Before you bash United Airlines, read the full story

The Internet’s latest target of rage was picked unfairly this week, when multiple news outlets shared the story of United Airlines barring two teenage girls from boarding because they were wearing leggings.

The controversy began after Shannon Watts, a passenger boarding a flight to Mexico, witnessed the two girls and their parents being turned away because they were wearing improper clothing. She tweeted about the incident, which spread all over Twitter by the time her flight landed:

United quickly wrote up a tweet explaining the incident:

If you looked at just the headlines written up after this ordeal, you probably think United was targeting these girls unfairly:

From those headlines, I would be pretty upset, too. “This airline is banning its female passengers for wearing leggings? That’s so sexist!”

But every single one of those headlines is horribly misleading.

What these articles failed to mention in their headlines is that United was actually just enforcing a policy that applies to very few of its passengers: all major airlines have a dress code when their employees are using company benefits to travel.

The two girls weren’t paying passengers. They were family members of United employees, and were using company passes to fly (what you may know as “standby” or “non-rev” travelers). Thus, they were expected to dress according to the company’s policy.

I’m the daughter of a pilot, so please trust me when I say I understand this kind of travel. If you’re traveling as an employee/employee’s family using airline benefits, the airline wants you to adhere to a certain dress code so you represent the company well.

If I worked at an insurance company and went to a conference of insurance companies, my company wouldn’t want me showing up in track shorts or pajamas, because even though I’m not technically at work, I’m still be representing the company.

The girls were not stopped from boarding because the gate agent decided to be sexist that day (whether or not this policy is outdated is an entirely different discussion). They were on employee passes, and there are requirements for employees when they travel.

The dress codes are also much less strict than they used to be on many airlines. When I was younger, I couldn’t even wear jeans to the airport in case the only open seats for us were in first class, where jeans were prohibited.

Even Southwest Airlines, the “fun” and “cool” airline, has dress codes. Several years ago when I flew standby on Southwest, I was told I needed to put a jacket over my thin-strapped dress before I could board.

The short version of Southwest’s current policy reads “you will be expected to present a clean, well-groomed and tasteful appearance”. Delta’s etiquette code says not to wear “unclean, revealing or lewd garments, swimwear or sleepwear.”

American’s travel guide notes that “airport agents and flight attendants are focused on taking care of our customers, not policing the dress code,” but that there are still items on the “never appropriate” list like clothing that’s torn, frayed, or see-through.

It’s on the employees to know company policy.

Every employee should know what they can and cannot wear like the back of their hand, and they need to make sure that their guests are aware of that. The Huffington Post article said that “the families were mortified and inconvenienced.” Actually, the families inconvenienced themselves.

United has rules about spandex material and leggings. Even if some gate agents let them slide in the past, you should never chance it. My parents always made sure we never wore borderline clothes, just in case.

Many angry people, from random Twitter users to celebrities, have commented that they’ve been allowed to wear leggings or have worn tight or revealing clothing before. They’re missing point. As paying passengers, they were allowed to dress however they chose. These girls were not paying passengers.

The dress code might be outdated. I personally think leggings, so long as they’re not see-through, should be fine for all passengers to wear. But so long as that’s the policy, employee travelers are expected to adhere to it.

Please find other battles to pick, Internet. Although the headlines were misleading, you still should’ve read the full article. United wasn’t randomly picking on these two teenage girls due to inherent biases. Pick yourselves up, dust yourselves off, and find actual injustices to battle — there are plenty to choose from.

Originally published at by Emily Milakovic on 3.28.17.
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