What you don’t know about the United leggings incident

Today, the internet started talking about United’s refusal to let a couple of teenage girls board a flight while wearing leggings. The teens in this incident were traveling on passes, or as we always called it, “flying non-rev”. That’s short for non-revenue; airlines often give special flight privileges to employees and their families.

It turns out that I have a lot of relevant experience here. My father is a pilot, and I grew up flying non-rev from a young age. The airlines my dad worked for when I was a kid all had similar policies: certain employees and their families could fly for free provided that there were seats on the flight that weren’t already taken by paying customers. Who doesn’t like free flights, right?

There was one catch: you had to be dressed to a certain standard. That standard varied by airline — some airlines were happy with attire that was generally considered neat and tidy, some wanted you to be dressed to a ‘business casual’ standard. It was always pretty vague, and the decision of whether your outfit was acceptable generally came down to the discretion of the relevant gate agent or flight attendant.

To be honest, this pissed me off a time or two as a teenager. At least once, I had to change a shirt or a pair of shoes that had been no problem on a previous flight, but that the gate agent decided just wouldn’t fly this time. But at the end of the day, it was a pretty low price to pay for free flights — to be frank, I have far more stories about times that I never even got a seat on the flight because it filled up with paying customers. My family even got kicked off a flight once when I was an adorable little kid and had just made friends with my seatmate in an unheard of first class seat. (I was planning to read my books to her for the whole flight. The woman was probably super relieved.) But I digress.

So: is this policy heinous and sexist? Well…maybe? It’s reasonably well established that because of our society’s gender-based dress standards, it’s more work (and less comfortable!) for women to adhere to most dress codes than it is for men. And there’s little question in my mind that the girls’ outfits got more scrutiny than their male equivalents would have. So in the sense that all dress codes are bad, this is bad.

But it’s important to remember that this policy isn’t new, and it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone traveling non-rev. It’s also important to remember that this standard is not applied to anyone who pays for their tickets. If I’m being honest, I think our ire would be better spent on school dress codes, which are just as problematic, only with mandatory attendance.

As someone who has since aged out of free airfare, there are definitely times that I miss it. I don’t miss the restrictions and scheduling uncertainty that came with it, but I think they were a reasonable price to pay for getting to travel free. All I ask is that, if you’re going to be mad at United, (and there are plenty of reasons to be mad at United) keep that in mind.

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