PHOTO: We can learn a lot from United's legging mistake. (Photo via Flickr/Daniel Ramirez)
In the age of Twitter, Facebook and social media soapboxes, it’s easy to color a story, if not get it wrong altogether.
Depending on your opinion, the United leggings kerfuffle has at the very least missed a bit of nuance.
Reuters reports Shannon Watts—the traveler who initially tweeted her dismay over United’s demands that a group of girls change from their leggings—has since stopped just short of a mea culpa as the airline tells its side of the story.
The report explains Watts, “conceded that she did not initially realize that the girls were using passes that entailed following a dress code.”
For the uninitiated, United Airlines took a great deal of social media fire following Watts’ tweet on Sunday that stated attendants had told three girls they had to change from their leggings or would not be allowed to fly:
TravelPulse’s Monica Poling reported on the incident this weekend and explained that the girls had actually been flying under a United pass: A ticket offered for free or with a discount to employees or their family.
That means United did have a say and a policy in place:
The above refers to a rule that states officials can deny passage for anyone “barefoot or not properly clothed.”
Of course, the keyword proper turned what may have been a forgotten incident into a global affair with people from all over chiming in.
United did later explain itself more fully:
The Tweet train had left the station, however.
That United pass travelers fly under scrutiny as if they were United employees escaped many who tweeted without the entire story.
Now, seemingly everyone has offered a voice, from Sarah Silverman to LeVar Burton. Even Delta saw the debacle as an opportunity to be United’s foil.
Watts explains to Reuters that regardless of flying under a United pass, the policy is a problematic one: “I don't get why that's the issue here. A dress code still shouldn't be gendered and sexist. To be clear, this was happening very publicly right here in the gate.”
But United isn't the only one. It just happened to be the unlucky airline with a vigilant Twitter user onboard.
Reuters explains American has a similar policy for its free passes, and Delta incorporates a “best judgment” protocol for its guests traveling for free.
Beyond the probable need for updating and implementing better policies, the main problem is not being completely, immediately transparent as a story unfolds in the modern era.
United Air Lines Inc spokesman Jonathan Guerin spoke with Reuters and explained that the brand could have indeed better communicated with its followers as one tweet turned into thousands.
“Once the fire starts to burn, it's all about containing that fire,” he explained.
As noted, United initially pointed to a general clothing policy before backtracking and expanding as to the impetus behind the very decision that created the firestorm.
Guerin continued, “But our response following that, once we did have all of the facts, I think we reacted the right way with this.”
Rather than be on the defensive, United could have taken a couple moments to be the final word on how this story unfolded.
It was, in the end, its policy for employee-discounted tickets that caused the row. If it wants you to wear a uniform when flying for free, then I guess you better show up as such until the policy gets modernized.
READ MORE: Why Are We Making It So Hard For Women To Fly?
Make no mistake, airlines are digging their own social media grave with vague sartorial policies, because it will take just one more gate agent to take umbrage with some leggings they feel are not “proper” attire for this fiasco to burn anew.
If you leave it up to gate agents to make judgment calls, then this is but one chapter of an ongoing tale of airline missteps among a consumer base fed up with archaic modes of thinking.
Reuters explained how grave these kinds of gaffes can be for the brand as it spoke with Brandwatch’s Kellan Terry who explained that United’s social media mentions swelled from 2,000 daily mentions to 174,000 because of the legging fiasco.
And, as you would imagine, an overwhelming majority, (70 percent), were negative.
It would behoove the airlines to be specific with what they deem improper, keep it consistent across all genders and lead the conversation amid controversy, presenting all the facts up front.
And there is, of course, a lesson for travelers in all of this: Just because you overhear a conversation doesn’t mean you have the entire story.
For good or bad, anyone with a Twitter account can be a field reporter of sorts. Obviously, the majority will never fact check these posts, so it is up to the seasoned traveler to take a moment and read with a bit of objective skepticism until all facts come to light.