United Airlines is the latest company to learn that nothing noticed goes untweeted and anything tweeted can blow up into a major controversy within hours even if — or, maybe, particularly if — your social media team is standing by in rapid-response mode with a canned answer.
“A United Airlines gate agent barred two girls from boarding a flight Sunday morning because the girls were wearing leggings,” Luz Lazo reported for the Washington Post at 2:29 p.m. EDT yesterday. “Another girl who was wearing gray leggings had to change before she was allowed to board the flight from Denver to Minneapolis, a witness said.”
That witness was Shannon Watts, the founder of @MomsDemand, a group working to end gun violence in America, who tweeted at 9:36 MDT: “1) A @united gate agent isn't letting girls in leggings get on flight from Denver to Minneapolis because spandex is not allowed?” and “2) She's forcing them to change or put dresses on over leggings or they can't board. Since when does @united police women's clothing?”
“United's initial response — that it ‘shall have the right to refuse passengers who are not properly clothed’ — exacerbated the confusion and anger online,” write Jill Disis and Jon Ostrower for CNN Money.
In a piece for Medium, Watts writes that she “took to Twitter” to “to determine whether this was a new standard practice …” and to get more information.
“United Airlines tweeted back quickly. Instead [of] providing clarity, the tone deaf response from United’s Twitter account unleashed the sort of flurry of attention only Twitter can produce: celebrities, reporters the whole Twitterverse suddenly became enthralled in leggings-gate,” Watts says.
“Jonathan Guerin, a spokesman for United, confirmed that two teenage girls were told they could not board a flight from Denver to Minneapolis because their leggings violated the company’s dress code policy for ‘pass travelers,’ a company benefit that allows United employees and their dependents to travel for free on a standby basis,” reports Liam Stack for the New York Times.
“Mr. Guerin said pass travelers are ‘representing’ the company and as such are not allowed to wear Lycra and spandex leggings, tattered or ripped jeans, midriff shirts, flip-flops or any article of clothing that shows their undergarments.”
“It’s not that we want our standby travelers to come in wearing a suit and tie or that sort of thing,” Guerin tells Stack. “We want people to be comfortable when they travel as long as it’s neat and in good taste for that environment.”
It’s a point made, at 16:19 length, by a flight attendant for an unnamed airline who vlogs under the Taylor Travels handle. Flying as a “pass rider” is privilege not a right and #GetYourFactsStraight, she tells us.
“You get benefits and with those benefits, there are rules for flying,” she says. “Now if she had been a regular, paying passenger, if she had on leggings? The gate agent doesn't care. No one cares. But she was flying for free and there are stipulations for flying for free. On any airline ...”
Once celebrities got involved, United was definitely gliding against gravity.
“Oscar winner Patricia Arquette tweeted at the airline, saying, ‘This is terrible,’ and asking, ‘Do you have a secondary fail safe from a supervisor to make these calls?’ United's reply didn't earn them many fans: ‘Casual attire is allowed as long as it looks neat and is in good taste for the local environment,’” writes Carly Mallenbaum for USA Today
“Actor William Shatner noted that an anti-leggings ruling is a problem for him, too,” Mallenbaum continues, above a picture of him wearing a pair in a “Star Trek” episode. “Comedian Sarah Silverman wrote that she's boycotting United, because the airline's attire rules are much stricter on women than men.”
LeVar Burton, Keegan Allen and Seth Rogen were among the other names who weighed in on the issue.
“As a former corporate public relations executive, I was outraged and disappointed by the lack of respect and customer-oriented strategy from United Airlines,” Watts concludes in her Medium piece. “Of course, company policy is important and choosing to draw a strict line on certain issues is often necessary. But when that policy is going to sexualize teenage girls and place an undue burden on your female customers, do not default to reinforcing a policy (multiple times on twitter) that uses the vaguely worded ‘properly clothed’ as justification for unnecessary enforcement.
“And if you can’t do that, then at least understand your market better. …”
As for United, “Guerin conceded that the airline, in its initial response to the flap, could have done a better job of explaining the situation and countering apparently inaccurate information about the incident that appeared on Twitter,” Dan Whitcomb reports for Reuters.
“We'll definitely take something away from today, but we'll continue to engage with our customers (on social media),” Guerin tells Whitcomb.