Leggings on a plane: don’t ban the ideal travel garment

United Airlines’ denial of travel to a girl wearing ‘yoga pants’ comes from another era

When United Airlines denied travel to a girl wearing leggings, the Internet exploded with cries of sexism and bodyshaming. Photograph: Getty Images

When United Airlines denied travel to a girl wearing leggings, the Internet exploded with cries of sexism and bodyshaming. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Just when you think the list of restrictions for air travel couldn’t get any longer, along comes another: leggings. In the US United Airlines has sparked quite a storm after denying travel to a young girl wearing stretchy leggings.

On March 26th, passenger Shannon Watts tweeted the airline asking why girls in leggings were not allowed.

Watts – an anti-gun activist – claimed the gate agent at Denver airport had denied entry to an aircraft to teenage girls, and was told her spandex was “not allowed”, adding: “She’s forcing them to change or put dresses on over leggings or they can’t board.”

United Airlines pointed Watts in the direction of their policy, and defended their right to refuse a passenger entry based on apparel. The girls in question were said to be travelling on a “United pass” (often for crew and their families), and were subjected to a different dress code.

“Our regular passengers are not going to be denied boarding because they are wearing leggings or yoga pants,” an airline spokeswoman said. “But when flying as a pass traveller, we require pass travellers to follow rules, and that is one of those rules.”

This defence didn’t cut it with critics, and the Internet duly exploded with cries of sexism and bodyshaming. The question was: exactly what is the problem? Is it an airline’s job to monitor hemlines, necklines and “appropriate” wear? What is the “wrong thing” to wear on a flight?

Quite a bit, as it happens. In a bid to keep everything as evenly keeled as possibly, provocation at airports and on flights is verboten, and this can extend to clothing.

One woman flying from Las Vegas on Southwest in 2012 was confronted by an airline employee for showing too much cleavage.

In another case that year, an American Airlines pilot lectured a passenger because her T-shirt bore a four-letter expletive. She was allowed to fly only after draping a shawl over the shirt.

Satire, too, doesn’t always go down too well with airline staff: Arizona-based Arijit Guha was barred from a Delta flight because of a T-shirt that mocked federal security agents and included the deliberately misspelled words, “Terrists gonna kill us all.”

Restrictions and judgment on what is deemed appropriate wear is often left to individual airline employees, and as such seems to happen on an ad hoc basis.

Last year, passenger Deshon Marman was pulled off a US Airways jet and arrested at San Francisco International Airport after airline employees said he refused to pull up his low-hanging trousers.

Marman’s lawyer complained that the same airline repeatedly allowed a middle-aged man to travel wearing not much more than women’s underwear.

Restrictions on clothing are not necessarily a bad idea. In any serviced business, swearing is discouraged, as is verbal goading. And in the airline business in particular, boundary pushing of any kind could be deemed hazardous.

But cleavage? Really? And where, oh, where to do leggings fit into all of this?

In the case of the United Airlines leggings fiasco – and it has been a public-relations fiasco for the airline – something doesn’t quite add up.

For a start, the airline industry has shapeshifted almost beyond recognition in recent years. Cast your mind back to a time when airline travel was the last word in aspirational luxury. We’ve all seen sepia-tinted pictures of coddled passengers being indulged with lobster and wine of a decent vintage.

In that age when cabin crew were called air hostesses and the entire experience left air travellers feeling a little lifted, passengers dressed for the occasion.

These days, travel by air is less a fun way to get from A to B, and more of a feat of sheer endurance. The list of air travel caveats, constraints and checks runs long. Security gates, walking through airports for miles, hanging about, airplane toilets the size of broom cupboards, reduced legroom, circulated air.

Surely flexible, comfortable clothing should be a prerequisite for flight in such an era? Is a three-piece suit or pencil skirt going to make air travel better for anyone? Is telling passengers what they can or can’t wear is a rule too far?

The problem is that in terms of deportment, some airlines – or some airline employees, since it is they who make these judgments according to their own subjective viewpoints – are still holding passengers to those lofty standards from times of yore.

The lobster and the wine decanters have been consigned to the scrapyard along with Concorde, and things are decidedly more casual in terms of cabin crew service and airline food on most airlines.

And yet, some airlines appear wedded to the idea that air travel is a Pretty Big Deal, and that those in receipt of the services of these airlines should behave accordingly.

There are many things that probably don’t make good air travel wear, if for practical reasons. Spike heels, for a start. But cotton leggings are ideal for withstanding the elements of the aircraft.

And the really seasoned flier brings their own slippers. You can’t more casual than that.

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