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December 22, 2014

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Airlines can tell passengers what they can’t wear

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Associated Press

In this spring 2012 photo provided by a woman identified as Avital and made available to the blog Jezebel, Avital poses for a picture at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, showing what she was wearing after she says a Southwest Airlines gate agent approached her, alleging that she was showing too much cleavage.

DALLAS — Airlines give many reasons for refusing to let you board, but none stir as much debate as this: How you're dressed.

A woman flying from Las Vegas on Southwest this spring says she was confronted by an airline employee for showing too much cleavage. In another recent case, an American Airlines pilot lectured a passenger because her T-shirt bore a four-letter expletive. She was allowed to keep flying after draping a shawl over the shirt.

Both women told their stories to sympathetic bloggers, and the debate over what you can wear in the air went viral.

It's not always clear what's appropriate. Airlines don't publish dress codes. There are no rules that spell out the highest hemline or the lowest neckline allowed. That can leave passengers guessing how far to push fashion boundaries. Every once in a while the airline says: Not that far.

"It's like any service business. If you run a family restaurant and somebody is swearing, you kindly ask them to leave," says Kenneth Quinn, an aviation lawyer and former chief counsel at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

The American Airlines passenger, who declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press, works for an abortion provider. Supporters suggested that she was singled out because her T-shirt had a pro-choice slogan.

A spokesman for American says the passenger was asked to cover up "because of the F-word on the T-shirt." He says that the airline isn't taking sides in the abortion debate.

Last week, Arijit Guha, a graduate student at Arizona State University, was barred from a Delta flight in Buffalo, N.Y., because of a T-shirt that mocked federal security agents and included the words, "Terrists gonna kill us all." He says the misspelled shirt was satirical and he wore it to protest what he considers racial profiling.

"I thought it was a very American idea to speak up and dissent when you think people's rights are being violated," Guha says. The pilot thought it scared other passengers.

American and Delta are within their rights to make the passengers change shirts even if messages are political, says Joe Larsen, a First Amendment lawyer from Houston who has defended many media companies.

The First Amendment prohibits government from limiting a person's free-speech rights, but it doesn't apply to rules set by private companies, Larsen says. He notes that government security screeners didn't challenge Guha; private Delta employees did.

In short, since airlines and their planes are private property and not a public space like the courthouse steps, crews can tell you what to wear.

In the early years of jet travel, passengers dressed up and confrontations over clothing were unimaginable. They're still rare — there aren't any precise numbers — but when showdowns happen, they gain more attention as aggrieved passengers complain on the Internet about airline clothing cops. It's unwelcome publicity for airlines, which already rate near the bottom of all industries when it comes to customer satisfaction.

Critics complain that airlines enforce clothing standards inconsistently. The lack of clear rules leaves decisions to the judgment of individual airline employees.

Last year, a passenger was pulled off a US Airways jet and arrested at San Francisco International Airport after airline employees say he refused to pull up his low-hanging pants. The local prosecutor declined to file charges against Deshon Marman, a University of New Mexico football player.

Marman's lawyer complained that the same airline repeatedly allowed a middle-age man to travel wearing women's underwear and not much else.

"You can't let someone repugnant like that (the cross-dresser) on the plane and single out this kid because he's black, wearing dreadlocks, and had two or three inches of his underwear showing," says the lawyer, Joseph D. O'Sullivan. "They can't arrest him for what someone perceives to be inappropriate attire."

US Airways spokesman John McDonald says no passengers complained about the cross-dresser until his photo in women's underwear circulated on the Internet after the Marman incident. He says the airline doesn't have a dress code but that employees may talk to a passenger if other people might be offended by the way he's dressed.

"It's not an issue of a dress code, it's one of disruption," like watching pornography within sight of other passengers, McDonald says.

An informal survey of passengers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport found much support for limits on clothing.

"Curse words on shirts always bother me," says John Gordon, who just graduated from film school in Florida and was dressed in khaki shorts and a T-shirt. "It's an unspoken rule that when you go out in public, you should be respectful."

But Leigh Ann Epperson, a corporate lawyer who had just flown in from Tokyo, says she wouldn't be bothered if another passenger's shirt bore the F-word.

"If people are paying the price for their tickets, they should be able to wear what they want," says Epperson, who wore a black sweater over a low-cut blouse, black slacks and wedge-type heels.

Airlines say they refund the passenger's fare if they deny boarding for inappropriate attire.

Clashes over clothing and other flash points seem to be increasing, says Alexander Anolik, a travel-law attorney in Tiburon, Calif. He blames an unhappy mix of airline employees who feel underpaid and unloved, and passengers who are stressed out and angry over extra fees on everything from checking a bag to scoring an aisle seat.

Anolik says that passengers should obey requests from airline employees. If passengers don't, they could be accused of interfering with a flight crew — a federal crime. He says passengers should wait until they're off the plane to file complaints with the airline, the U.S. Department of Transportation or in small-claims court.

"They have this omnipotent power," Anolik says of flight crews. "You shouldn't argue your case while you're on the airplane. You're in a no-win scenario — you will be arrested."

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  1. "The public should not be subjected to one person's will."

    A person should not have to bend to the will of someone else's potential offense. Does something offend you? Too bad, get over it. Chances are you are not even sitting next to that person on the flight.

    Where do we live, Iran?

  2. I do want to clarify, I believe that curse words on tshirts are over the top. I personally don't mind, but many people are easily intimidated by words they find overtly offensive. However cleavage, or the ZOMG t-shirt guy, this is merely the airline pandering to the lowest common denominator of hysteria and absent minded people. When did we become such a nation of whiners?

  3. I have to say....I've seen my share of passengers half naked and smelling even worse. When you're packed into a seat and not able to even put a arm rest down because there is hardly any room....that's called close quarters.This is not a private flight...it's as public as you can get and clearly as tight as you can get.I have to agree with them to a degree. Clearly there is a line that shouldn't be crossed by the airlines, it's just defining what that is.

  4. Public displays of profanity are unacceptable...

    Whether on a t-shirt, on a BUMPER STICKER, on a sign @ a rally, or coming out of your yap...

    I'm no prude, and certainly use my share of profane language in private, but this 'modern' public use of the F-BOMB and other blatantly offensive language is not proper nor civil.

    It wasn't that long ago when 'community standards' were enough to keep people acting reasonably civil in public places, but it seems that 'socially acceptable' definition has morphed into 'anything goes', and that is not what our kids should be learning, IMO. (I see/hear plenty of 'underage' kids today publicly using profanity...which, again, not long ago was VERBOTEN).

    Don't we have ANY manners anymore?

  5. An airline cabin is not a sports bar. Behavior, language, noise, electronics, food, drink and clothes all have guidelines.

  6. I don't like anyone telling anyone how to dress, but at times it does have merits. Don't people look in the mirror before they leave the house?? Do people have no respect for THEMSELVES when they wear clothes that are only good for cleaning house or washing the car? How about those who basically wear their pajamas to the store?

    In defense of the woman with her cleavage showing, a LOT of womens' tops these days are cut low. However, there is a time and place for everything and those "low cut to show off cleavage" tops can be remedied by (a) wearing the proper undergarment (a camisole it's called); that woman's scarf could have remedied the situation; or (b) wear something not so revealing.