What Can You Wear on a Plane? It Depends Who’s Paying


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Decades ago, most passengers dressed up for air travel.

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Fredric Lewis/Getty Images

At first glance, this was a controversy tailor-made for the immediate boiling outrage of social media.

United Airlines was besieged by an angry public after a gate agent refused to let two teenagers board a flight to Minneapolis at Denver International Airport on Sunday because they were wearing leggings. The outcry was swift and furious.

The model Chrissy Teigen said she would fly topless the next time she flew United. The actor William Shatner snarked about pants he once wore on the set of “Star Trek.” Calls for boycotts of United flooded social media sites.

United wouldn’t back down, saying initially that the barring was justified because gate agents could ban anyone who was not “properly clothed.” But this only fueled the bubbling controversy.

Hours later, United issued a clarification, saying that the teenagers and their parents had been traveling with “pass riders,” tickets given to employees or their friends at a heavily discounted rate, and that with this comes the responsibility of a dress code.

“When taking advantage of this benefit, all employees and pass riders are considered representatives of United,” read a statement that United posted late on Sunday evening. “And like most companies, we have a dress code that we ask employees and pass riders to follow. The passengers this morning were United pass riders and not in compliance with our dress code for company benefit travel.”

These are tickets that are typically left over, usable when there are empty seats on a plane. The regular paying passengers are known in the business as “revenue customers.”

While some details of this tale remain murky — as of right now, the family remains anonymous — dress codes for employees, their families and friends who are traveling on free or discounted passes have been in place for decades, although not all are strictly enforced.

Both of Betty Horne’s parents, for example, worked in the aviation industry, and both for United. Her mother was a flight attendant and her father a flight engineer. Ms. Horne, 60, said she had started taking discounted flights thanks to her parents in the 1950s, and even then took great pains in the way she dressed.

“As a small kid, there wasn’t that much of a problem because we were always in dresses,” Ms. Horne said. “That was just not an option. We always dressed up. In the late ’60s, early ’70s, that was when I was really concerned with whether I was meeting standards or not.”

United explicitly bans “form-fitting lycra/spandex tops, pants and dresses,” along with “any attire that reveals a midriff,” “mini skirts,” “bare feet” and many others.

Delta is far less specific, saying only this in its guide: “Just remember, Delta has a relaxed dress code for pass riders, but that doesn’t mean a sloppy appearance is acceptable. You should never wear unclean, revealing or lewd garments, or swimwear or sleepwear on a flight.”

In a statement, Delta said, “We ask our employees and their family and friends flying on pass privileges to use their best judgment when deciding what to wear on a flight.”

American Airlines says in its employee travel guide, “In general, if attire is appropriate and in good taste for our revenue customers, then it is acceptable for us as well.”

It goes on to specify that travelers are not to wear “torn, dirty or frayed clothing,” “clothing that is distracting or offensive to others” or “clothing that is vulgar or violates community standards of decency.”

It is up typically to gate agents to decide what is appropriate and what is not for those traveling on pass riders.

“I have seen adults who have holes in jeans miss big international flights because the gate agent said, ‘Nope, you don’t meet our standards,’ which I thought was brutal,” said Mark Blacknell, 41, an attorney in Washington. Mr. Blacknell’s mother works for Delta, and he has taken advantage of numerous pass riders.

But there is a reason for the strictness of United’s guidelines, a company spokesman said. They exist to take the decision out of the gate agent’s hands.

“We have guidelines like this to help our gate agents, because we don’t want to put them in this position, to have to be making judgment calls about attire,” said the spokesman, Jonathan Guerin. “That’s what the policy is about. It’s designed to help our employees do their jobs and be efficient and get people on board.”

What seemed to be lost in the social media fury was that commercial passengers are not held to the same standard, as Delta mentioned on Twitter, ribbing its competitor.

But whether this controversy will bring about a change by United remains to be seen.

“We regularly review our guidelines,” Mr. Guerin said.

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