A privilege, not a right

Twitter is a relatively new world to me. As you may well have noticed from my blog posts which tend to be rather long, I am not accustomed to confining my thought process to a mere 140 characters. For years now I’ve dabbled on the outer edges of Twitter, often going through phases in which I’ll like/reply to/retweet everything solidly for a 36 hour period then opening my phone 10 days later and realising I forgot about Twitter entirely.

Recently I’ve been making more of an effort to understand it (no particular reason why, just my most recent 36 hour bout is still going strong a week later so I figure there’s something here). There’s certainly benefits to it for example it’s far more entertaining than reading BBC News while brushing my teeth. However Twitter is also a very odd space which not only encourages people to share things about themselves they’d probably never actually say in real life but all gives people the confidence to weigh in on issues they evidently know nothing about. If you’re one of the individuals involved in the tussle, the result is a confusing mess of miscommunication with the power to make or break your reputation.

United airlines found itself at the centre of a social media storm yesterday as the internet unleashed its outrage at the news that two young women had been denied boarding onto a United aircraft because they were wearing leggings.

Sharon Watts, activist and founder of MomsDemand (a grassroots organisation to tackle gun violence in the US), was saw the event unfold and tweeted her surprise at the gate agent’s behaviour to her 34,000+ followers.

KABOOM. The internet went mad. #Leggingsgate became a thing.

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This Twitter business is interesting, isn’t it?!

But you see the problem is, as with most “news” articles on social media outlets these days, that wasn’t quite the whole story – as United tried to explain. It turns out that the two young women were “pass riders”, the United version of staff tickets, so either flying for free or paying a fraction of the ticket price. This changes the rules as according to United Airlines, passengers taking advantage of the pass rider tickets must adhere to the following dress code:

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– from United website

I feel like now is the appropriate time to point out that having a dress code policy when flying staff is pretty standard in the airline industry. Every airline I know of who offers these kind of perks has one and when I’ve been fortunate to fly staff, I have been reminded of the policy and my obligation to follow it – or risk not being allowed to board the flight.

United had an opportunity here to quell the building social media storm by providing a detailed explanation of their travel perks policy in a reasoned, helpful manner. Doing so would have alleviated the concern of women around the world, riled at even the sound of a possible “body-policing” scandal and the general confusion from passengers over what they can and can’t wear to board a flight.

United could have done that. But we also know that United is really not very good at handling its social media presence – do you remember the controversy back in 2015 when a Muslim woman said she was discriminated against because the air stewardess wouldn’t serve her Diet Coke? Yes, that was United too – and that was equally damaging. (according to other passengers the story wasn’t even true but once the Lords of the Internet had got hold of the story, as we know too well these days, that just didn’t really matter).

So anyway, instead of crafting a polite, calm-inducing response, United directed the lady to their corporate flight policy document. Smart move.

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No, United, just NO.

This is not the correct way to respond to this situation. And it didn’t help that the site linked in the Tweet, is not the policy which applies to Pass Riders but actually the policy which applies to full-fare (revenue-earning) passengers which states, and I quote;

“UA shall have the right to refuse to transport or shall have the right to remove from the aircraft at any point, any Passenger for the following reasons:

8. Safety – Whenever refusal or removal of a Passenger may be necessary for the safety of such Passenger or other Passengers or members of the crew including, but not limited to….

  1. Passengers who are barefoot or not properly clothed”;

-which obviously implies that the airline is now calling out two young women in leggings for “not being properly clothed” and thus denying them boarding for no apparent reason whatsoever. 

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Of course, as our explanation of their pass rider policy has shown, the gate agent was only following protocol and was operating within the rules of carriage but in the Twitter-sphere, this is irrelevant and the storm of pent-up rage and anger has been unleashed.

The argument then evolved into something else entirely. When United tried to later clarify their policy, explaining that the dress code only applied to staff travellers and that full paying customers were welcome to wear whatever they wanted, they were taken to task for what Twitter users deemed to be an unnecessarily female-centric clothing policy that encouraged the body shaming of women. “Look!” shrieked the (mainly female) internet, “midriff, mini skirts, lycra, provocative or see through clothing – it’s all targeted at women!

Even some men tried to get involved – “Yes!” they agreed – “it’s all the patriarchy trying to control women! (Now please follow my twitter page and like my posts)”.

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If my Dad turned up in short shorts, he would not be allowed to board. #justsaying #loveyouDad

Some poor, well intentioned old souls tried to wade into the debate but the internet was on a roll and they were having none of it. As I was brushing my teeth last night and scrolling through the comments, I learnt another thing about Twitter – well thought-out, reasoned logic doesn’t count for much on here.

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So what to make of all of this?

Well first things first, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. As a woman, I don’t find their dress code policy the slightest bit sexist and I think that how you interpret it will be tied to your assumptions about how men and women dress. Sexism by definition means “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex”.

Practically, my rule of thumb which I learnt from Caitlin Moran’s fantastic book How To Be A Woman that allows me to make a snap judgement of “whether or not some sexist bullshit is afoot” is by asking the following questions; is this taking up men’s time? Is this making men feel insecure? are the men also told not to do this?

In this case, the final question is key : “Are men also being told not to do this?”

The answer is yes, they are. If a man in possession of a staff travel ticket turns up in lycra short shorts baring his midriff, I am happy to bet whatever you want that he will also be refused boarding.

But he won’t wear that!” I hear the internet trolls cry “The list specifically targets female clothing”.

Ok so that’s making some pretty sexualised judgements right there about gender roles in fashion so get off your high horse but for the sake of avoiding another Twitter war, I see your point. So let me put it this way. If a man in possession of a staff travel turns up in dirty, ripped jeans and a vest with an offensive graphic on it – he’s also not getting on that flight.

In terms of how United handled the issue, I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, I respect their decision to stand by their policy. If they’re letting not just employees but also employees family and friends(!) fly practically for free, I think they’re perfectly entitled to implement pretty much whatever policy they want. If they decided to make everyone wear stripy socks or a baseball hat, I see no problem with it. If you don’t like it, go and buy a ticket. No one is forcing you to fly for free.

(If you’re interested, the New Yorker has done a hilarious article highlighting the ridiculousness of such dress codes on flights ).

On the other hand, in this day and age of the rise of the all-powerful consumer, this is just NOT how you handle this kind of problem. Admittedly, the gate agent’s decision to refuse them boarding for wearing leggings may seem unnecessary but some are sticklers for the rules and for all we know, the agent could’ve been told to refuse them/could’ve been having a bad day and was doing that to everyone/[insert additional potential reason]… when it comes down to it, he/she was only doing their job. United’s unhelpful responses on Twitter just added fuel to the fire and by the time their spokesman (finally) stepped in to start issuing press releases to reassure full-paying customers that they can fly in whatever attire they like and that no, United is not a sexist airline – the damage was already done.

I’ve flown on staff travel a number of times and I’ll be honest, a couple of those times, I’ve flown in leggings. I was fortunate enough not to be called out on my attire but frankly speaking , had I been, the gate agent would have been perfectly within his/her rights to do so because when you book these tickets, you are reminded that you are representing the airline and of your obligation to follow the dress code.

The point here that the internet seems to have forgotten (or chosen not to pay any attention to) is that discounted/free flight is a privilege, not a right and should be treated as such. If that means adhering to the dress code, then adhere you must.

On the bright side, Delta has been having a great week.

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*Featured image credit – RadicalCompliance.com

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