United Continental Holdings, Inc.’s (NYSE:UAL) principal subsidiary United Airlines became the target of online outrage this weekend after an incident involving a pair of teen girls. United turned away two girls in their early teens trying to board a flight bound for Minneapolis because they were wearing leggings. Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, live-tweeted the incident.
At first, the airline pointed to its rules for general customers. The official United Twitter account responded that United has “the right to refuse transport for passengers who are barefoot or not properly clothed.” According to the Twitter thread of the incident, another girl about the same age put on a dress and was allowed on the plane. The adult male with them, who was wearing shorts, was also allowed to board.
Two hours later, United confirmed that the girls weren’t ordinary passengers but were flying on “buddy passes.” The buddy pass users are generally relatives of United employees who fly for free or on discount due to their relative’s relationship with the company. When an airline employee gives free or discounted flights to a relative or friend, the ticket comes with limitations. That includes a dress code.
Airlines have surprisingly strict dress codes for people traveling on “buddy passes.” Airlines believe that buddy pass users are representing the airline, like employees. According to people with experience, all kinds of ordinary clothes can keep a buddy-pass user grounded. Even the behavior of the person using the buddy pass could get the employee that gave it in trouble with their employer.
United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said in a media statement, “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.” United has not apologized for enforcing its buddy pass dress code.
Some have called United’s dress code for buddy passes sexist, saying that it sets limits that mostly affect women. Its dress code for non-revenue fliers has 11 fashion bans, and about half would only be regular issues for women. United’s buddy-pass guidelines currently don’t allow form-fitting pants, but does allow jeans and some shorts. Also outlawed are miniskirts, short shorts and anything that “reveals a midriff.” United’s other restrictions against clothing described as “provocative,” “inappropriately revealing” or “offensive” could be interpreted in many ways.