Skimpy fashion might not fly

Southwest fracas draws attention to airlines' rules

September 23, 2007|By Trebor Banstetter | Trebor Banstetter,McClatchy-Tribune

So, you're about to leave for the airport and you run through your travel checklist.

Ticket in order? Check.

Government ID ready? Check.

Showing too much cleavage? Huh?

As if air travel wasn't complicated enough, it now seems that passengers might want to consider whether their clothing could be offensive to other travelers. The issue emerged recently after an incident in which a Southwest Airlines agent, allegedly hearing complaints about a passenger's miniskirt and tank top, asked the young woman to change her clothes.

Another Southwest passenger, Setara Qassim, said she was asked to cover herself with a blanket because of her outfit's plunging neckline and short skirt.

The incidents have sparked a debate in the travel industry and on the Internet. Some consumers are outraged that the airline would find the outfits offensive, while others praise Southwest for upholding standards of decency.

The case underscores the fact that airlines wield an enormous amount of power over customers, with the ability to deny service for conduct and offenses to an extent that many consumers don't realize.

Although most carriers say they don't have a specific dress code, all have a "contract of carriage," which specifies that passengers can be ordered off planes or denied boarding for behavior that includes wearing clothing deemed offensive, smelling bad, being barefoot or refusing to obey flight attendants. Most contracts prohibit behavior that could be interpreted as being offensive, and it's up to employees to decide what applies.

Some cases are more clear cut than others. In one incident a few years ago, American Airlines employees removed a passenger whose shirt depicted two nude people having sex.

"He was given the opportunity to turn his shirt inside out so it couldn't be seen," spokesman Tim Wagner said. "But he refused."

In another case shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, a Northwest Airlines passenger wearing shoes with an obscene anti-American slogan written on them was asked to remove them after other passengers complained, and he complied.

"We allow our gate agents to exercise their judgment, whether it's a T-shirt with an obscene slogan or something else that would affect our passengers," spokesman Jim Herlihy said.

It's not just clothes. With portable video players becoming more common, airlines are dealing with incidents of passengers viewing R-rated or pornographic movies in view of other travelers. In another recent case, a mother was ordered off a Continental ExpressJet because a flight attendant thought that her 18-month-old toddler was talking too loudly during the preflight safety announcement.

Such situations seem magnified in today's crowded aircraft cabins, with airlines routinely flying full planes on popular routes. And the spate of delays and cancellations that wreaked havoc this summer has many travelers and employees on edge to begin with.

Most airlines say they give flight crews and customer-service employees a wide amount of discretion to deal with potentially offensive situations. Officials with JetBlue Airways say employees are trained to consider the feelings of all parties.

"We definitely respond to concerns from customers, but we make sure to try to treat everyone with dignity and respect," spokeswoman Alison Eshlman said. In some cases, flight attendants may move passengers or give them an opportunity to change or cover clothing deemed inappropriate.

Removing a passenger "is the last resort," she said.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst with Forrester Research, said airlines need to do a better job of communicating their expectations for appropriate behavior and attire.

"We're all sharing that tiny tube," he said. "But there's the question of whose standards we're being subjected to and how we're supposed to know." He said most passengers are unaware that the contract of carriage even exists. "It's unreasonable to expect them to adhere to that, especially when it's so vague to begin with," he said.

Arbitrary decisions made by individual employees could end up causing more harm by making the airlines appear unreasonable, he said.

That's what many concluded when Kyla Ebbert, a waitress at a Hooters restaurant chain who attends Mesa College in San Diego, said she was lectured on proper dress by a customer-service employee and was asked to change clothes after showing up for a Southwest flight in July wearing a denim miniskirt and a summer sweater over a tank top. She was allowed to fly after adjusting the outfit.

She later appeared on NBC's Today show, displaying the clothing and asking for an apology from Southwest.

In a statement, Southwest said it responded to a concern that was "brought to employees" about Ebbert's attire, and that it acted in a discreet and professional manner.

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