Why United Owes All Its Customers an Apology for Yoga Pants

Yesterday a social media firestorm broke out when United Airlines refused to allow passengers to board a flight from Denver to Minneapolis wearing yoga pants. It turned out that the passengers were riding on passes and their dress violated United’s policy for non-revenue travel.

However before United knew the facts of the situation, when it could just as easily have been revenue passengers, the airline defended its actions by claiming that:

  • Passenger attire must be appropriate
  • Gate agents have discretion to make this determination


So while United now says “your leggings are welcome” they have not apologized for the overreach they simply say “[l]et us take a moment to explain today’s news.”

Note that the title of my post on the incident was not ‘United denies boarding to passengers wearing leggings’ it was “United Airlines Says Women May Be Denied Boarding for Wearing Leggings” (emphasis here to clarify a point). It’s the claim by United’s social media team that it’s within their authority to do this that’s been my issue from the start.

Too frequently airlines claim their rules allow them to do whatever they wish. This time they were caught out because the facts changed. When they thought their employee had denied a revenue boarding to revenue passengers over attire, they claimed they had the right to do it based on ambiguous language in their Contract of Carriage. When it turned out the passengers were flying non-rev, they say of course this doesn’t apply to paying passengers.

United Airlines should be apologizing for reactively defending what looked like a gate agent’s rogue behavior. So far there’s been no apology for claiming the authority to deny boarding to paying passengers in yoga pants. They simply say it was all a misunderstanding, and don’t acknowledge they’re the ones who caused it through their own authority overreach.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. United was right. Why subject us to skin tight clothing?

    What if it was a 300 pounder wearing that? Or a man? Or a 300 pound man??

    I don’t want to see their junk. Not a young girls, not a fat mans?

    What’s next after this? See through yoga pants?

  2. @bluecat
    hopefully you see the difference between see through pants and pants as it pertains to modesty

  3. Maybe companies should have 3 levels of tweets…. Is it a courteous response? Did a millennial write it? Is it professional and factual? They made a mistake. I’ve seen companies tweet appalling things. Don’t blame Trump, people. As a woman wearing leggings yesterday though, I feel they can make rules for their employee perks however they wish.

  4. It’s actually the pass-rider who owes UA an apology for being utterly unprofessional while attempting to leech off a buddy-pass like a freeloading parasite she will be for the rest of her life.

  5. United was correct in what they did. They have a dress code, abide by it.

    Why are all the bloggers crying foul? Stop making a sensational story out of nothing.

  6. @Gary, your previous post was titled ““United Airlines Says Women May Be Denied Boarding for Wearing Leggings”.

    Did United actually say *Women* anywhere, or did you add that? If the latter, why?

  7. United is right. I don’t get it where the fuss is about from these people. They have a dress code for employees and buddy pass flyers and if they did not abide by that, the gate agent should ask them to change into appropriate dress or reject them to board.

  8. Some of the commenters hear seem to be missing the point of the article. United defended their after agent before they knew he/she had denied non-revs a seat. We probably all agree that united can set whatever rules they want for pass flyers since it is perk that they could just as well take away without any problem.

    But they didn’t know it was a non-revs at first. They thought the agent had just denied a paying child boarding and we’re fine with this.

  9. Why are you (and anyone else) still discussing this? This was clarified yesterday as an internal company policy applicable only to those using staff passes. Done and dusted. Nothing to see here. Go back to pimping credit cards.

  10. This is Company policy for flying on a pass. I have been given buddy passes over the years and I followed to rules. Todays attitudes are you can do what ever YOU want when ever YOU want because rule are not made them. Get over it, United is RIGHT with what they did.

  11. Travel blogs have turned this non-story into big story. No apologies needed. Move on to something important, less whimpering.

  12. The problem is that when people tweet their frustration United doesn’t have all the details and they should back up their gate agent. You can be barred for wearing leggings on a flight in situations. What if they are see through? I have seen this plenty from people and to me that is perfectly reasonable. So even if these were not non-revs there is still a reasonable reason they could have been denied boarding. No apology needed. People need to just calm down. We hear all these stories about people being denied boarding and we only get to hear one side every time and people freak out. United did everything right and so did their Twitter team.

  13. None of you read what Gary wrote – UAL didn’t say “we have an employee dress code,” they said “gate agents are ALWAYS right” and “we can deny PAYING CUSTOMERS for any or no clothing reason based on contract, so this was totally fine.” People went nuts, UAL realized it was a employee and so lucked out “this doesn’t apply to paying customers, all good.” But they said “THIS APPLIES TO PAYING CUSTOMERS, SUCK IT.”
    Apparently none of you people have kids under 18 or or live in the suburbs – girls and moms routinely wear leggings. Literally, there are 10 year old girls I know who will ONLY wear leggings. Moms pick their kids up wearing them ALL the time – heck, went to a softball tournament this weekend and saw dozens of moms wearing leggings. This is just a normal thing people wear – it is not offensive, not remarkable.
    Anyway, this is American 2017, I can’t even believe this is being debated. Where on earth do you people live? United can make pass holders wear a 3 piece suit and couture dresses, I do not care. But they had the same FU answer for “cash paying customers.” Don’t get confused people, this has NOTHING to do with non-rev.

  14. If it is socially and legally okay to walk around in some attire outside the house, it is okay for air travel too – rev or non-rev. People in first class on international travel have been known to deplane and go home in their airline provided pajamas with, ‘Oh, I did not change since I was only going home’. The only exception should be when someone has her/his parts hanging out enough to arouse others and cause trouble in a closed area like a plane.

  15. Unfortunately, I think you and many others in the social media world are just as much to blame for turning this non-issue into a major issue. Sure, United’s social media team should have done a better job of researching the situation to find out what had happened exactly at the gate and respond in a more effective manner. Still, I’m sure the person handling twitter at UA over the weekend couldn’t simply pick up the phone and reach the gate agent to get her side of the story though the lynch-mob wanted an answer immediately to know why United had engaged in what they felt was an egregious and sexist manner! At the airport they are focusing on the immediate needs of passengers who need to get to their destinations in a timely manner.

    You wrote, “Note that the title of my post on the incident was not ‘United denies boarding to passengers wearing leggings’ it was “United Airlines Says Women May Be Denied Boarding for Wearing Leggings” (emphasis here to clarify a point).” Yet, United NEVER said women may be denied boarding for wearing leggings! To someone not familiar with the situation, they could easily conclude that someone at United said this. They did not. They simply said that a United gate agent has discretion. This doesn’t mean that the gate agents are given free license to impose their will and beliefs but simply that they need to use their discretion and judgement when applying the guidelines (sometimes it’s not black and white). The UA Twitter rep never mentioned leggings.

    We learned shortly after the event that these were employees (or their family/friends) not following the pass rider dress code. Whether you agree with the dress code or not, passes are a benefit to employees, and United doesn’t allow Spandex. You suggest this is sexist, but I know plenty of guys who wear spandex shorts/pants, and the UA male employees can’t wear them when traveling on passes either.

    Rather than owning up to the fact that you weren’t aware of all of the facts, you focus on UA’s needing to possibly review/update its dress code. I really don’t see how this is up to any of us who don’t work for UA to explain/rationalize their dress code.

    It’s a shame that a bystander who really didn’t know or understand the issue had to get herself involved and that it turned into a much bigger issue than it needed to. The social media universe demands an immediate answer for anything with which it takes umbrage, and, unfortunately, sometimes those immediate responses aren’t always the best. By the time the full story is explained, the damage has already been done.

    With self-righteous indignation, you say that United hasn’t done enough, and that a retraction is necessary. Perhaps you (and Shannon and many others) owe UA and your readers an apology. We can get sensationalism anywhere, but we rely on you as “one of the foremost experts in the field of…and frequent business travel” to give us a more complete understanding of the travel issues/events that are only explained on a superficial level elsewhere. I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way. I mean that sincerely. I do think that Lucky did a much better job than you on this one.

  16. @justin – your definition of modesty will be very different from someone else’s definition. You might be fine with skin tight leggings and nothing else while someone else might be incredibly offended. Not to mention that many people will wonder why someone is traveling in exercise clothing…

    A nonrev flying on passes needs to adhere to company policy since they’re essentially representing the company. I was a Worldspan employee in the late 1990s, dress code then for DL and TWA nonrevs was, for men, a tie and/or sport coat and no jeans. I respected the policy when I flew because I enjoyed my job perks.

  17. @ Adam I disagree with you – United clearly cited “Contract of Carriage” which last I checked would not apply to employees.

    That alone is my issue – had they simply said “non-rev passengers have different rules” then yes, literally who cares what they make employees do.

    But because United’s official position was “In our Contract of Carriage, Rule 21, we do have the right to refuse transport for passengers who are barefoot or not properly clothed” they are speaking about PAYING CUSTOMERS. Which is why I am offended, why the Internet is offended, why Gary is annoyed.

    Do you not see the difference? I am sure United wishes they didn’t write that tweet but it in fact represents how they actually feel, and shows they would have written the same thing had this involved paying customers and not employee travel.

  18. The subtlety of Gary’s comment seems to have flown over many reader’s heads. The fault is NOT in United’s policy with respect to freebie’s attire, it’s their willingness to confabulate anything in their own defense.

    I agree, this owes an apology. Otherwise, it’s simply carte blance to any rogue agents, which seems strikingly similar to the attitude we have about police officers (whom I have the highest respect for, but clearly must police their own more effectively).

  19. I agree with United, not Gary. I want to work for a company that backs me up until they know that I have done something wrong.
    When they advised that the gate agent has authority to deny boarding due to the clothing that the person is wearing, that was factually correct. At the time, not only did they not know that these were non-revs, they also did not know the details of the clothing. Although it turned out that the people in question were non-revs and the clothing turned out to be appropriate, neither of these things were evident when they defended their employee. The leggings in question could easily have been inappropriate (torn, inappropriate parts hanging out, etc).
    The person who tweeted their outrage on behalf of other people that neither knew any of the people involved nor the details of the situation was behaving inappropriately, not United. Let me tell you, if they had tweeted about me being denied boarding for some reason that was legitimate and gotten me plastered all over social media displaying my lack of respect for the rules I was supposed to follow, I would have been seriously upset with them.

  20. @Adam

    A big thumbs up to your post.

    Lucky has done a much better job in reporting this.

    Gary only wants sensational click baits.

    The self-proclaimed “thought leader” has proven anything but.

    Gate agent does have authority to deny boarding of any passenger – that is within the power they are given. Nothing wrong to point this out to the ignorant public. Then when the truth comes out, the gate agent actually has grounds to deny boarding of the pass-riders.

    Shannon the nosy woman who just wanted social media frame has not only no clue but her action might actually get the United employee who gave those passes in trouble for s/he has not briefed the beneficiaries the proper rules to fly as pass-riders.

  21. The UA Twitter rep did NOT say UA or the gate agent has the right to refuse passage to passengers who wear leggings. He or she said that UA has the right to refuse those who are barefoot or not properly dressed (and the gate agent has discretion). Most restaurants and many other retail companies say that they have the right to refuse service and provide similar generic statements. Are we going to boycott them?

    What’s with the outrage and annoyance that Gary and some of you feel? I find it ironic that Gary is demanding an apology for not getting a “retraction” from UA for a Twitter rep working on the weekend who did not dig deep enough and contact the gate agent and the HR department on a Sunday to be able to fully explain every nuance of revenue versus non-revenue travel (and how each has its set of rules). This is apparently what you want – an apology for a UA Twitter rep who did explain the situation completely and fully. You want a mea culpa due to the fact that the specifics were not explained to your satisfaction immediately? “United Airlines should be apologizing for reactively defending what looked like a gate agent’s rogue behavior.”

    “United Airlines Says Women May Be Denied Boarding for Wearing Leggings”

    “Why United owes all its customers an apology for yoga pants?”

    The better question is why Gary owes us and United an apology for such misleading and disingenuous blog titles and why they “reactively” judged the circumstances without researching the facts fully.

  22. @Gary, I second what @Adam says: YOU owe an apology to United for sensationalizing this topic, and adding an overtone of sexism to what United did. You should also apologize to your readers for turning your blog into the National Enquirer of Flight.

  23. Please don’t apologize, United.

    If you are flying non-rev, you have to follow very strict rules.

    Don’t like the rules? Pay for your ticket.

    Simple.

  24. United was disrepsecting women. Those who say this isn’t sexist don’t understant what sexism is. I respect women’s right and will never fly United. And to Bluecoat, you really should stop fat shaming people, that’s really gross of you.

  25. Wow, you guys think Gary owes UAL an apology? Does the NYT also owe United an apology:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/26/us/united-airlines-leggings.html?ref=business

    Does US Today?

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/flights/todayinthesky/2017/03/27/leggings-spandex-yoga-pants-you-can-wear-what-you-want-flight-but-beware-buddy-pass-fine-print/99686450/

    This guy sums it up well:

    “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.”

  26. United indeed owes all of their customers an apology. However, it has nothing to do with pants It is for it for providing substandard service on substandard planes with angry employees for the years 2011-2105.

    The pants? Who cares!

  27. @allen, relax a little. I mentioned a couple of categories of people who I thought should not wear skin tight clothes. That’s all. (If you wanted to be even-handed, btw, you should pick on me for “men shaming” too–men can wear those pants too and I also prefer not to see that!)

    What a fun topic!
    😉

  28. United is very weak in social media. This whole episode illustrates this.

    Bloggers like to sensationalize things to get clicks. People can question their self-appointed, grandiose titles. They laugh all the way to the bank.

  29. @B, I hold Gary to a higher standard than the NYT or USA Today when it comes to understanding air travel and airlines in particular. He has demonstrated over the course of many years a thorough understanding of the nuances of airline management and the challenges of running an airline. That’s why his contributing to this media “firestorm” is so disappointing.

    At no time did the UA Twitter rep say that UA does not allow women (or men) to wear leggings on its flights. The UA Twitter rep simply said that UA and its gate agents reserve the right to use their discretion as it concerns bare feet and inappropriate clothing. Why shouldn’t they be allowed this discretion? It is their airline. The UA Twitter rep simply advised that he trusted his fellow employee (who knew the circumstances better than Shannon, Gary, the NYT, USA Today or anyone else) to make the right decision and act accordingly. In fact, she did.

    Rather than owning up, Gary and the others choose to focus on a UA Twitter rep who didn’t fully and immediately address the issue to their satisfaction, and instead blame the airline for its failure at mastering social media.

  30. @B – “But because United’s official position was “In our Contract of Carriage, Rule 21, we do have the right to refuse transport for passengers who are barefoot or not properly clothed” they are speaking about PAYING CUSTOMERS. Which is why I am offended, why the Internet is offended, why Gary is annoyed.”

    United simply stated this policy. What is wrong with it. It is their company! I, as a paying customer hope and continue to hope that United does have minimum standards and guidelines for what customers wear. (Most of us agree that we wouldn’t want barefoot people on planes, for example.) Restaurants and other venues have dress standards that are much more extensive for any of their customers than United’s for those on free or deeply discounted employee travel passes. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if airlines had higher standards but that’s a whole other topic.

    It’s a shame because United’s employees are the ones who suffer (“boycottunited” – really?).

  31. @Adams, I second your thoughts on this. Just because this is published on the NYT, USToday too does not mean United said something that it did not in the first place. Time and again we have seen media can make up things and can make it look completely different than what was originally said.

  32. Airline executives are genetically incapable of issuing a genuine apology. It’s just not in their DNA.

    Very foolish, as apologies cost nothing, particularly compared to DOT fines and customer lawsuits.

  33. Traveling as a pass rider, on United, there is NO reason that those girls should have worn leggings. It states specifically what the pass riders can and cannot wear. So, why do we have to give them a break for not following the rules? When they get to fly for free? There is no excuse for that.

  34. I, for one, as a Red Carpet member, have been flying United for over 30 years; back when we started, we all wore coats and ties, and considered our place on board a privilege to be taken with all due respect. Sadly, I do not see much of this attitude of appearance these days.
    The classless disrespect in appearance of many airline passengers today certainly encourages the response of this particular UAL gate agent, and more power to them. If you want respect, look respectful or take a Greyhound bus!

  35. You guys are missing the point…

    The bigger outrage is the United Twitter team who thought it was totally appropriate to have United’s gate agent to dictate what is dress appropriate for ALL passengers.

    Next up, United gate agent denies boarding for passengers wearing muslim attire?
    Or jews wearing the yamaka?

  36. Gary has correctly pointed out one mistake United have made, but adults projecting their views of acceptable clothing onto teenage girls are likely to just look stupid and sexist.

    And the whole business rationale of a dress code is to encourage people to fly United. How is that working out? At least one ten year old girl was made so uncomfortable she put on a dress. I bet her parents were made to feel less than relaxed too. How about other parents? The whole United reaction from gate agent to social media response will have won United none or precious few extra passengers but will have alienated a fair number of women and families. Gary is right: it is an own goal by United. Now saying that ordinary passengers can wear leggings doesn’t really help United because the message is “You can but our staff will be judging you if you do.” Making people feel socially awkward is not good for business.

    And I think it is a bit hypocritical for those who think nothing of taking off shoes and changing into pyjamas and slippers on an overnight flight to suggest that leggings are somehow out of place.

  37. United is just employing a proven formula these days.

    In this day and age of trump alternate reality and uneducated, ignorant deplorables, why stick to one excuse when you can flip flop the next day to a more convenient one?

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