One of my personal nightmares made the headlines last month, when two legging-clad passengers were denied boarding on a United flight. The teenagers accused of being underdressed were traveling on special employee passes, a company benefit for workers and their families that I also rely on every time I fly.
At the story’s outbreak, most of the immediate witnesses as well as subsequent secondhand commentators were shocked—and outraged—that the airline had begun cracking down on their customers over such a common article of clothing. Had United abruptly positioned itself as the most conservative carrier on the market, bent on reviving the golden standard of formalwear on planes?
Of course not. The industry has long since given up on the idea of enforcing a decorous dress code, relinquishing that duty to celebrities and their conspicuous airport chic. I am the one surviving exception: the standby passenger. Standby, space available, non-revenue, pass rider—all of these titles designate the passenger who is flying on a free or highly discounted ticket courtesy of an employee of the airline. The passenger may be an employee who is commuting, or who is traveling for reasons unrelated to work; a family member traveling alone or accompanying the employee; or a friend gifted with a pass. When fliers are using this privilege, the airline considers them to be “representing” their employer and thus holds them to a higher standard of dress.
In the recent past, United’s pass rider policy banned everything from jeans to athletic shoes. Women in skirts had to wear pantyhose; men had to wear button-downs and khakis. Today the company’s policy has relaxed beyond the bounds of business casual, with regulations simply asking for clean, non-ripped, unrevealing clothing. No swimwear or sleepwear; no bare feet or rubber flip-flops. And no “form-fitting lycra/spandex tops, pants and dresses.”
Given the full picture, the late debate surrounding United’s dress code really has two main concerns. The first—Twitter’s initial provocation that still stands—is the ban on leggings sexist and/or outdated? Followed by the second, larger question: is the very idea of a separate dress code for standbys inherently objectionable?
When compared with the pass rider policies of its competitors, United has the lengthiest and most explicit regulations. Neither Delta nor American mentions spandex; their standards for what is appropriately unrevealing would seem to allow most anything commonly worn in public. Stricter internal interpretations of these guidelines, even without language directly referring to leggings, remains a possibility.
United is the airline from which I receive my privilege, so leggings have always been ruled out as travel wear. As a jeans lover, I haven’t been personally bothered by this restriction—after all, who wants to travel pocketless? My sister, who falls on the opposite side of the pants preference spectrum, has more than once pushed her luck by flouting the policy. The exact scenario currently making headlines is a long-familiar one to me, since my best friend from high school, who wears leggings exclusively, was forced by a United agent to buy “slacks” in an airport when traveling on a pass many years ago. I believe that Twitter hadn’t been invented yet at the time, so no hashtags were born.
My personal feelings about the practicality of leggings for air travel aside, I will take advantage of this rare spotlight upon the policy prohibiting them to add my voice in protest. I simply do not believe that women’s leggings as they are widely worn today belong in the same unacceptable category as dirty, torn, or derogatory apparel. Other major airlines would (on paper) concur.
Given the fact that United PR has previously featured women relaxing in leggings in their promotions (see a June 21, 2016 tweet showing a woman practicing yoga in the gate area, spandex-clad behind high in the air and shirt sliding down to expose her bare back), clearly the idea that this wardrobe is a shameful way to represent the airline is unfounded.
If we agree that standbys deserve the right to wear spandex leggings like everyone else, might we be able to agree that such fliers do not need a separate dress code, but should be held to the normal standard—by which boarding may be denied to any United passengers “who are barefoot or not properly clothed,” according to the airline’s contract of carriage? That rule seems to cover enough bases for me.
When was the last time you noticed the pass riders on your flight? Did you even know what a pass rider was before this whole Twitter storm began? Believe me, I’ve sat at many a gate and tried to pick out who might be my competition for an open seat. I have no idea who’s also flying standby until their name gets called by the agent, and even then I cannot know who’s a pass rider and who’s a fully-paying customer trying take a different flight from their original reservation. I find it very hard to believe that fliers can regularly discern who is supposed to be “representing United.”
Nothing changes the fact that I am extremely grateful for the privilege to fly standby as an employee dependent. Without this ability, I would never have made it home from college for as many memories with my family as I now treasure. For such a gift I would give away every pair of leggings I own and fill a closet with slacks if I had to.
And yet if you object to the idea of young women being singled out and humiliated at the gate like the two sisters in the recent news, like my own sister, my friend, and me, merely for wearing the same clothing as innumerable others—including the young, yoga-loving women targeted by United’s own advertisements—then do not let the fact that we are standbys silence you.