United’s leggings problem

To paraphrase an old saying, internet-based rage gets halfway around the world before an airline has a chance to realize it screwed up. United Airlines learned that this weekend when its policy for employee travel hit the spotlight. The number of ways this story spiraled out of control is pretty amazing, really.

Of course, it wasn’t seen as an employee issue to start, in part because the company’s Twitter team screwed up badly citing the Contract of Carriage in replying to the initial report. Plenty of other replies could have been fine. Ignoring it, the fate of so many mentions, probably would have been fine, too. Instead, however, a pair of employees tossed fuel on to a smoldering fire and the aftermath was amazing to watch.

United’s initial engagement fueled a quick backlash from travelers convinced that the arbitrary policy of the CoC would lead them to be denied boarding at some point. Never mind that the same policy exists for nearly every airline; United was now squarely in the crosshairs.

Once it became known that the passengers in question were teens (not 10 as initially rumored) and that they were on employees pass tickets it was too late to stop the outrage. The conversation shifted slightly, from passengers not being able to fly in leggings to how the staff travel policy itself is a horrible thing and that no one would know they were pass riders so no one should care. Except that’s not how policies work. Airline employees know the rules and accept them as part of the deal for getting their flight benefits. Fighting them is a recipe for a trouble no airline employee wants. And certainly not something to do at the gate.

So, who to blame?

  • A random passerby for taking umbrage with a policy based on, at best, partial understanding of the situation
  • The company’s social media team
  • The employee for failing to correctly police the outfits of those riding on his pass
  • The whole of the internet for deciding that United’s internal policy is rampant sexism that must die at the hands of the mob

And for those convinced that United is pure evil because of this, just remember that most airlines have similar if not more strict policies. Sometimes it is better to not get involved in internal company politics. Even when it is an airline.

Another take:

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I really, earnestly hope that this is a lesson for all gate agents. When dealing with this kind of an issue, I think it’s so important you take the employee or customer aside — away from other people — and quietly discuss. This entire incident “never happens” if this hadn’t happened at the gate counter in front of revenue pax.

  2. So tired of this fake story. Parents, put some pants on your kids. Parents, put some pants on, youre lazy.

    1. Agree. Plus, people jump to conclusions without knowing the full story. They made it sound like United Airlines was oppressively restricting what women could wear. I’ve seen what some people wear on planes. Leggings are haute couture in comparison. The gate agent could’ve be a little more discreet and corporate policies may be antiquated, but they’re still polcies. Beside that point, no one brought up the safety issue. If there’s an emergency, those exposed ankles won’t provide any protection against fire or rug burn from emergency slides.

    1. Adding to the problem, of course, is that United and other airlines are wholly unconcerned about the dignity or decorum of passengers beyond this.

    2. We’re talking about young, pants-clad girls here. Not grown adults. And United’s ‘one-size-fits-all-ages’ non-rev traveler dress code is not suitable for addressing already-clothed kids. It’s the reason why sex discrimination lawyers are studying the case right now.

    3. They are teenagers, not young kids. At some point in the process of growing up they have to follow the rules and as teens I do not see that as unreasonable.

      Lawyers are studying it the same way they study everything that makes the news. If there is a chance to profit they go for it.

      1. It does not matter who it is, or their age. A lawsuit is useless because the employee who gave the teens these passes signed on the dotted line that they understood the rules. And this policy is not unique to the teens! As a former UA employee, I am angry at the employee who gave them passes – they should have gone over every single thing they can and cannot do. I would never send teenagers alone on my passes. Heck, I would never give anyone mine except my father, and friends who work for other airlines and know the rules. It’s too risky otherwise.

    4. As someone who grew up non-reving, these rules are very clear. As a kid, I knew I had rules to follow, and I did. Non-reving is a great privilege, and if you are not willing to accept the rules of the privilege, you should be willing to face the consequences. They would not have let teenage boys wear basketball shorts or flip flops either. As much of a feminist as I am, defender of women’s bodies, there were only women who were not following the rules in this situation. You can’t scream feminism for anything you want, or you give it a bad name. Plain and simple, the girls did not follow the rules.

    5. Firstly, I have not seen their ages reported. When I asked United two nights ago, Justin called them “girls” and “teens” and the observer who’s tweets created the firestorm said they appeared to be young teens. But so what. Telling already-clothed girls that they need to add layers to fly sexualizes those girls. Moreover, United’s policy actually never mentions “leggings” specifically. It mentions “form-fitting lycra or spandex”. Did the agent check to see what material was in the girls pants? Is it aware there is such a thing as cotton leggings? United’s policy clearly needs to be updated either to be more specific (and less open to interpretation) or to reflect what the modern traveler wears. Either way, the fact that it does not consider kids’ clothing is nonsensical.

    6. Getting hung up on the letter of the rule (i.e. the material) rather than the spirit of the rule is going down a rabbit hole that diminishes the argument being made IMO. No policy of this nature is going to be specific enough (individual brand/product SKUs?!?) to not require some interpretation on the part of those covered by it and those enforcing it.

      If the “leggings” were “form-fitting” then that seems a pretty easy case of doesn’t match the policy IMO. And if they were not then I probably wouldn’t call them leggings.

    7. One either follows the rules to the letter (and is very explicit in that regard) or leaves the rules open to interpretation for gate agents to subjectively decide whether already-clothed, non-rev teens and children should fly. If United chooses the latter going forward, it should expect further blowback when future incidents arise. Updating an antiquated policy is the most logical way to proceed, most especially given the fact that the current policy does not consider age. [And the age thing does in fact matter in this discussion. For example, when my daughter Reilly was 11 years old, she looked like a 15-year old. Will United police girls who look more mature? It’s a slippery slope that they could easily remedy with an update to policy.]

    8. Both an 11 and 15 year old are mature enough to understand that there are rules to be followed. I would expect both to be able to handle such.

      And no policy is going to be written to a point with no interpretation. That’s why this one specifically states that final interpretation rests with the Gate Agent, not the pass rider.

    9. As someone who has had to follow non-rev policies since I was a toddler and has then set and enforced non-rev policies in my adult life, I agree that United’s policy is anachronistic. People don’t wear the same things they did even a decade ago and if the point of the policy is to not draw attention to the non-rev passenger on the basis of their dress then it is probably counter productive.

      I remember flying Delta as a teenager in the early 1990s and being told that my slip-on leather shoes wouldn’t count as “dress shoes” because they didn’t have laces, so I would have to ride in coach. I also remember wearing those same shoes on a dozen other flights without anyone saying a word. Back then, a teenager wearing khakis, button-down shirt, blazer and dress shoes on a plane screamed non-rev, which seemed to defeat the entire point of “blending in”.

      Some of the most obnoxious non-revs I’ve ever dealt with were dressed very neatly but drank too much and made asses of themselves.

      United should probably use this as a “teachable moment” to update their dress code for non-rev travelers, if only because it no longer seems to be keeping up with the times.

    10. Seth Miller, there are two different issues here I think.

      1) Was the United agent right in reminding the non-revs of the dress code. Absolutely – and I don’t think anyone who understands the facts of the situation disagrees with that. The agent isn’t a policymaker so doesn’t have the discretion to vary the policy, and the travelers themselves accepted the policy by choosing to fly on those tickets.

      2) Is a dress code really relevant any more, and if so is this particular dress code fit for purpose? That’s a more difficult question to answer and one that United should probably think through thoroughly before moving forward.

    11. Seth, applying United’s “form-fitting” measure to young girls is not appropriate. United could easily adjust its dress code to focus on things like cleanliness rather than girls’ bodies and sexuality.

    12. Mary Bernadette Kirby, I think codes of conduct are more relevant in today’s travel environment than dress codes. You are far more likely to be able to figure out (negatively) who is the non-rev by how they act on board a flight than by how they are dressed.

    13. There are lots of things the company could do, Mary. But I do not believe that this policy is inherently about sexualizing kids as you have stated many times here and elsewhere. I believe that’s where we ultimately disagree.

    14. I’m not altogether sure that I understand this, MK. An (admittedly poorly written) attempt to stop youngsters from wearing ‘form fitting’ tight trousers/leggings/jeggings (presumably in favour of more age appropriate clothing) sexualises them? Surely it’s wearing the tight troos and emphasising one’s bum that does that?

    15. And pardon the double-down, Seth, but telling pants-clad girls that they need to cover up their bodies further because they’re not ‘appropriate’ does sexualize said girls. Serious question – who was the agent trying to protect? Men who just “can’t help themselves”?

    16. Who said it was because it was they were sexualized? Maybe it is simply because the agents did not think the girls were dressed respectable enough for the class of service they were being sent in, because the non-rev program puts these girls in a place where they are representing United Airlines.

    17. Mary, maybe it’s just nice to look nice. People are always complaining that they don’t enough.

      In Israel, for example, school dress codes are considered a bulwark against classism.

    18. The argument that the agent was in self-protection mode (out of fear of breaching the rules) would hold water if it was obvious to any other passengers that the two teens were non-rev. But it wasn’t. Indeed, it was so *not* obvious, that a family with a small child interpreted the brouhaha to mean that they needed to cover up their daughter.

    19. Mary – the agent was enforcing the written dress code for non-revs.

      TBH (and blunt) – it’s only commentators like yourself who seem to be pushing an agenda – that keep raising “sexuality” and related unrelated matters.

      If Seth was wearing leggings as a non-rev pax – he would be “inappropriately dressed” and would be required to “cover-up”.

      So your argument is nonsensical and illogical.

      You should take Seth’s sensible and logical advice…

      1/ Separate your agenda from the facts of this case (which – to restate – are simply that a published dress code wasn’t being followed).

      2/ By all means – as a SEPARATE discussion – raise the question of whether the current dress codes for non-revs at various airlines should be updated.

      Point 2 is a very relevant discussion point that I feel virtually no-one would disagree with you on.

    20. Whether sexualized or not, we have all seen women, (including teenage ones) in leggings with issues like see though fabric and camel toe. I personally think United was completely in the right to uphold their policy. I would expect they would have made the same decision if a man (or boy) showed up in bicycle shorts with their penis easily defined through the fabric.

  3. As much as I hate United, I had to side with them on this one.

    Different fare classes, different rules.

    If the rules happen to include a dress code, follow it, or pay full fare.

    1. I’m talking about United gate agents in Chicago O’Hare. Like when my flight on Christmas got delayed 7 hours and they 1) told everyone the plane got rerouted to Mexico for service, so call and wish your family a Feliz Navidad because many of you won’t be making our connections 2) They announced meal vouchers and told everyone who already ate to go grab a drink on us – then everyone who tried to use the vouchers for alcohol got told they are not eligible for alcohol purchases.

      And then there was the time in July that I heard a gate agent announcement for a passenger asking if anyone was traveling with that customer to pull her away from the bar.

      As I said, drama created by gate agents.

  4. There is a big difference between being outraged that people were expected to follow rules and didn’t and being outraged that the rules, whether at United or all the airlines, are a good example of policies without much purpose and smack of a sexism in that they perpetuate this idea that women’s bodies should be hidden. Unfortunately the conversation has been way too much about the first when the second is what’s important.

    1. How is this sexist? When I go to the hospital, I expect my medical staff to be dressed a certain way. When I go to a cocktail party fundraiser, I expect people to dress a certain way. When I go to a family summer party, I expect people to wear whatever they want. When I go to a wedding, there’s protocol with that also.

      Not everything needs to be strained through the lens of feminism.

    2. The bit that’s easy to forget – the bit that I suspect United would like everyone to forget – is that the airline publicly defended denying carriage to the pants-clad girls, citing its contract of carriage for rev passengers. It specifically cited “not properly clothed”… before it figured out they were non-rev. So yes, that does smack of sexism.

  5. Whoever gave them their passes should have made sure they knew the dress requirements. I used to non-rev all the time when I was in college in the 60’s, and it was the only time I wore a coat and tie, but it’s hard to beat free.

  6. I disagree with you Seth. They did not screw up. The person tweeting without accurate knowledge screwed up. The problem with social media is that it allows everyone to have a voice-be they with the facts or choosing to publish with ‘alternative facts’!

  7. Accept free pass travel = accept airline dress code
    Break airline dress code = shut up and change if caught or asked to change
    Rudely argue with gate agent or customer service agent = not good if you are reported; loss of pass travel benefits and/or job. This can also work against the gate agent or customer service agent if they were wrong.

  8. Funny thing someone I follow on IG wasn’t allowed to board a Delta flight from San Antonio to Miami because she was wearing shorts that were deemed too short … Eventually, she went to the restroom and changed, end of story.

  9. I can see where dress code applies to people outfitted identifiably as employees. I’m not sure how anyone external to the company would ever know or care if these teens are non rev passengers. Probably dress codes for non employees should be modified to that of regular passengers.

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