Let’s discuss: United, leggings, and PR reactions

Hue leggingsLet’s talk leggings. Specifically, leggings on airplanes. And reactions to leggings on airplanes. Not since the great “leggings are not pants!” debate have there been so many heated exchanges about leggings.

At this point you may be wondering what the heck I’m talking about, so here is some backstory. This weekend several girls tried to board a United flight to Minneapolis but were turned away because they were wearing leggings. If the story stopped here then any full-on outrage would be completely 100% justified. However, it turns out that these girls (preteen and early teen, according to the New York Times) were “pass travelers’, which means they are employees or family of employees flying for free. This  is important because pass travelers have a dress code, and it specifically bans spandex and Lycra leggings, along with ripped or tattered jeans, midriff-baring tops, or flip-flops.

The social media sphere reacted swiftly and brutally. Since the story broke harsh criticism has come from frequent travelers to celebrities and everyone in between. United has held its ground, navigating a fine line between explaining its policies for pass travelers and how they don’t necessarily apply to general passengers.

The initial reasoning given for turning the passengers away was that United reserves the right to decline service to anyone who they deem to be inappropriately dressed. The implication is that it’s possible for anyone wearing leggings to be considered “inappropriately dressed”. The company has since tried to clarify that leggings and yoga pants are acceptable for regular passengers, just not pass travelers. (Although I have to say, as someone who wears yoga pants or leggings for all international flights, it is a bit concerning to know some in the company think it acceptable to decline boarding based based on leggings.)

But actually, this story isn’t about leggings, and here is why. I understand that United has a dress code for its pass travelers, which I concede is their right. The thought is that pass travelers are representing United and need to look respectable. One issue I have is that they are applying rules about adult clothing to children. Kids wear leggings and stretch pants all the time. And honestly, it seems like such an odd place to draw your line in the sand. Is “kids flying in leggings” really the hill that United wants to die on? Especially considering the initial company response that it was a general dress-code violation? Regardless of their right to a dress code, they are not winning many favors with their current response.

I get it. They have a policy and they are sticking to it. But it seems to not be the best PR strategy.

Readers, what are your thoughts about United’s handling of this issue? Should they continue to hold their ground, or take their customers’ views into consideration?


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  1. No matter how you feel about leggings on kids, unless you are a United employee or pass rider this is none of your business. Pass benefits are a privilege. If employees don’t agree with the dress code, they have ways to make they opinions heard.

    Let it go.

  2. Actually, United is gaining way more support that you give them credit for.
    Yes, their initial PR reply (which wasn’t from their social media team) and the follow up (before before they explained the kids were pass flyers) sucked. And your point that “kids wear leggings and stretch pants all the time” is kind of spurious.

    But the heat is justifiably being put on the employees/parents who should be aware of the policy, and should have their pass rights pulled. It would just be the luck/Murphy’s Law for that GA that a United official was on the flight and questioned her bending the rules for the teens. I personally wouldn’t want to justify it. Should they adjust rules for younger pass flyers? Probably. Should that include leggings? Probably not – if they are going for a specific dress code, requiring a child/teen to actually dress up to fly for free/reduced fare isn’t going to hurt them. I require my kids to not look like they completely fell out of bed when they travel. I’m with United on this one.

  3. I do think leggings are borderline inappropriate anyway. I know this is my problem, and I apparently deserve the shame of the world, but I think the only thing separating leggings from pantyhose is opacity. Of course they’re comfortable, the wearer is basically in underwear. Yes I look at butts in leggings. They’re barely concealed. I’m not a perv. There’s a spray painted ass in the room, I’m going to look. Male or female. It’s oblivious to wear them and then get all huffy that someone thinks inappropriately. Your ass is hanging out. I’m glancing. If fit men wore skin tight shirts, women would look too. Welcome to biology. We want to be more comfortable with our bodies, like some mythical European nation, but we’re forgetting that Europeans check each other out much more comfortably too. We can’t have it both ways.

  4. Saw the mother on TV whining about the situation. Don’t think she was the United employee who secured the girl’s passes, unless she works as a United Club Whine Steward. I guess following company dress code policy for using free passes infringed on her sense of entitlement.

  5. One interesting bit that’s come out is that the dad traveling with the girls was wearing shorts. I have no problem with that, it would argue that leggings on a 10yo are pretty on par with shorts on a grown man.

    I agree, the problem is applying these standards to underage children.

  6. This is not a ditch they should want to die in. Review the policy, apologize and move on.

  7. Leggings/yoga pants are not pants. Simple. I have no problem if you are wearing a tunic covering your ass, but otherwise, you might as well be in your underwear. Adult or child, makes no difference – you might as well be just wearing your panties.

    I’m totally on United side with this one.

  8. I disagree with most of the other commenters and totally agree with you. And you are the first person to write about this who hits the nail on the head. The gate agent had a certain amount of discretion, there is no way most – if not all – of the passengers would be aware these children were in any way representing the airline and there is no freaking reason AT ALL to stop pre-teen girls from getting on that plane wearing leggings. Can no one understand how children of that age internalize that kind of event? And what is the point?

    Also, to the commenter who said it’s no one else’s business, you couldn’t be more wrong. A lot of us choose to deal with businesses based on how they do business. And, personally, I have boycotted United ever since they broke guitars:


    United’s management make a habit out of being assholes and deserve every bit of bad publicity they are getting. The only thing they understand is the bottom line, so I hope this puts a big dent in theirs.

    Again, this would be completely different if we were talking about adult women. But anyone who thinks it is inappropriate for pre-teen girls to wear leggings on a plane needs to yank the stick out of their butt. What United did to them was far, far worse than any consequences of their boarding the plane in the clothes they were wearing.

  9. I think the problem really lies with the social media team who jumped to “we can deny boarding” which implied people wearing leggings would get denied boarding on United.
    Had they started with the employee pass bit, it would probably have provoked some measure of outrage but I think been much more contained.
    I personally always travel in sweats and I find the comments regarding “I’m going to look so deal with it” very disturbing and indicative of a larger cultural problem. Maybe that is the norm, but it shouldn’t be and we should work toward changing it. I get that you may look, but you may look at a woman wearing a ball gown and appreciate beauty just as much and I’m ok with that, but when you say that you will sexualize women who wear these garments instead of making an effort to think “ok, she’s wearing work out gear out and about, how would I feel if people were thinking of my wife/daughter/mother that way” maybe we can stop these ridiculous conversations about women wearing yoga pants being terrible.

  10. The larger cultural problem is only half the issue here, though. Workout gear for women, especially yoga pants, are designed to be attractive as well as allow freedom of movement. So are volleyball shorts. At some point display of a barely concealed body becomes selfish. “I’m going to show every curve of my butt because it’s comfortable, leave me alone” shows no consideration for anyone else. Just because we can, doesn’t mean that we should. Doing something allowed can still mean being obnoxious. There are plenty of analogous clothing we don’t allow. Men in skin tight boxer brief underwear in public? Why not? We’ve splintered into individualism here without considering whether a its good idea. There’s an interesting listen on NPR this week about about a trans gender man who openly admits his eyes are drawn to women’s body parts now. Even in the absence of malicious intent or perviness, men look. I’m straight and I look at any obvious butt, make or female. Then I’m supposed to immediately run to confession and flaggelate myself? It’s a butt, it’s barely concealed, every hormone and fiber of my male being is begging me to look. The best I can do is acknowledge it and compartmentalize the sexuality, ignore it afterwards, and treat it like a passing billboard. But make no mistake, a public butt is s billboard.

  11. What puzzles me is that in my experience, kids’ leggings look very different from women’s sports leggings – kids’ leggings are usually just light stretchy, cotton pants in bright colours, and not revealing or see-through. Quite different from women’s sports leggings, which are usually tight and unfortunately sometimes a bit see-through, if they are made of thin synthetic Lycra fabric.

    It does seem inappropriate for an airline to be applying rules and conventions for adults onto children – especially since they relate to appearance. Why can’t we just let kids be kids?

  12. I agree with United. My mother worked for British Airways and my entire family flew all over the world on Staff Travel for decades. There are rules, it is a privilege, and you get a huge discount on the cost of air fares, which naturally comes with minor disadvantages-at BA we flew standby. I don’t ever recall not getting a seat. We ere expected to dress and behave well since we represented BA. There are rules. The parents were at fault for not explaining this to their kids and should lose their pass privileges. There was no reason to embarrass the kids as kids, but if they are embarrassed by their parents’ bad behavior, tough. That’s life. As for leggings-I for one am tired of seeing them worn as pants, by kids or adults. Thy are not pants, they are a type of hose. It is inappropriate in a public space, much, much more than wearing scent. On young girls it invites ogling. I wish airlines had dress codes.

  13. Rich is right-this is not the customers’ business, but solely between United and its staff. It is not about leggings per se, nor does it apply to non-staff travelers. A Walt Disney Princess dress would be just as inappropriate for passengers using Staff Travel privileges and not keeping the rules in mind.

  14. Sexist, Dad had shorts on that ended above the knee. Did this family know of the regulations? Do all pass travelers know of the dress code? Clearly this family missed some piece of information. Of course United can have a dress code for its’ pass travelers, but let’s make it equitable and well-published so people don’t make it to the point of getting on the airplane and the gate person turns them away.

  15. Kids do NOT wear leggings all the time. They don’t for weddings, funerals, church, school concerts, etc. It is perfectly reasonable to have a dress code. Many schools have gone to school uniforms so children are familiar with the idea.
    I know that when I accompanied my father to work events I dressed nicely and was expected to be on my best behavior.
    Theses kids are reaping a huge benefit in exchange for dressing appropriately. Cheap travel! Cultural experiences! It’s also reasonable that they learn that you dress appropriately for the setting.

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