DALLAS (AP) — Airlines give many reasons for refusing to let you board, but none stir as much debate as this: How you’re dressed.
A woman flying from Las Vegas on Southwest this spring says she was confronted by an airline employee for showing too much cleavage. In another recent case, an American Airlines pilot lectured a passenger because her T-shirt bore a four-letter expletive. She was allowed to keep flying after draping a shawl over the shirt.
Both women told their stories to sympathetic bloggers, and the debate over what you can wear in the air went viral.
It’s not always clear what’s appropriate. Airlines don’t publish dress codes. There are no rules that spell out the highest hemline or the lowest neckline allowed.
That can leave passengers guessing how far to push fashion boundaries. Every once in a while the airline says: Not that far.
“It’s like any service business. If you run a family restaurant and somebody is swearing, you kindly ask them to leave,” says Kenneth Quinn, an aviation lawyer and former chief counsel at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
American and Delta are within their rights to make the passengers change shirts even if messages are political, says Joe Larsen, a First Amendment lawyer from Houston who has defended many media companies.
The First Amendment prohibits government from limiting a person’s free-speech rights, but it doesn’t apply to rules set by private companies, Larsen says. He notes that government security screeners didn’t challenge Guha; private Delta employees did.
In short, since airlines and their planes are private property and not a public space like the courthouse steps, crews can tell you what to wear.
In the early years of jet travel, passengers dressed up and confrontations over clothing were unimaginable. They’re still rare — there aren’t any precise numbers — but when showdowns happen, they gain more attention as aggrieved passengers complain on the Internet about airline clothing cops. It’s unwelcome publicity for airlines, which already rate near the bottom of all industries when it comes to customer satisfaction.
Clashes over clothing and other flash points seem to be increasing, says Alexander Anolik, a travel-law attorney in Tiburon, Calif. He blames an unhappy mix of airline employees who feel underpaid and unloved, and passengers who are stressed out and angry over extra fees on everything from checking a bag to scoring an aisle seat.
Anolik says that passengers should obey requests from airline employees. If passengers don’t, they could be accused of interfering with a flight crew — a federal crime.
He says passengers should wait until they’re off the plane to file complaints with the airline, the U.S. Department of Transportation or in small-claims court.
“They have this omnipotent power,” Anolik says of flight crews. “You shouldn’t argue your case while you’re on the airplane. You’re in a no-win scenario — you will be arrested.”