As soon as I wrote the title for the blog post I thought I should change it. There’s almost no clear “right” and “wrong” here. There are plenty of things that could have been done differently. In case you’ve been living under a rock the last 24 hours, a couple of people were denied boarding a United Airlines flight due to what they were wearing. There’s lots of misinformation out there, but this post by Matthew Klint comes the closest I’ve seen to just covering the facts.
To summarize, two teenage girls were boarding a United flight in Denver wearing leggings. They were traveling on an employee pass (either a friend or family member gave it to them). United has a dress code for employees and/or their guests traveling for free using these passes. The gate agent denied them boarding.
At the same time, a family who was traveling on paid tickets overheard the discussion and thought the legging prohibition applied to them (it didn’t). And, to further exacerbate the situation, someone completely unrelated to the situation observed it and started tweeting. Some of what she tweeted was true (teenage girls wearing leggings appear to have been denied boarding). She missed the part where those passengers were subject to a dress code because of the pass they were traveling on.
Right And Wrong
There’s a lot going on here, so let’s attempt to break it down into different groups of people:
People Traveling In Leggings On Employee Passes:
United Airlines’ policy is very clear here. Spandex or other form-fitting materials are not permitted. If they were not employees but were given the passes by a friend or family member, they still need to follow the rules. As a friend of mine said yesterday during a discussion yesterday, “Here’s a free ticket. Follow this dress code.”
But (and you’ll see a pattern here), I can’t get upset at the passengers. Maybe they weren’t told the dress code by whoever gave them the passes. Maybe they were, and forgot. Leggings are a very common piece of women’s attire. I was just commenting to my wife the other day how many women I see traveling through airports wearing leggings.
The Gate Agent:
She or he is perfectly within their rights to deny boarding. The rules are clear, and the employee could get in trouble for not enforcing them uniformly. I wasn’t there, so I have no idea what the context of the discussion was. Assuming the passengers were well-behaved, I would have chosen a different path. You can absolutely deny them boarding. But, I wouldn’t want to “die conquering that hill”. They weren’t wearing a shirt with offensive wording. From all reports, it doesn’t appear they were wearing revealing garments with various body parts hanging out. Leggings are a very accepted garment for women. I would have made sure they clearly understood the rules for future flights and let them board. Bottom line, I don’t fault the gate agent, but I would have chosen a different path.
United’s Twitter Team:
Ah, Twitter. In a world of immediacy, Twitter can encourage a “ready, fire, aim” strategy. In this case, the person responding noted that United has the right to refuse passengers based on their Contract of Carriage:
Their response is correct. United has the right to deny anyone boarding for any reason that’s stated in their Contract of Carriage. It’s all about the delivery. The right response here was to say they were looking into it. Give themselves a few minutes to figure out what was going on before formalizing a reply. The best response is almost always a complete one.
That being said, I think it’s wrong to crucify the Twitter folks at United. It’s certainly a good teaching moment, on how a small misjudgment can develop into a big situation. Make no mistake, this is getting a ton of press for United. The line of people defending United is dwarfed by those crucifying them. But, United should take a gentle hand when discussing this issue as a teaching moment. Overreacting internally can create gun-shy employees. It’s right to be a bit more cautious when replying to something that looks incendiary.
United Airlines’ Management:
I really do hope that management doesn’t overreact. They’re getting an unbelievable amount of bad press over this. It wouldn’t be unheard of to come down hard on the Twitter team for the initial response. Instead, I think they should spend some time considering whether the employee pass dress code could use a bit of tweaking.
As I’ve noted above, I don’t think there are any egregious violations anywhere throughout this incident. It’s unfortunate and United is definitely getting more negative press than they deserve. But, it does appear other airlines allow their employees to wear spandex/form-fitting outfits as long as they conform to decency standards. I think I’m among the majority when I say that leggings count as fairly common clothing nowadays. In some respects, they seem like the comfy jeans of 20 years ago.
Where To Go From Here?
I was in a conversation yesterday where I was talking about the “honey and vinegar” factor. United’s gate agent chose a by-the-book stance at boarding. A member of their Twitter team probably went a bit too far on a tweet. I see two paths United could take now from a PR standpoint:
- They could take the stance that they were right to deny the “pass traveler” boarding for failing to conform to the dress code, while reassuring customers they can continue to wear their leggings without fear of reprisal. This seems to be the path they’re on now.
- They could continue to support their employees for handling the situation according to current policy. They could also say, “While things were handled correctly here, this issue caused us to think we might be able to change our non-rev dress code that our customers and employees would both find appropriate.”
Number 1 probably doesn’t win you any new friends. But, you’re right. And, you can defend that position based on your written policies.
Number 2 comes across more balanced, and it’s a perfectly appropriate change to the dress code. The only person likely to be offended by a standard pair of women’s leggings probably wished we all still flew in business attire (no suit and tie for me, thanks). While I might not agree with United’s service elements at times, I do think that they’re becoming a more thoughtful, more well-run company under Oscar Munoz. Based on that, a more thoughtful reply wouldn’t shock me here.
I debated not addressing this part. But, in for a penny, in for a pound. In an effort to avoid perpetuating the media cycle on her tweets, I’m not going to quote them here. If you desperately want to read them, don’t worry. There’s a big trail of bread crumbs on the internet.
The woman who started tweeting about this was not involved in the incident whatsoever. She took partial information as fact and disseminated it. We’ve all done it at one point or another. I’m saddened to see her beating up on some folks I call friends. They’re only pointing out facts.
This is not an issue that requires activism. This is an issue that requires common sense and a quick tap of the brake pedals. While I’ve been writing this post (in between work and family obligations) two fellow bloggers I respect have weighed in on the issue.
Gary at View From The Wing calls for an apology. I really respect Gary, but I don’t necessarily think United owes anyone an apology. Besides, apologies are hollow when not followed up with actions. I’d like to see United adjust their policies a bit and coach a few employees for the future. Meanwhile, Matthew at Live and Let’s Fly followed up with this after doing an excellent job detailing the facts of the incident. Matthew focuses more on the power of misinformation and how it helped this issue spin out of control. I think both of them offer well-thought perspectives on this issue.
Bottom Line It For Me, Ed
I could certainly carve out a hard position on this issue. There are plenty of defensible positions. In the end, though, can’t it just be an unfortunate situation that folks can learn from? I’ve been managing people for almost 30 years. We’re all human, we make mistakes. Even when we’re doing our best, we can learn better ways to handle things in the future. In the end, I’m not unhappy with anyone’s behavior here, except maybe for the activist.
The post United Airlines Legging Debacle: Who’s Right And Wrong? was published on Pizza in Motion