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United Airlines: ‘Your leggings are welcome’ — as long as you’re paying for your flight

United Airlines criticized after incident with girls wearing leggings (Video: Reuters)

United Airlines defended a gate agent’s decision Sunday to bar two teenage girls from a flight for wearing leggings, saying that the young passengers were traveling on a company travel pass and were in violation of the airline’s dress code.

To be clear, United says, if you’re paying for your flight, “your leggings are welcome.”

The incident reported Sunday by a traveler at Denver International Airport, set off scores of angry and mocking tweets. But it also ignited fury among airline travel pass users, who say the girls taking advantage of the employee benefit should have known better.

Two girls barred from United flight for wearing leggings

Late Sunday, United provided the following explanation.

Let us take a moment to explain today’s news:
We care about the way we present ourselves to you, our customers, as we believe that is part of the experience on board our flights. One of the benefits of working for an airline is that our employees are able to travel the world. Even better, they can extend this privilege to a select number of what we call “pass riders.” These are relatives or friends who also receive the benefit of free or heavily discounted air travel – on our airline as well as on airlines around the world where we have mutual agreements in place for employees and pass riders.
When taking advantage of this benefit, all employees and pass riders are considered representatives of United. 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. We regularly remind our employees that when they place a family member or friend on a flight for free as a standby passenger, they need to follow our dress code.
To our regular customers, your leggings are welcome.

Early Sunday, however, when fellow passenger Shannon Watts tweeted the incident it was not known that the two girls were on a company pass. Besides the two teens, Watts said she saw a younger girl, around 10 years old, who was also asked to put on a dress over her leggings to board the flight from Denver to Minneapolis.

United’s response then, via Twitter, was that under its passenger contract, it has the “right to refuse passengers who are not properly clothed.” It added, “This is left to the discretion of the agents.”

The Twitterverse went nuts over what is considered “properly clothed.”

But forget about the passenger agreement, United said later. This was about the airline’s internal policy, which requires employees, and anyone using its free travel pass, to abide by a dress code. That dress code says spandex pants are “unacceptable,” as are miniskirts and shorts that are shorter than three inches above the knee.

Here’s United’s full list of unacceptable attire:

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

Lots of companies set dress codes. But some critics said that even if United’s policy applies only to non-revenue travelers, how do the fellow passengers know that? Others say that in an era where leggings are made for casual wear — and even acceptable as part of a work outfit when well-accessorized — the policy is outdated and too strict. Others said the policy is sexist because it singles out attire worn primarily by women.

United isn’t the only airline that has an dress code for relatives and friends of employees traveling on the company dime. Policies from several major U.S. carriers listed on the website FlyZed, which keeps track of airline employee policies, show that airlines generally prohibit travel-pass users from wearing clothing with holes or anything that has offensive or derogatory words or graphics. They ask them to be “well-groomed, neat and clean.”

American Airlines’ policy allows shorts in the economy cabin, but prohibits anything revealing such as “extreme mini-skirts, halter and bra-tops, sheer and see through clothing.”

Southwest says it has a “relaxed and casual” dress code, but don’t bring “low-cut, skimpy, revealing clothing, short shorts or gym shorts.”  There is no mention of leggings.

JetBlue prohibits leggings but says jogging suits are acceptable. But leave the low-cut, skimpy and revealing attire or halter/tube/midriff tops, sweats of any kind in your luggage. No dirty shoes, and please, cover up those tattoos.

Several readers agreed that “non-revenue passengers are representing the airline” and that “it doesn’t take much to dress a little nicer to get on a flight especially if that passenger is getting that ride for little or nothing.”