Flight interruptus

August 04, 2004

OSCAR ARELA flew to Costa Rica and all he had to show for it was a sexually provocative T-shirt - that got him and his girlfriend kicked off their plane.

The incident took place Saturday at Miami International Airport. Mr. Arela and his girlfriend had taken seats on American Airlines Fight 952 (Miami was the connecting stop on their trip from Costa Rica to New York) when he was approached by a flight attendant. She asked him to change his T-shirt or turn it inside out.

The shirt featured an image of a couple who, according to the airline, appeared to be engaged in a sexual act. One of the woman's breasts was exposed. Crew members told Mr. Arela that his shirt was offensive.

What followed next landed the couple in the local news. Mr. Arela declined to change his clothing and accused the airline of violating his freedom of speech. Police were summoned. The couple were ejected and refunded the cost of their tickets.

The incident raises an obvious question: Has American Airlines just boosted sales of some sleazy T-shirt dealer in Costa Rica who can now market a product as "Banned in Miami"? The mind boggles.

But perhaps more seriously, were the couple's First Amendment rights violated? And the answer is relatively simple: No, not at all. As any first-year law student could have informed them, a private company has the right to set reasonable standards for dress and behavior of its patrons.

That's why stores can post a sign to warn customers "No shirt, no shoes, no service," and upscale restaurants can insist that diners be dressed formally (if such restaurants can still be found).

The airline outlines its policies on a Web site - reserving the right to refuse to transport customers who "are clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers."

An American Airline spokesman said a passenger eviction based on attire is "very rare." But he also acknowledged that the company would be loath to set too tight a restriction on clothing - the days of well-dressed passengers passed decades ago, a consequence of airline deregulation bringing cheap tickets to the masses.

Still, it's commendable when an airline operating in an increasingly coarse society sticks up for civility. It gives hope to travelers similarly trapped in a plane and being disrespected: We may have given up our peanuts, our in-flight meals and our privacy, but just a shred of common decency will always be appreciated.

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