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Yesterday, United Airlines was at the center of a social media storm when a gate agent refused boarding to two girls who were wearing leggings. After the immediate backlash on Twitter, it later turned out that the girls were “non-revenue” (or non-rev) passengers. Thus, they are expected to follow a different set of rules than paying customers.

Many airlines allow their employees to fly this form of standby, for free, and extend the same privilege to family and friends with a “buddy pass.” But with the privilege of flying standby as a non-rev passenger come the rules. Because non-rev passengers represent the airline — in some form — the carrier expects them to act as such, which includes a dress code. With yesterday’s incident on United, we saw how one gate agent interpreted the rules, but airlines have different policies.

Below, we are taking a close look at the non-rev attire policies across six major US carriers: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and, of course, United. Some policies are in the public domain, and others are kept internal. Regardless, with yesterday’s situation, the following question has ricocheted across the Internet: Should airlines loosen up their non-rev passenger dress-code policies?

In This Post

The most challenging thing about enforcing non-rev dress codes is that each rule is subject to interpretation by a customer service agent. Non-rev passengers could catch a friendly agent having a great day, willing to let folks board wearing flip flops and shorts… or they could get an agent who’s enforcing everything strictly. Below, at the very least, is the exact articulation of the policies from the airlines.

Alaska Airlines

According to Alaska’s Guest Pass Standby Passenger rules, there is a section for standby etiquette. It details:

“The dress code for GP passengers is a neat and clean appearance. Business casual attire is suggested. Short shorts, torn or tattered jeans, bare feet, halter-tops, exercise clothing, T-shirts or ‘sweats’ are not appropriate.”

An anonymous source reached out to us with some additional policies on the employees-only guide:

“Good grooming and appropriate attire reflect on you and your dependents as well as Alaska and Horizon [Air].

The dress code at both Alaska and Horizon is casual, and the requirement is simply a neat and well-groomed appearance. Clothing that is soiled or tattered and bare feet are never acceptable.

Employees and travel-eligibles are expected to use their own good judgment, but customer service agents will have the final authority to refuse travel for inappropriate attire or appearance.

Standards vary for each airline. When traveling as a nonrev passenger on another airline, please check with the operating carrier for dress code requirements when you list for your flight.”

As you can see, the policies and wording are pretty subjective. What determines a neat and well-groomed appearance? That could entirely depend on the gate or customer service agent . Non-rev passengers are told to use their best judgment, but Alaska reserves the right to refuse travel. Based on these limitations, we have to admit that it’s just not clear if a pair of leggings would warrant a no-travel stamp.

American Airlines

According to the 2016 version of AA’s Travel Guide (PDF), non-rev passengers are subject to a pretty detailed list of what they can and cannot wear:

“American’s goal on every flight is to provide our customers with a comfortable, safe travel experience. When we travel with our families and friends for leisure, our behavior should enhance the travel experience for everyone, and our attire should never be a distraction.

American has a casual dress code so that our team members and their guests can enjoy a relaxing journey, just like our customers. In general, if attire is appropriate and in good taste for our revenue customers, then it is acceptable for us as well. When traveling to represent American, business or business casual clothing is encouraged. Jumpseat riders should consult their operating department, Flight Manual or their manager for dress guidelines.

Our airport agents and flight attendants are focused on taking care of our customers, not policing the dress code. Still, if what you are wearing is on the “Never Appropriate” list, we may deny boarding to you and/or your guest travelers.

Always Appropriate:

  • Clothing that is clean and neat

Never Appropriate:

  • Torn, dirty or frayed clothing
  • Clothing that is distracting or offensive to others, for example, clothing that is overly revealing (such as extreme miniskirts, halter and bra tops, sheer or see-through clothing), swimwear or sleepwear
  • Clothing that is vulgar or violates community standards of decency is never appropriate, including items that have words, terms or pictures that may be offensive to customers and other team members
  • Bare feet

First and Business Class:
To ensure an outstanding travel experience for our premium customers, the following items are not acceptable in First or Business class:

  • Shorts
  • Beach footwear (such as flip-flops and Croc-style shoes)
  • Jogging suits, athletic gear, baseball-style caps (of course, it is acceptable to change into a jogging suit or similar attire during long-haul international flights)
  • Any item in the Never Appropriate list

Dress Guidelines for Travel on Other Airlines

American’s dress code generally applies. You may also refer to the carrier-specific reference files found in at www.flyzed.info. Make sure you verify the dress requirements of the OAL when you travel using a Zonal Employee Discount (ZED) ticket or a Company Business Pass.”

American’s non-rev policy seems to be pretty detailed and outlines some specifics — including the ban of Crocs in first and business class.

Delta Air Lines

Delta’s policy for its Buddy Pass program outlines that its non-rev passengers are to adhere to the carrier’s “Buddy-quette” (PDF). Here’s what that means:

“Appearance: Flying in comfort and style. Delta has a relaxed dress code for pass riders, including Buddies. The standard is based on respect — for our customers and for you. Delta trusts your good judgment when traveling on a Buddy Pass. Just remember, Delta has a relaxed code for pass riders, but that doesn’t mean a sloppy appearance is acceptable. You should never wear unclean, revealing or lewd garments, or swimwear or sleepwear on a flight. The relaxed dress code also applies for Buddy Pass travel on Delta Connection carriers.”

The airline also tweeted a shot at United, informing its passengers that they’re allowed to wear leggings. However, while that was presumably directed toward revenue passengers, it’s unclear if that also applies to non-rev passengers.

A spokesman for the airline also reached out to us with a statement about Delta’s non-rev policy, stating, “We ask our employees and their family and friends flying on pass privileges to use their best judgment when deciding what to wear on a flight.”

Based on this information, it seems that Delta’s non-rev policy is pretty relaxed and relies on the discretion of the non-rev passenger and good judgment.

JetBlue Airways

A representative from JetBlue clarified the New York-based carrier’s policy for non-rev passengers. She said, “As is common across airlines, JetBlue crewmembers and their friends and relatives flying with free flight passes are asked to maintain certain minimum dress standards and be well-groomed at all times.”

In addition, an anonymous source sent us the employee guidelines for non-rev travel to TPG, which read as follows:

“Pass Riders must adhere to certain minimum dress standard to travel on JetBlue and other airlines. Crewmembers, eligible family members (including children), Travel Companions, and other airline employees must wear neat attire when flying on JetBlue. JetBlue Airports Crewmembers will deny boarding to anyone they feel is not dressed appropriately. The following specifics are not exhaustive; they are examples to help illustrate JetBlue standards. Crewmembers must have their JetBlue ID when traveling for leisure or duty/company business travel. Crewmembers should not wear or display their JetBlue ID when traveling for leisure or business travel.

If you are traveling on another airline, you are responsible for checking the non-revenue dress code policy of that carrier. Many airlines have stricter regulations than JetBlue does, including some who require business attire.

Acceptable:

  • Clean, well maintained and in good taste
  • Shirts with sleeves and collars, nice t-shirts
  • Walking shorts (not shorter than 3″ above the knee)
  • Nice jeans/denims
  • Dress slacks
  • Skirts and dresses
  • Jogging suits
  • Dress shoes, open-toe shoes, and nice sneakers.

Never Acceptable:

  • Torn, ragged, slashed, dirty, frayed, low cut, skimpy, or revealing
  • Offensive or sexually oriented inscriptions or messages
  • Halter/tube/midriff tops
  • Sweats of any kind
  • Beach or swim wear
  • Body piercings (The piercing of holes in parts of the body other than the earlobes in order to insert rings or other decorative objects). Please remove or cover from view.
  • Tattoos (please cover from view)
  • Shoes that are dirty, stained, or any type of flip flops

Mint Dress Code:

Traveler 18 years of age and older: Business Casual (no jeans, sneakers, t-shirts or open toe shoes). No fully uniformed Crewmembers are permitted to be seated in Mint.

Traveler 17 years of age and younger: Must meet Core Dress Code”

JetBlue’s policy covers many of the same bases as other US carriers, and a lot of the obvious no-nos are present in their guide — no flip flops, revealing tops, etc. Based on the wording here, it’s not clear if a policy like this would also ban leggings.

Interestingly the carrier sent a message to all employees following United’s incident. An anonymous source sent TPG the email, which reads:

“‘OAL PASS RIDER ENDS UP IN THE NEWS’

Over the weekend, a competing airline received tremendous press and social media attention for enforcing its pass travel dress code. This situation is a great reminder of the importance of always ensuring that your dependents and those who make use of your JetBlue travel privileges are fully briefed on our airlines’ standards and expectations.”

The message continued to explain to employees where they can find the company’s non-rev policies. So, while it’s still not clear if leggings would be allowed for a non-rev traveler on a JetBlue flight, the company is reminding all employees to take the policy into account.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest calls its non-rev option a Guest Pass. The program (PDF) features a very vague policy:

“Dress to impress. While Southwest’s dress code is relaxed and casual, you will be expected to present a clean, well-groomed, and tasteful appearance.”

Not much here and the rules could certainly be confusing for non-rev travelers.

We followed up with the carrier, and a spokesperson said, “Our Employee Travel Privilege Policy does require Employees and guests of Employees to present a clean, well-groomed and tasteful appearance. Southwest does not have a Customer dress code.”

The appropriateness of leggings, it seems, would be subject to the interpretation of staff.

United Airlines

After originally tweeting that the passengers violated the Contract of Carriage, United then clarified that the two travelers were Pass Riders. As non-rev passengers, they were subject to the dress code policy:

According to the company’s terms, there’s a lengthy description of what’s included in the dress code requirement:

“United now has a relaxed dress code for all classes of service, though customer service makes the final determination of whether a pass rider is dressed appropriately for non-revenue travel. Below are some general rules to follow:

  • Pass riders’ overall appearance should be well-groomed, neat, clean and in good taste
  • Attire should be respectful of fellow revenue passengers, employees and pass riders
  • Pass riders may wear denim attire (such as jeans), shorts that are no more than three inches above the knee and athletic shoes when traveling in Coach, First or BusinessFirst/Business cabins

The following attire is not acceptable in any class of service:

  • Any attire the [sic] reveals a midriff
  • Attire that reveals any type of undergarment
  • Attire that is designated as sleepwear, underwear, or swimwear
  • Mini skirts
  • Shorts that do not meet three inches above the knee when in the standing position
  • Form-fitting lycra/spandex tops, pants and dresses
  • Attire that has offensive and/or derogatory terminology or graphics
  • Attire that is excessively dirty or has holes/tears
  • Any attire that is provocative, inappropriately revealing, or see-through clothing
  • Bare feet
  • Beach-type, rubber flip-flops”

As you can see, they include a reference to “spandex” and that does potentially cover leggings — it’s the only carrier of the bunch that mentions anything about spandex. However, and as with the case for the aforementioned carriers, there is still a lot of wiggle room for interpretation.

Since the incident, United has issued a statement, reading:

“Let us take a moment to explain today’s news:

We care about the way we present ourselves to you, our customers, as we believe that is part of the experience on board our flights. One of the benefits of working for an airline is that our employees are able to travel the world. Even better, they can extend this privilege to a select number of what we call “pass riders.” These are relatives or friends who also receive the benefit of free or heavily discounted air travel – on our airline as well as on airlines around the world where we have mutual agreements in place for employees and pass riders.

When taking advantage of this benefit, all employees and pass riders are considered representatives of United. And like most companies, we have a dress code that we ask employees and pass riders to follow. The passengers this morning were United pass riders and not in compliance with our dress code for company benefit travel. We regularly remind our employees that when they place a family member or friend on a flight for free as a standby passenger, they need to follow our dress code.

To our regular customers, your leggings are welcome.”

United offered a good explanation for its reasoning, but where it ran into real trouble was when it originally (and falsely) labeled the two passengers as revenue passengers. As you can see, the carrier has since backtracked and differentiated the difference between its non-revenue and revenue passenger requirements.

Bottom Line

Some airlines are more lax about their policies than others, but in most cases, the rules for non-rev passengers have little to do with paying customers. While you may never have to abide by these regulations, it’s interesting to note that other people on your next flight could be conforming to a different set of rules for attire, rules that you may not have known existed. Maybe most important, we should all withhold judgement until we know the specifics of the situation.

What do you think about airline non-rev dress code policies? Do you think the policies are good as-is or should they be more or less relaxed?

Featured image courtesy of Scott Olson via Getty Images.

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