United Airlines Legging Debacle: Who’s Right And Wrong?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

The Activist:

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


  1. To be clear the apology – and what I really wish was the lesson – underscores the need for humility rather than knee jerk reaction to defend what United thought at the time was revenue passengers denied boarding over TIGHTS.

    United should have said “sounds like a problem but let me look into it and get back to you” instwad of defending what they thought happened, which would have been indefensible.

    Yes the pass traveler was technically breaking a rule, yes that rule is dumb in context, no it doesn’t mean revenue passengers face the same rule… but United like airlines too often took the position that whatever they’ve done is right and whatever they are accused of is wrong.

    Against that imbalance I am GLAD for social media because net net it is one of the only ways to hold an airline accountable which is otherwise largely immune from suit.

    1. We’re in agreement on what they should have said. Would have likely made for a much smaller issue. An apology doesn’t move me one way or another. Just hope they use it as a good teaching point.

    2. Gary, I’m a fan of your blog but I have to wholeheartedly disagree with you except for “Yes the pass traveler was technically breaking a rule”. It is a privilege to fly for free and travelers are bound by the terms and conditions of that pass. If the pass user wanted to wear clothing that potentially violated the terms, they were free to purchase a ticket for that route and wear what they wanted.

      1. Mike, your argument is 100%defensible. But, I also think it pays to look at the whole issue and see if there are changes that can be made to be to avoid situations like this in the future. Travelers are breaking a rule. But, should it be a rule? 2 different discussions, IMO.

  2. I think any article that doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the double standard for women’s clothing and the sexualization of young girls is incomplete. This is an issue in society that is involved here whether people want to admit it or not. United’s dress code seems overly focused on women specific issues as opposed to more general neutral guidelines. I have no problem with dress codes but they’re applied in a way that perpetuates this double standard then they’re wrong even if the policy itself is fine as written. This gate agent may be 100% in the right if she has applied the policy consistently. The passengers were in the wrong by wearing clothing outside of the guidelines (although who knows if they were informed). That doesn’t change the fact that this situation implicates some very important issues which (as the article does note) were probably not handled well by United even if technically “by the book”. But you cannot discuss this issue without acknowledging the societal issues in play which is why this has gotten so much press.

    1. David, I have no idea how uniformly the policy is being applied. But, I don’t think this is an issue specific to young girls. The policy, as I understand it, only calls out spandex/form-fitting attire, not age groups. I agree that the sorts of clothing items are much more common today and should probably be included in the dress code. I think United could benefit from some time spent on the dress code, but I don’t think I’d throw United out with the bath water without hearing more of how they address the issue.

  3. “Thanks for your observation. We will be notifying airport staff and get details of this interaction. We will follow up when we know more.” is less than 140 characters and would have killed this story before it started.

      1. I’d say that if the swiftness of the first defensive reply is an indicator of the corporate temperature, then I feel you are right that this is probably not being handled like “lets see what we can learn” but “Who messed up!”

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