Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Can American Airlines or Southwest tell you what to wear in the air?
Since airlines and their planes are private property and not a public space, crews actually can determine what's acceptable and what's not.
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, and 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," said Kenneth Quinn, an aviation lawyer and former chief counsel at the Federal Aviation Administration.
The American Airlines passenger, who declined to be interviewed, works for an abortion provider. Supporters suggested that she was singled out because her T-shirt had an abortion-rights slogan.
A spokesman for American says the passenger was asked to cover up "because of the F-word on the T-shirt." He said that the airline isn’t taking sides in the abortion debate.
Last week, Arijit Guha, a graduate student at Arizona State University, was barred from a Delta flight in Buffalo because of a T-shirt that mocked federal security agents and included the words, "Terrists gonna kill us all." He says the shirt was satirical and he wore it to protest what he considers racial profiling.
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.
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.
In short, since airlines and their planes are private property and not a public space, 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,but when showdowns happen, they gain more attention as aggrieved passengers complain online. It’s unwelcome publicity for airlines, which already rate near the bottom of all industries when it comes to customer satisfaction.
Critics complain that airlines enforce clothing standards inconsistently. The lack of clear rules leaves decisions to the judgment of individual airline employees.
An informal survey of passengers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport found much support for limits on clothing.
"It’s an unspoken rule that when you go out in public, you should be respectful," said John Gordon, who just graduated from film school in Florida and was dressed in khaki shorts and a T-shirt.
But Leigh Ann Epperson, a corporate lawyer who had just flown in from Tokyo, said she wouldn’t be bothered if another passenger’s shirt bore the F-word.
"If people are paying the price for their tickets, they should be able to wear what they want," says Epperson, who wore a black sweater over a low-cut blouse, black slacks and wedge-type heels.
Posted by the wire