It’s summer. It’s hot. There are a lot of people traveling. And taken together that spells public relations trouble for the airlines and their unfortunate employees – mostly flight attendants and gate agents – who are responsible for enforcing the carriers’ rules against passengers traveling in “inappropriate” attire.
It’s happened again, this time on an American Airlines flight from Jamaica to Miami on June 30. Latisha Rowe, a family medicine doctor from the Houston area who also holds an MBA degree and is the founder of a telehealth company, and her 8-year-old son were returning from a vacation with family in Jamaica when flight attendants stopped her from boarding her plane. They asked her to wrap a blanket around herself because what she was wearing was deemed inappropriate. According to Rowe, who goes by “Tisha,” she was surprised and angered but complied with the request without making a scene because her son had been frightened by the initial question by the flight attendants and their threat that she wouldn’t be allowed on board if she didn’t cover up.
Rowe shared her story – and selfies she took that day showing exactly what she was wearing – via social media and, later in a couple of media interviews. She admits that the outfit was brightly colored and loud, and that it was kinda/sorta form-fitting. But it was not, she contends, “inappropriate,” not by a long shot. Rowe described it as a “romper,” a one-piece that resembles shorts on the lower end and, in this case, a crop top that exposes the shoulders on the top end.
“I have a very curvaceous body, and I put my body in bold colors, so you’re going to see it,” she said in an interview with Business Insider. “But it’s not vulgar. It’s not inappropriate. It’s not bad, you know? If you put someone who’s a size 2 in the exact same outfit next to me, no one would be bothered,” she said.
In subsequent social media postings and interviews Rowe said her race, her sex and her body type played a part in her “humiliation” at the hands of the American attendants.
“We are policed for being black,” she wrote on Facebook. “Our bodies are over sexualized as women and we must adjust to make everyone around us comfortable. I’ve seen white women with much shorter shorts board a plane without a blink of an eye.”
Since the story went public, officials at American’s headquarters have apologized for the treatment she received. And Rowe has said she is thankful for the “outpouring of love” she has experienced in response to her story.
“We apologize to Dr. Rowe and her son for their experience, and have fully refunded their travel,” American spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said. “We are proud to serve customers of all backgrounds and are committed to providing a positive, safe travel experience for everyone who flies with us.”
American is especially sensitive to claims of racist behavior. Several unrelated incidents involving black passengers prompted the NAACP to issue its first ever travel advisory in 2017, warning its members about flying on American. The airline eventually made peace with the civil rights group by offering assurances and taking a few steps to guard against behaviors that can be interpreted as race-based or race-influenced.
The question of race aside, the airlines have a broader problem with their dress codes. At times the way they’re enforced, or not enforced, certainly can make them appear to some to be race- and/or sex-related. And in all cases those dress codes, which are so vague that they are impossible to enforce uniformly and fairly across the huge operations that U.S. airlines have these days, are 100% dependent upon individual flight attendants’ and gate agents’ interpretation of what is and isn’t inappropriate. And they really aren’t taught what is and isn’t acceptable. For all practical purposes, they’re on their own; subject to complaints from those who think they’ve singled out passengers unfairly and from those who complain that they didn’t single out passengers who were dressed inappropriately.
In one rather famous case in September 2007, a young woman named Kayla Ebbert was forced to cover up by Southwest Airlines flight attendants because, in their view she was dressed inappropriately. A few days later Ebbert, who is white and model-thin, appeared on NBC’s TODAY show wearing the exact same outfit. There was no arguing that her outfit was skimpy, a mico-mini denim skirt and a thin tank top revealing some cleavage. On her outbound flight she was forced to adjust her clothing to cover up more. But on her return flight, on which she wore the exact same outfight, she said one of the flight attendants, completely unaware of the problem she’d had previously, complimented her on her outfit.
And the question of inappropriate clothing does not apply just to women. In 2011 a young black man, Deshon Marman, was denied boarding on a flight from San Francisco to Phoenix because he was “sagging” too much in the view of US Airways personnel, wearing his pants so low that his underwear-clad backside was partly exposed for all to see.
In both of those cases the airlines involved ended up apologizing to the travelers, but only after first suffering significant public ridicule in news stories and commentary.
In nearly every case that has risen to public attention in which a passenger has been called out by airline personnel for inappropriate attire, the result has not been good for the airlines. And it’s obviously not good for the travelers in question, either.
More importantly, it’s not good for the rest of us. The overwhelming majority of us don’t come close to violating the airlines’ dress codes, as ill-defined as they are. And, truth be told, most travelers these days probably don’t mind seeing a woman’s bare shoulders or thighs, or a man’s backside hanging out of his pants. They see that stuff almost daily anyway. They may not think highly of the people who dress that way. They may even be somewhat offended by those who, in their view, have low standards for how they dress in public.
But then, to the Amish and the Quakers the way most American’s today dress – open collars, short sleeves, dresses that don’t reach the knee, etc. – might be considered offensive. Twenty to 25 years ago, when public appearance standards were arguably a bit more conservative than they are today, it still wasn’t uncommon to hear veteran travelers and airline employees ‘tsk-tsk’ the declining standards of dress among air travelers. Indeed, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s virtually everyone who flew “dressed up” in their Sunday finest for the event.
My father-in-law wore a business suit every time he flew. And he was a millwright, an accomplished tradesman who installed and repaired huge saws and other machinery in sawmills all over the eastern half of the United States. Sawmills are dirty places, filled with saw dust, bark, shavings and mud and filth. On those service calls on which he traveled by air, my father-in-law always arrived in a suit before changing into work clothes, and then cleaned up and changed back into a suit before flying home.
Today not every passenger is clad in a T-shirt and shorts, but many are. And most are dressed only a rung or two higher on the sartorial ladder.
So how do we establish some sort of collectively agreeable standard of dress for air travel? Do we even want to do that? And who’ll call the shots? The woman who likes to wear daringly short micro-mini dresses on planes (despite the typical frigid temperatures inside airliners)? The fellow who wants to show the world his rear end? An uptight businessman? Or your great grandmother who threw a fit back in the ‘60s when your grandmother wanted to wear a skirt hemmed just above the knee?
Clearly the airlines don’t want to make those calls. If they did, they’d write the rules down so they could be enforced evenly across their systems. But, obviously they’d rather put their attendants and gate agents in a bind than take a huge public relations hit for outright banning mini-skirts, short-shorts, “sagging” or flip-flops (the airlines’ rules do require shoes).
Perhaps the best we can do is to police ourselves as travelers. While it is impossible to please everyone, each of us could make it a practice of dressing in such a way when we travel by public conveyance that we don’t offend the second-most conservative person we know (conservative in dressing standards, that is). If you look in the mirror and have to ask someone else, or even think it through yourself whether what you’re wearing is too revealing, it probably is. Take a step back in your clothing choices. Add a sweater. Choose longer shorts, or pull on some sweat pants. None of that will kill you. It could save you a ton of hassle. And you remove the possibility of offending nearly everyone.
The uncomfortable, and mostly unwilling members of the travel fashion police otherwise known as flight attendants and gate agents just wish that we all would exercise that kind of judgement more often.
This article was originally sourced from here.