United Airlines suddenly found itself on the receiving end of mass social media outrage on Sunday morning when a Twitter user sounded the alarm that young girls wearing leggings were not allowed to board a domestic United flight. United Airlines took to Twitter to repeatedly defend the right of the gate agent to refuse boarding to anyone deemed no to be dressed appropriately. But then the company came out to clarify that the girls prevented from boarding were what are known as “pass riders,” or those who fly for free or sharply reduced rates because they’re employees or their relatives.
The company insisted regular paying customers are more than welcome to wear leggings on United flights, but there are special rules for pass riders. “Our regular passengers are not going to be denied boarding because they are wearing leggings or yoga pants,” a spokesman said. “But when flying as a pass traveler, we require this pass travelers to follow rules, and that is one of those rules.
The whole controversy began when Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, wrote that two girls were barred from boarding a Denver-Minneapolis flight Sunday morning because they were wearing leggings. Another girl was allowed to board once she put on a dress. “She’s forcing them to change or put dresses on over leggings or they can’t board,” Watts wrote on Twitter. “Since when does @united police women’s clothing?”
2) She's forcing them to change or put dresses on over leggings or they can't board. Since when does @united police women's clothing?— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) March 26, 2017
United’s immediate response? Since always. As outrage grew on social media, United Airlines took to its own Twitter account and repeatedly defended the gate agent’s actions. “United shall have the right to refuse passengers who are not properly clothed via our Contract of Carriage,” the company wrote on Twitter to people who asked about the policy. When pressed, the company directed people to Point 21 of its “contract of carriage” that notes passengers can be refused if they’re “barefoot or not properly clothed.”
@baddestmamajama United shall have the right to refuse passengers who are not properly clothed via our Contract of Carriage. ^FS— United (@united) March 26, 2017
Seemingly realizing it had a PR disaster of its own making in its hands, the company quickly changed tack and started to clarify that the passengers in question were pass riders who had to adhere to stricter rules. Flip flops, for example, aren’t allowed for pass riders either, a company spokesman said.
The passengers this morning were United pass riders who were not in compliance with our dress code policy for company benefit travel.— United (@united) March 26, 2017
Many of those who raised their initial concerns insisted the company was applying a sexist rule. Watts, for example, quickly pointed out that the man flying with the two girls was wearing shorts.
The father had shorts on. Two young women in leggings booted from flight and a girl had to put a dress on over leggings in order to board. https://t.co/sCCP01gWcA— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) March 26, 2017
Although United refused to release a copy of its dress code rules for pass travelers, one found online specifically notes that shorts are allowed as long as they “are no more than three inches above the knee.” If the dress code posted online is authentic, it seems many of the rules are specifically directed at women and are particularly vague, forbidding “form-fitting lycra/spandex tops, pants and dresses” and “attire that is provocative, inappropriately revealing, or see-through.”