United Airlines is under siege on Twitter after airline employees reportedly stopped two young girls from boarding because they were wearing leggings.
United Airlines found itself in the middle of a public relations kerfuffle this weekend after it did not allow two young girls to board a flight because they were wearing leggings.
It was later revealed that the girls were traveling on employee passes, sometimes colloquially referred to as “buddy passes.” Such passes allow family and friends of airline employees to fly for free or at deep discounts, but they also come with conditions that include dress-code guidelines.
But that detail emerged only after the story went viral across social media, leaving some casual fliers wondering what the dust-up means for them.
“Nothing,” says Henry Harteveldt, founder of the San Francisco-based travel consultancy Atmosphere Research Group.
“The only thing a passenger needs to know when they fly is that an airline may have a set of standards around language,” he says, adding that clothing with lewd or hateful messages are the most likely to cause problems.
“Beyond that, as a passenger, you can wear pretty much anything that is socially acceptable,” Harteveldt says. “That may vary based on the part of the world you’re traveling in. But, in the United States, leggings and yoga pants are worn by many passengers.”
However, that’s not the case for fliers flying on employee passes.
“Airlines have two sets of standards when it comes to attire on a plane,” Harteveldt says. “There’s one for those of us who make up the traveling public and who are paying for our tickets. And there’s a second set of standards that applies to people who are traveling on airline passes. In the airline business, you’re called a ‘non-revenue’ passenger. This includes airline employees and friends who may be using so-called 'buddy passes'.”
“Franky, it’s up to the employee – and the non-revenue passenger – to be aware of these policies,” Harteveldt says. “Communication is important. If somebody doesn’t know something – and it’s an innocent mistake – the person using the buddy pass could be denied boarding. And the employee could get in trouble.”
As for the fuss that’s erupted over United’s weekend incident, Harteveldt wonders if the airline could avoided much of that with a better social media response. The incident only seemed to gather steam after United responded to the first tweets about the situation not with a gentle explanation, but rather by citing the company’s “contract of carriage” and its “right to refuse transport for passengers” who don’t meet criteria spelled out there.
“United flew itself into a social media mountain on Twitter,” Harteveldt says. “They absolutely failed in every regard in their Twitter communications. United’s responses are partially responsible for this escalating into the controversy it has now become.”
Instead, Harteveldt suggests United would have been better served with a “benign” acknowledgement of the initial tweet and a pledge to look into it rather “than digging in their heels and handling it as they did. It did nothing to help the airline.”
Once the company knew more of the details, it then could have responded with a more carefully crafted message.
Harteveldt says the leggings issue – and its sudden escalation – highlight the challenges all companies face in this age of social media.
“They’re not the only company that’s blundered on Twitter,” he says of United. “But, I just think this was an opportunity where United should have taken a different approach in how it responded and how it communicated on Twitter. Hopefully, they will learn from this and will not repeat the same mistake should something like this happen again.”