United Airlines Forces Teenagers To Change Their Leggings Attire, Turns Out They Were Employment Pass Passengers


United Airlines took a lot of heat over the last 24 hours after staff instructed a pair of teenagers to change their attire after they spotted them wearing tight leggings but it turns out this was a reasonable request.

The two kids were actually flying on discounted/free passes issued to airline employees and as such they have to adhere to a dress code set by the airline which obviously doesn’t include leggings.

Right after the incident a storm broke loose on Social Media (esp. Twitter) and the airline was cornered for what looked like yet another employee on a power trip and overreach of their authority.

Well not everything is at it seems at first and while I read about it yesterday I thought better wait and see because as much as I love to flame airlines for their misconduct something didn’t seem right with this case and sure enough it wasn’t.

By now there is an updated article in the New York Times (see here) and it’s probably best to read through the entire thing but here is the most essential part.

United Airlines barred two teenage girls from boarding a flight on Sunday morning and required a child to change into a dress after a gate agent decided the leggings they were wearing were inappropriate. That set off waves of anger on social media, with users criticizing what they called an intrusive, sexist policy, but the airline maintained its support for the gate agent’s decision.

The girls, who were about to board a flight to Minneapolis, were turned away at the gate at Denver International Airport, the company said on Sunday. United doubled down on that decision, defending it in a series of tweets on Sunday. …

Jonathan Guerin, a spokesman for United, confirmed that two teenage girls were told they could not board a flight from Denver to Minneapolis because their leggings violated the company’s dress code policy for “pass travelers,” a company benefit that allows United employees and their dependents to travel for free on a standby basis.

Mr. Guerin said pass travelers are “representing” the company and as such are not allowed to wear Lycra and spandex leggings, tattered or ripped jeans, midriff shirts, flip-flops or any article of clothing that shows their undergarments.

The article also includes a fiery exchange of Twitter messages between a lady and the United Airlines social media team.

Apart from the statement of the spokesperson there was however also an official response published on UnitedHub (access here) which is the airlines news center outlet. It bears the title “To our customers, your leggings are welcome”.

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.

The update was published this morning and provides some insight and clarity about the situation and what exactly lead to this incident.

The outrage ensued because nobody of the bystanders actually knew what was going on and everybody just assumed what I described above: Just another employee going nuts.

In reality however the real culprit here is the employee who didn’t brief the passengers who were issued these free tickets to how the company dress code is, completely disregarding the rules tied to these employment benefits.

Since there were no images of the clothing attached or the passengers wearing them (which would also be more than a little bit disturbing considering they’re still children) it’s hard to say if that call about clothing style and kind was made correctly. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here and forget that it isn’t the same if an adult wears things or a 10 year old child accompanied by an adult.

Last week I saw this at the lounge while getting some breakfast:

The pants were actually more skimpy than they appear in this picture, just a bit of cotton, something you wear to sleep during a warm summer night. But since the lady was a ‘regular customer’ how United would put it I guess this attire is ok (in their eyes).

People might come forward with the argument ‘Well she looks good so I’m not complaining’ but that’s not a valid point in my opinion. You can’t cut people slack for looks when it comes to etiquette and this is definitely over the line, no matter if it’s a model showing up in these sleepwear pants or someone who weighs 250KG.


While I personally wouldn’t see anything wrong with a child wearing a Spiderman costumer or cotton leggings I’d draw the line at a certain age and especially adults. Nevertheless United as it’s the same with every other company can set their own rules of how their employees and their designated beneficiaries have to dress when using their privileges.

I’m not sure if United sends the right message in their public statement that regular customers are welcome to dress like a slob, just their employees and pass holder have to watch themselves. Why not encourage proper attire for everybody instead of officially lowering the bar for everybody?

If you enjoyed this article, get our blog updates for free!

Previous articleLAST CALL: Marriott Rewards Elite Buy Back Offer 2017 (Buy Back Your 2016 Silver, Gold Or Platinum Status)
Next articleSPG Pro Triple Your Rewards-Promotion March 27 – December 31, 2017


  • iolaire

    I personally find it more odd or out of line to go around taking people’s photo on the sly to use for social commentary on the internet then what the people photographed wear.
    In this day and age there are tons of norms for people and what makes one person’s norm the “right” norm to have?
    Its not like these people are walking around with a loud boom box that really impacts everyone around them, instead its a person focusing on something they don’t like and deciding that its an affront to them and choosing to keep looking at it or worse taking a photo of it on the sly so they can share this affront with others via the internet.

  • NYCBK123

    First accurate headline of this United story saga

  • DavidH

    I am a 66 year old married (for 44 years) man who lives in Florida. I don’t fly much but if the weather isn’t too cold, I like to fly in my above the knee cargo shorts and a t-shirt. Does the author consider this inappropriate? I wouldn’t wear them to a Church service or a wedding but it seems to me that in today’s USA informal culture, they are acceptable for air travel. We mostly travel by car and I do wear cargo shorts and a t-shirt when I drive (and check-in to hotels). In Florida, just about everyone wears shorts all the time (some even to Church services).

  • Attention All Passengers

    All this commotion because of Shannon R. Watts’ tweeting information of which she knew nothing about. The gall of this (anti-gun) activist, who was not even on that flight but was at the next gate to assume something and “twitter” about it without finding out the details ahead of time. Talk about shooting first and asking questions later.
    Then the NYTimes (typically) compounds it with no information given in their initial article – they just willy-nilly believe some dopey woman tweeting away. Though the NYTimes amended their article, UA has been tremendously maligned because of this article. And yes, it does now appear UA is saying their regular passengers can look like slobs while their employees and other pass-riders but UA should have a dress code for their employees and others pass-riding and no, they pretty much don’t care what slobs are wearing as long as it’s not totally indecent – the price to be paid for being forced to be politically correct. Go ahead, wear what you want, we all talk about it on FlyerTalk and other airline blog sites anyway – I guess Ms. Watts is just unaware of that.

    • LlamaOfDoom

      Meanwhile, I’m of the opinion that since air travel is no longer the glamorous thing it was in the early days of jet travel, that these policies should similarly follow- as long as someone doesn’t look like they just rolled out of bed and into the airport, or are showing more skin than any paying passenger is allowed to show, it should be fine.

      Especially since they used the terminology “representatives of United”, in which case the above doubly goes. If it was Singapore, Cathay Pacific, JAL, or similar, then sure, a strict dress code is justified in the context of representing the airline. United, not so much.

  • John Everett

    I worked for a regional airline and a fallen carrier about 20 years ago. Both made sure that employees knew that there was a dress code for non rev travel. They also let the employees know that any buddy pass riders needed to toe the line on dress and if they did not, they would be denied carriage and the employee would be called on the carpet. Because of this, I never gave out buddy passes.

    • Attention All Passengers

      I’m with you. I hate buddy-passes and wish the airlines never started doing this. I had one bad experience having given a buddy pass to someone that I THOROUGHLY EXPLAINED THE PASS RULES AND DRESS CODE TO in advance. Nevertheless he showed up in a torn, dirty T-shirt. Thankfully I was on duty and and basically read him the riot act. You want to travel today ?, go buy a new tee-shirt. He did. Needless to say he was off my list immediately after that flight. DON’T MESS WITH MY PASS TRAVEL PRIVILEGES.
      Now I NEVER GIVE OUT BUDDY PASSES, not even to my own relatives.

      • LlamaOfDoom

        “I hate buddy-passes and wish the airlines never started doing this.”

        I think it was a shrewd attempt to get away with lower pay by offering “free travel” for employees and friends and family of such, so unless the airlines want to actually pay their employees more, I think they’re here to stay. And on a personal, with what the airlines are paying at entry-level, I wouldn’t want to work for one without these.

        • Attention All Passengers

          Sorry, not a good enough reason (lower salaries for entry-level new-hires). When I started with my airline 35+ years ago, none of this (buddy pass) existed. All of us started at minimum starting salary – that’s not a good enough reason to open up the floodgates to every friend, relative and acquaintance to ride on our coattails. I don’t agree with offering of buddy passes. They have created the biggest problems in pass-travel. I have seen all kinds of commotion at gates by un-informed pass riders – 99% of the time they are friends of the employee and have no clue. Some have gone so far as demanding they get on an already full flight or are indignant about not getting first class. Yes, this can definitely get the sponsor (employee) in trouble with discipline up to and including termination. I do also blame the employee for not informing people correctly but many times they did do that (as per my experience above). It’s just the world we live in — all about “me, me, me” with little or no concern for rules or codes of conduct etc. Frankly I would gladly forfeit buddy pass privileges (even to those I can really trust) if the airline I work for would go back to eligible EMPLOYEES, SPOUSES, CHILDREN, PARENTS and RETIREES ONLY.!! Who knows, maybe this event will start that ball rolling.

          • LlamaOfDoom

            And when you started out 35+ years ago the world was a lot different. Starting salary was enough to live on, for one thing. The prospect of practically every existing airline merging into the “big 3” or collapsing (TWA, Pan Am) was unthinkable. Airlines weren’t charging from the first checked bag. The world changes, and while the problems you just described with “un-informed pass riders” are issues that raise justifiable anger, the idea of being dissatisfied with the current dress code and considering the possibility of adjusting down the dress code to allow pass riders to blend into the general public should not be cause to launch into a “back in my day” rant.

            And as for the possibility of limiting pass travel- United labor relations are strained enough as it is (since you don’t mention the airline you work for, I assume it’s not them- even if it is I assume you do not speak for the other employees). I still remember the “Summer from Hell”, and anything that can be done to avoid a repeat would be appreciated.

  • Don David

    I used to flight “non-rev” for American Airlines and later for United. All employees are told frequently about dress code; it’s universal knowledge, there’s no way to say that you didn’t know. In Premium cabins, they won’t allow even jeans. Back then, I was OK all of these, because you’re paying 10% of the fare. As Sebastian says, I would think it was the employee’s responsibility not to explain this and set the expectation to his or her pass riders.
    Non-revs get denied access all the time because, it just happened that this Shannon Watts lady happened to be on this flight and tweeted about it.

    • Attention All Passengers

      Actually Shannon Watts butted-in from the gate next door. She was not on the same flight. Twitter is dangerous. It allows people to lie and slander. I would love to see her lose her United miles for bad behavior – for creating this major cr@pstorm and lying all over the media. Now celebrities and such are threatening to “boycott” United by wearing leggings. What dumb people not to even find out why any gate agent would be doing this – they just over-react with knee-jerk comments. Oh if only ignorance was painful !!

      • LlamaOfDoom

        “I would love to see her lose her United miles for bad behavior”

        Yes, and then the resulting blowback will *really* be something to behold. They won’t do that if they want this to blow over as quickly as possible.

  • Dr.Florida

    Although I would love the era of Orient Express and Agatha Christie….this is over .
    I used to care how people are dressed but now…..I just don’t. Let them go naked if they want. Don’t take pics of people without their consent. That is even creepier , really. Just stop being annoyed….wnt help u anyway. Gonna call the Loungepolice?
    Times of elegance are over.

  • Owen Olsen

    Taking pics of a single person without their knowledge or permission is not ethical. It’s a tricky subject. This is from an ex-photojournalist’s point of view. I would suggest next time to either ask permission or take a general shot of the lounge with that person in the frame. Of course preferably without showing their face. Again permission may have to be sought from the proprietors of the lounge. Also very important is what is written with the image. I’m not a lawyer and don’t live in a litigious society, but err on the side of caution.

    As for United… They make the rules for their employees and those termed “pass riders”. It’s like everyone else, we all have our house rules. People should respect them. Celebrities etc., making comments on Twitter are not role models. Most are ignorant of any facts. They should all shut up. As for the NYT and any news organisation. Get your facts right first. Then give a truthful and unbiased analysis with a final opinion or opinions.


  • Joe S

    Am wondering if someone’s pass will be revoked for this one?

  • Holiday_Hero

    Why are you taking photos of womens bums?

  • Stefan_In_Vienna

    I’ve been travelling on a “Buddy pass” only once in my life, when my sister was working for an airline more than 20 years ago. Allowed then were employees, parents, siblings, offspring and spouses. There was a dress code and a code of conduct for flying on industry discount fares. As the tax situation got worse year after year – my sister had to pay ever increasing income-tax for the fare discount I received – she decided not to give out these passes any longer and only used them herself, until she quit from the airline and accepted a job with better hours at a bank.

Send this to a friend