Culture

United Employees Had Every Right to Bar the Leggings-Wearing Girls from Flying 

(Photo: Colicaranica/Dreamstime)
There was a clear policy, and the girls violated it.

People are freaking out about United Airlines refusing to board three young girls, who were flying for free as pass travelers, on Sunday morning because they were wearing leggings — calling it a sexist, ridiculous, and unfair decision. 

Controversy broke out when one of the plane’s passengers, an anti-gun-violence organization founder named Shannon Watts, saw the incident occurring and tweeted about it. According to Watts, one of the girls was forced to put a dress over her leggings in order to fly, and the other two girls were not allowed to fly at all. 

Watts insisted on Twitter that the airline was being “sexist,” and told the Washington Post that a policy forbidding pass travelers from wearing leggings “sexualizes little girls.” 

Now, in case you don’t know what “pass travelers” are, they’re people who get passes to fly for free because they or one of their “dependents” work for the airline. As UA explained in a series of tweets, being allowed to board as a “pass traveler” requires that you comply with the following “pass traveler” dress code, from the airline’s employee handbook as posted in an article on the Washington Post:

Dress Code

  • Pass riders’ overall appearance should be well-groomed, neat, clean and in good taste.

  • Attire should be respectful of fellow revenue passengers, employees and pass riders.

  • Pass riders may wear denim attire (such as jeans), shorts that are no more than three inches above the knee and athletic shoes when traveling in Coach and Business cabin.


The following attire is unacceptable in any cabin but is not limited to:

  • Any attire that reveals a midriff.

  • Attire that reveals any type of undergarments. 

  • Attire that is designated as sleepwear, underwear, or swim attire. 

  • Mini Skirts

  • Shorts that do not meet 3 inches above the knee when in a standing position. 

  • Form fitting lycra/spandex tops, pants and dresses.

  • Attire that has offensive and/or derogatory terminology or graphics.

  • Attire that is excessively dirty or has holes/tears.

  • Any attire that is provocative, inappropriately revealing, or see-through clothing. 

  • Bare feet

  • Beach-type, rubber flip flops


The policy is clear — if you want to fly as a pass traveler, then no “form fitting lycra/spandex tops, pants and dresses” — but that still didn’t stop a whole host of people from passionately declaring that these girls had been victims of a cruel injustice. Patricia Arquette called it “terrible.” Everyone’s favorite has-been, Moby, asked if United was “run by Republicans from the 1950’s.” A Jezebel article insinuated that the dress code terms were outdated and absurd, asking: “What sort of Elizabethan torture girdles are they expected to wear?” And, of course, plenty of good ole keyboard-feminists took to Twitter to express their horror as well: 

@mommamia6512 @united @PattyArquette please #mansplain to us women why leggings are not “appropriate attire” #boycottunited

— Girl Science (@GoGirlScience) March 26, 2017

@united @baddestmamajama I’m a 35 y/o woman who is 8 months pregnant & exclusively wears leggings. Should I cancel my flight w/u next week?

— Crooked Butters 2.0 (@ButtersV2) March 26, 2017

@united Sorry but only United knows who’s flying on a pass–there’s no excuse for this sexist policy. Taking my leggings elsewhere.

— Chivas Sandage (@ChivasSandage) March 27, 2017

@united not allowing pass riders to wear leggings is still female discrimination. The world should continue to boycott your sexist company!

— Bad Ass Firefighter (@Fire_hero88) March 27, 2017

.@united When did your friendly skies become sexist? You owe an apology to the young women wearing leggings whom you banned #unitedleggings pic.twitter.com/ZkRJG7S2Jf

— AnneFrankCenter(US) (@AnneFrankCenter) March 27, 2017

(Note: As is clear from the above, many of the people outraged by United’s policy did not make sure to understand it before tweeting about it. It does not, after all, ban its passengers from wearing leggings; it bans its pass travelers from wearing leggings, which means that people like Crooked Butters 2.0 would be more than welcome to fly while wearing them.)

But do these people have a point? Are the rules too strict, even if they do apply only to pass-travelers? The answer: It doesn’t matter. 

People who fly as pass-travelers know the rules. By accepting a free flight as a pass traveler, they are also accepting the terms that come with being a pass traveler. If someone accepts an offer based on certain terms, then fails to comply with them, it’s not fair to say that that person was wronged if that offer is rescinded based on the failure to comply. 

The market functions as a series of mutually agreed-upon exchanges. Like it or not, that’s how it works. You cannot, for example, have dinner at an expensive restaurant and then debate with the waiter over the fairness of the price when he hands you the bill. Even if you were right, and the price of the food was ridiculous, you would still have no room to argue because you were well aware of the terms — that is, paying the high price — when you ordered it. 

I am certainly not anti-leggings. In fact, I wear them every time I fly. But do you know what else I always do? Pay for it. Leggings-wearing a deal-breaker for you? Fine, don’t willingly agree to a deal where you get a free flight in exchange for not wearing them. The girls themselves may not have known the rules, but their father, who is responsible for them, must have — and all United did was hold him to the standards that he’d agreed to by accepting a free flight. 

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