies should be allowed to enforce stricter rules for passengers who receive free (or heavily discounted) fares. Most reasonable adults would agree there are trade-offs for receiving any sort of company benefit. However, the onslaught of criticism seemed to have been directed at the level of customer service United Airlines provided after a complaint was made, rather than the dress code itself:
A company should strive to minimize potential conflict by clearly communicating expectations and consistently enforcing procedures. Whether or not I believe that women (and men) should be able to wear leggings while flying for free, I still think that making a fuss about it in public is bad for business.
Delta’s dress policy for non-revenue passengers was more flexible and they made sure everyone, especially disgruntled United customers, knew it:
The moral of the story: When your competitor makes a mistake, have a sense of humor.