United defends dress code decision amid online backlash

After denying boarding to a couple of girls wearing leggings, wide criticism broke out across social media. An airline spokesman said, ‘We’ll definitely take something away from today.’

For brand managers struggling with how to handle angry customers online, United Airlines’ PR team feels your pain.

On Sunday, a United passenger and the founder of Moms Demand Action, Shannon Watts, tweeted that two girls were not being allowed to board a flight because of the leggings they were wearing.

United’s social media team responded, explaining that they can bar passengers from boarding due to clothing:

The response only served to make Watts angrier, who continued to tweet about the incident .

The situation—along with the airline’s responses—began to attract widespread attention, and consumers and celebrities took to Twitter and Facebook to lash out against the decision.

United stuck with its decision, explaining that the girls were traveling via an employee benefit pass, which is subject to a dress code.

The New York Times reported:

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.

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,” he said. “We want people to be comfortable when they travel as long as it’s neat and in good taste for that environment.”

The airline tweeted:

Several social media users backed the airline’s decision, and some shared the requirements for those traveling through United’s employee benefits program:

Though several social media users sided with United, the airline’s explanation didn’t stop others’ criticism.

Some Twitter users pointed out a seeming discrepancy between the airline’s dress code and its advertising:

Others attacked the airline’s response to the backlash—especially as it grew.

Later on Sunday, United tweeted the following, which to many, came off as insincere:

Reuters reported that United’s spokesman, Jonathan Guerin, admitted that the team could have upped its PR game:

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.

“We’ll definitely take something away from today, but we’ll continue to engage with our customers (on social media),” he said.

How would you have advised the airline to respond to this situation, PR Daily readers? What would you have done differently?

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