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United Airlines Bans Passengers Wearing Leggings, Setting Off A Firestorm Of Controversy

A key detail has been overlooked amid the angry discussion of United’s policy

In the “golden days” of air travel, passengers dressed up in suits, ties, and dresses to board their flights. Of course, in those halcyon days, there were no security checkpoints, airports were smaller, and the onboard experience was far closer to that of a cruise ship than a Greyhound bus. Decades later, air travel has gotten far more affordable, has become far less luxurious, and has seen an increase in popularity.

You’re far more likely to see travelers in jean shorts, corporate polos, or sweat suits than in a suit or dress.

Yet the debate rages on among travelers as to how passengers should dress. Should they don the Lululemon pants and a sweatshirt for comfort or should they dress up to maintain some semblance of humanity amid the undignified experience that is 2017 air travel?

Everyone has an opinion, but over the weekend, the simmering controversy was brought to a full boil when word got out that United Airlines had banned three girls from a flight for wearing leggings. Two girls—estimated to be “young teens” by Shannon Watts, the bystander who leaked the story—were denied boarding altogether, while a third, estimated to be 10 or 11, was eventually allowed onto the plane after putting a dress on over her leggings.

The news broke and spread quickly after Watts tweeted the events as they were unfolding at the gate:

The company eventually issued a statement about the decision to deny boarding based on the way the three girls were dressed. They didn’t dispute Watts’ version of events, but offered up one fact that may serve to mitigate the uproar. All the girls in question were “pass travelers,” meaning they were guests or relatives of a United employee, traveling for free as standby passengers.

There exists a more stringent dress code for pass travelers since they’re considered to be representing the company in their travels. In addition to leggings (Lycra or spandex), ripped jeans, flip flops, and any outfit that reveals undergarments are banned for pass travelers as well.

United spokesman Jonathan Guerin, who undoubtedly had a busy weekend putting out this PR fire, said, “It’s not that we want our standby travelers to come in wearing a suit and tie or that sort of thing. We want people to be comfortable when they travel as long as it’s neat and in good taste for that environment.”

Unsurprisingly, the circumstances and explanation did little to quell the uproar over banning a 10-year-old girl for the way she’s dressed, with many probably viewing the ban as an indictment of the way they might choose to dress on a flight as well. To that point, Guerin said that spandex pants are fine for paying customers, but not for those traveling on passes.

While the desire to have pass travelers dress up as representatives of the company is a somewhat understandable (if quaint) notion, many chimed in, saying whatever goodwill a strict dress code brings about is more than offset by getting judgy about a 10-year-old’s (very common) outfit.

Amid the tweetstorms, America waited for its social media angel, Chrissy Teigen, to weigh in, which she did.

Then the Reading Rainbow guy added to the dog pile on United.

In their continued defense, United seemed tone-deaf to the mounting complaints that, policy or not, this isn’t a great way to treat a traveling family, even if they’re beneficiaries of a special program. Instead, United just seemed to continue reading back the policy to angry tweeters, which may cover the airline in a legal manner, but really doesn’t do much to win over the hearts and minds of those who see this as another instance of a big corporation picking on the little guy—kids in this case.

United is clearly on the defensive for the policy, but this undoubtedly brings up another controversial subject, albeit one with lower stakes than missing a flight: Are yoga pants acceptable as casual clothing?

That’s a controversy for another day, however.

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