Why do airlines still have such conservative dress codes?

You are ready to catch a flight for your long-awaited beach vacation. You’ve paid for the hotel, bought the SPF in bulk, and created an in-flight playlist to die for. The last thing on your mind, I bet, is how modest your outfit is.

Yet in recent years there have been a series of cases where airline staff deemed the clothing of a passenger – usually a woman – “inappropriate”, leading them either to be kicked off their flight or forced to to cover.

On Saturday, a former Miss Universe, Olivia Culpo, would have been ordered to cover herself by the staff of American Airlines, under penalty of not being able to board her flight to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico.

The model wore a pair of tight black shorts with a crop top, which showed off her midriff, and a long black cardigan.

Ms Culpo’s sister Aurora posted a video on Instagram after the incident, explaining that her sister was called to the airline office at the door so staff could ‘tell her she needs to put on a blouse otherwise she can’t get on the plane”.

“Tell me, isn’t it so fucked up?” wondered Aurora Culpo.

A second video showed the sisters speaking to another passenger who was wearing a crop top very similar to Ms Culpo’s, but who was not singled out by the airline.

And this is not the first time this has happened. In September 2021, an American woman accused Alaska Airlines of harassment after she was kicked off a flight for wearing attire the flight attendant deemed “inappropriate”.

Ray Lin Howard, a plus-size rapper and stylist from Fairbanks, Alaska, who goes by the name Fat Trophy Wife, shared her experience in a TikTok video that has been viewed over nine million times.

UK-based airlines are not immune either. In March 2019, passenger Emily O’Connor tweeted a thread saying she was left “shaky and upset” after the flight crew of a Thomas Cook flight from Birmingham to Tenerife threatened to kick her out of the plane unless she covers her crop top and high waisted pants combo.

O’Conor noted that no airport staff had commented on her attire, and when she asked, no other passengers said they had a problem with it. And yet, when she boarded the plane, she claimed that airline staff humiliated her by threatening to take her luggage off the plane unless she covered up, and by making announcements on the tannoy about the situation.

So what are the rules about what we wear on a plane?

Confusingly, every airline in the world can determine its own dress code, and most are either vague or non-existent. Some – mostly US carriers – have a “Conditions of Carriage” set of terms and conditions that includes dress code requirements for passengers, but many do not.

For example, Alaska Airlines policy states: “The requirement is simply a neat and neat appearance. Soiled or ragged clothing and bare feet are never acceptable. You are expected to use good judgment, but Customer Service Agents will have the final authority to deny travel due to inappropriate dress or appearance.

America Airlines’ Passenger Responsibility Statement states: “To ensure a safe environment for everyone, you must… Dress appropriately; bare feet or offensive clothing is not permitted. There are no specifics on what constitutes “offensive clothing”, or who decides on this definition.

Every airline in the world can determine its own dress code, and most are vague or non-existent

Meanwhile, Thomas Cook does not present any type of dress code on its website.

This essentially means that any cabin crew member could take offense to any outfit on a whim, with little advance guidance for airline passengers on what to avoid.

Katherine Allen of Hugh James, a law firm that deals with consumer complaints among other things, says it’s rare for UK airlines to have dress codes in place.

“BA and Virgin reserve the right to refuse to carry you in certain circumstances, but if you look at the circumstances listed, they say nothing about dress code.

“They have information about denied boarding ‘if you or your baggage affects the comfort of other passengers,'” she adds, pointing out that this would be difficult to apply to clothing.

Most cases where airlines have objected to clothing have been in hot destinations or departure points, from which some people prefer to wear beach-ready or lightweight clothing. It’s understandable – if anything, more of us have been caught doing things the other way round, arriving in tropical climes with suddenly stuffy jeans and sweaters.

In June 2019, Houston doctor Tisha Rowe had a confrontation with an American Airlines staff member on a trip from sultry Jamaica to equally hot Miami when a flight attendant told her said she couldn’t fly without covering her strapless jumpsuit. . With no bulkier clothes to hand, Rowe was forced to cover herself in an air blanket to board.

“I like to be comfortable when I travel,” a shocked Rowe told the Washington Postat the time. Her attire, she said, was not “significantly different from other passengers I’ve seen” on planes, as she demonstrated by posting a photo of the typical holiday look on Twitter.

It should be noted that, like Ray Lin Howard, Dr. Rowe is a woman of color in her own right. Commenters on her tweet insisted that a thin white woman in the same outfit was unlikely to be questioned by cabin crew, while her attorney, Geoffrey Berg, called the incident ” sexist and racist attack”.

“I felt like I was being discriminated against because I was a fat tattooed mixed-race woman, which left me full of emotions like anger, disappointment, helplessness, humiliation and grief. confusion,” Howard told reporters after meeting with Alaska Airlines.

Dr Rowe advised those challenged over their flight attire to seek legal redress.

“I think they should take legal action. Until airlines treat all passengers fairly and put clear dress codes in writing, they should be held accountable for the mental anguish they cause by their ruthless behavior,” she said. The Independent.

She says American Airlines offered her a settlement, but she declined it.

The difficulty for claimants dealing with airlines that deny them boarding, Allen says, is that any payment from the airlines is often worth less than what you would spend to instruct a lawyer.

“I would always advise people not to ask a law firm if you end up spending more in fees than you would get in damages. We are always happy to give advice, but often people don’t want to pursue these cases.

Fortunately, outfit shaming remains relatively rare globally, and incidents are particularly rare in the UK and Europe.

Travel expert Rob Staines, who worked as cabin crew for many years, said: “In my experience working for several airlines, crew are not told to be careful of clothed passengers ‘inappropriately’.”

He said The Independent that in 17 years of working for many carriers, he had never seen anything like the cases described above.

Until airlines treat all passengers fairly and put clear dress codes in writing, they should be held accountable for the mental anguish they cause.

Dr Tisha Rowe

Crew can be prompted to act if someone is wearing clothing that is “overtly sexual or features offensive language or imagery”, Staines says, but will only act “if other passengers point out an issue”.

Lawyer Katherine Allen agrees this is an unlikely scenario in Europe.

“I think that’s unlikely here because we have ‘denied boarding’ regulations in the UK and Europe so if you’ve been denied boarding and you’ve been re-routed to another theft, you may be entitled to compensation.

“So UK and EU airlines don’t want to be denied boarding because they don’t want to pay compensation. It’s EU legislation but it’s still in place in the UK, and it’s there to stay for a while.

The United States, she says, does not have such legislation – hence the willingness of airline staff to deal with more passengers.

“From a practical point of view, I would say check the terms and conditions before you fly,” she says.

“If there’s something about the dress code and you’re not sure what you’re wearing is compliant, put a jacket or sweatpants in your carry-on so you can put them on.”

Allen feels this is an outdated policy that could be seen as discriminatory against women.

Rob Staines agrees: “Most airlines actively encourage crew to treat all passengers as individuals and to reserve judgment on their personal appearance.

After all, he says, “Often the most laid-back passenger is the one sitting in a premium cabin, which brings in the most revenue.”

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