Everything United Airlines did wrong in the Denver Leggings Incident

Photo: United Airlines via USA Today

When several teenage girls wearing leggings attempted to board a United Airlines flight in Denver, the airline blocked them for “inappropriate dress.” As the airline explained on Twitter, the girls were “pass riders” — dependents of employees using free standby tickets — subject to a more stringent dress code. United’s policy is wrong, and it communicated that policy poorly.

Leggings exposed on social media

The first any of us heard about this — including United corporate — what when another passenger posted about it on Twitter.

Shannon Watts is a liberal anti-gun activist, with tens of thousands of followers, so the social media storm exploded from there. Celebrities like model Chrissy Tiegen, actor LeVar Burton, and comedian Sarah Silverman piled on.


Then, of course, the news spread to news media including BuzzFeedThe New York Timesand the Washington Post.

Let’s take a look at what went wrong here, and what United should have done.

First mistake: United’s sexist, anachronistic policy

United Airlines will happily let you fly in leggings and yoga pants. (They don’t specify, but I wonder if an overweight man like me could get away with wearing them?) They’ll certainly throw you off a flight for indecent dress, but leggings are fine — if you’re a normal passenger.

Their policy for these “pass riders” is different though. Pass riders are either employees or dependents of employees, so United holds their dress to a higher standard.

The challenge is what that standard is. Shannon Watts described one of the barred passengers as a 10-year-old girl, and said that a man (presumably one of the teens’ father) was able to board in shorts. Although they’d probably bar a man boarding the flight in a Speedo, this is still a sexist policy. While there are still prudes who think yoga pants in public are scandalous, the rest of us have gotten pretty used to them.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you like leggings or loathe them, because it’s not up to the airline to police what you see. I can’t understand why United has to regulate its passengers’ clothing, so long as it’s not indecent. While you’re on duty (as a pilot, flight attendant, or maintenance worker) you wear a uniform. While you’re not, you ought to be able to wear pretty much what you want.

United’s policy banning torn jeans and workout clothes is outdated. Asking gate agents to enforce it puts them in the awkward position of determining what’s too scruffy for an employee traveling with a pass to wear. And no matter what they choose to ban, some people will hate it. United should never have put the gate agents in this position in the first place.

Second mistake: Tweeting to defend itself

PR week recognized United CEO Oscar Munoz as “Communicator of the Year.” But that was before the Denver Leggings Incident.

United’s Twitter staff works on weekends, which is good, because social media and airline problems happen 24/7. They had to defend the company’s strange policy. At first, they didn’t realize this applied to employee dependents on passes — so they just cited the general dress code.

But soon after that, they were explaining to Twitter critics that the rules for “pass travel” were different.

And they had to explain to other concerned passengers that traveling in casual clothes is fine.

I sympathize with United’s Twitter support staff. Since they’re customer service people, their training is to (1) solve customers’ problems and (2) defend United’s policies. But in this situation, they also needed to represent United as a company. Defending a questionable policy is not the best strategy; when you’ve got Sarah Silverman and her 10 million followers weighing in, you need a PR response, not a customer-service response. A better tweet might look like this:

@SarahKSilverman See your point. We’ve got different rules for passengers with employee travel passes. We’ll be taking a closer look at that

Third mistake: the official response

After a few hours, United posted a response on its blog, “United Hub.” Here it is:

To our customers…your leggings are welcome!
By United Airlines
March 27, 2017

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.

I’d give this a B+. It’s straightforward and direct, with a perfect title, but it’s also focused on defending the company. It doesn’t link to any news reports, and it doesn’t acknowledge that they might need to change — a philosophy that Oscar “Communicator of the Year” Munoz might want to adopt. I’d suggest a more direct approach, like this:

To our customers…your leggings are welcome!
By United Airlines
March 27, 2017

Casual clothes are welcome on United Airlines, and they always will be. We know air travel can be stressful, and we want our passengers to be as comfortable as they can be.

If you’ve read news reports about our barring young women in leggings from boarding flights, we’d like to clarify. We have a different dress policy for airline employees and their dependents, whose appearance reflects on United. When they’re traveling on free or discounted standby passes, they can’t wear certain types of clothing, like torn jeans and leggings.

Given how many of you complained, we’re reconsidering this policy now. Thanks for letting us know that this matters to you — we’re listening.

Will this matter to United’s business in the future?


Broken guitars, tights seats, and stripping the cheapest tickets of overhead bins and assigned seats haven’t made an impact on United. People shop on price or based on their membership in airline loyalty programs. Sexist policies for employees don’t make a dent, and most people will soon forget them. Sarah Silverman will fly first class on whatever airline she wants, but the rest of us must make our choices differently.

It’s clear that Oscar Munoz is trying to make a difference. I’d like to see him make a statement on this, one that recognizes the error of their current policy. But it won’t make much difference to the bottom line.


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    1. United in fact did nothing wrong. Indeed, the passengers were traveling on FREE employee company tickets which carry the condition of a dress code. If the girls wanted to wear whatever they wanted, then they should have purchased a revenue ticket. This is more fake news, a false narrative spun by the media and imposed on a naive public for profit. Talk about BULLSHIT!

  1. Will this matter to United’s business in the future? I’d suggest it will matter somewhat.

    I’m not sure what the metrics are, but I personally avoid United, and know plenty of folks who also do so. To the extent that United has spent a lot of time and money trying to buff up their reputation, they took a big hit from this incident for free. It reinforces the impression that United will screw up your travel plans for seemingly arbitrary reasons.

    That said, we’re all pretty much at their mercy, and for most travelers there is little discretion about what airline they can fly based on their desired itinerary. Still, if their reputation was unimportant to them, they wouldn’t work so hard to maintain it; and this time they missed an opportunity to do so.

  2. This story has been blown way out of porportion by the media. As usual, it was sensationalized to make it sound shocking before they let you know that these were “non-revenue” riders who have different rules (like it or not) to abide by. We used to call these “buddy passes” in the industry and all airline employees are well aware of the rules that they are expected to share with the people that they choose to gift with these very low cost tickets. It is a priveledge to fly on these employee passes and if the airlines want to attach dress codes to them (sexist or not), then so be it! How difficult is it to dress in the required manner if you’re flying for next to no cost (just paying the taxes)? I’ve done it and I was grateful to my airline friends for the opportunity. Airline employees risk loosing their “buddy passes” if their ungrateful passengers misbehave. And yet, it’s happened to more than one friend of mine when their non-rev passenger ignored the dress code or caused a scene at the gate when they were “inconvenienced” by a flight delay. Wouldn’t you like to fly for pocket change? Then put on your “big girl panties”, dress in the manner required (even if the slob next to you is wearing shorts), be polite and enjoy the cheap ride! If an airline is willing to offer it, they have every right to set the rules. So if you want to ride for pennies, shut up, sit down, be polite and obey the rules! Otherwise, pay the big bucks like everyone else and wear your leggings, flip-flops or whatever else the airline allows for paying passengers. Stop ripping the airlines for being so “mean”. They don’t have to offer employee passes and spoiled, self righteous passengers like these are going to ruin it for the rest if us when they decide it’s just not worth the bother to give away seats. The media should be ashamed (but of course they’re not) for promoting the idea that we all have the right to whine and complain when we are given a gift.

    1. Were you reading a different story? The “media” didn’t blow this up, it blew up in social media; people talking to people they follow. And United, who spends a lot of resources trying to manage their social media, completely screwed it up. Their social team didn’t even know about this policy, and only managed to make the story a bigger story. Please stop hurling puerile rightist insults, hoisting tired talking points about the media and start paying attention. Stop wasting peoples time.

      1. One of the reasons I’m so hard on the media is that I spent 20 years of my life working in it. I quit when I could no longer hold my head up due to sensationalism exactly like this! Sure, the firestorm started on social media, but it was the network news that should have shown a light of reason onto the story. Instead of pointing out the fact that these were rules for non-paying passengers in the beginning of the story, they buried that and opted instead to fan the flames of outrage in the public eye. I stand behind everything I said. There’s nothing wrong with an airline holding non-revenue passengers to a higher standard. Anyone who wants to take advantage of the gift of a practically free ticket should be willing to follow the rules and the media should be ashamed of themselves for slanting the story. But if course, they’re not. Which is why I no longer work in television.

  3. Josh writes about writing. Oscar does reputation, crisis management, and PR for an airline. The media uses stories that people are interested in. That’s what they do as professionals. The topic they are dealing with, in this case, is so general and cultural that everyone has an opinion. That’s what gives the story legs (pun intended). But that’s not the point of this post. So, expressing outrage at the story in this post just exposes a lack of awareness of how PR works. Josh is using this story as an example of how to think and implement “crisis communication” in the heat of the moment — even if that “crisis” is just a social media flare-up. I really appreciate his differentiation between “customer service” and “reputation management” online strategies.