United Airlines spent Sunday fielding backlash from customers after barring two teenage girls from boarding a flight and making a younger child change earlier that morning, saying the three girls were not dressed appropriately to travel on the airline under a specific benefits program.
The two teenagers, who were wearing leggings, were told by a United employee at the gate that they could not board their flight from Denver to Minneapolis in their current athletic attire because it violated the dress code. The two girls and their travel companion were part of an employee travel pass program that allows United employees and friends and family to fly for free, but subjects them to dress code restrictions that include bans on pajamas, flip-flops, and torn jeans.
"(The two girls) were instructed that they couldn't board until they corrected their outfit. They were fine with it and completely understood," United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said, noting that the girls and their travel companion all missed the flight.
That decision spurred critics to decry the airline’s policies as sexist, with many noting that there are two standards for how men and women can dress without outside comment. Yoga pants and leggings have become common attire outside of the home and gym, with many women regularly wearing them in restaurants, malls, and other public spaces.
But that trend has been met with pushback; schools across the country have banned leggings, arguing that the tight-fitting pants are not appropriate for school and professional environments. Meanwhile, others argue that women should be permitted to wear fashionable, comfortable clothing, and that dress code restrictions often levy more regulations on women than men.
A woman nearby witnessed the exchange, and took to Twitter to criticize the decision.
"This behavior is sexist and sexualizes young girls," Shannon Watts, a passenger at the airport who was waiting to board a flight to Mexico said on Twitter. "Not to mention that the families were mortified and inconvenienced."
Others joined in as the original tweets quickly went viral, reaching out to United via Twitter to decry the policy. The airline stood by its decision, explaining that the no-leggings-rule would not apply to paying customers, but that those affiliated with the airline would be held to a different standard, one that is spelled out in the airline's rules.
The two teenagers stayed behind in Denver with their companion and awaited another flight to Minneapolis after making “adjustments” to their outfits.
A younger girl, who was also wearing leggings, was required to change into a dress her mother had in a carry-on before her family could board a flight.
While United’s dress code applies only to those flying with the benefits program, other paying travelers have encountered regulations that took them by surprise when boarding planes. From low-cut tops to T-shirts displaying expletives, some outfit choices have spurred airline employees to require passengers to make adjustments before boarding. Still, many lack a formal dress code policy to begin with, leaving passengers without concrete information on what is appropriate, and what might not be.
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.