Do Airlines Have the Right to Dictate Dress Codes?

Sierra Steadman was wearing a black crop top, white shorts, and a gray sweatshirt on her Alaska Airlines flight when she was shamed by a flight attendant for her outfit and threatened to be kicked off the flight. In a series of TikTok videos, she describes the experience that left her in tears.

The flight attendant, she explained, asked her to zip up her hoodie, grabbed her arm, and screamed at her even after she agreed to comply with the request. She captioned it, “I’ve never felt more degraded, ashamed, embarrassed, angry or sad.” 

Alaska Airlines has apologized to Steadman’s mother for the incident after she filed a formal complaint. 

However, this is just one more tally in the list of encounters where airline crew pulled up people for clothes they deem “inappropriate” or “offensive”. 

@sierrasteadmanive never felt more degraded, ashamed, embarrassed, angry or sad. F ALASKA AIRLINES!!!!!!! #fyp♬ yeastie girlz x tv girl – 🧝🏾‍♀️🌱

Just last month, a woman bodybuilder was barred from American Airlines because of her “offensive clothes.” In April this year, a two-time cancer survivor was asked to cover up her “F@#$ Cancer” sweatshirt by American Airlines. Southwest Airlines forced a woman to wear a pilot’s t-shirt last year. Men have been on the receiving end of this humiliation too, though not as much. Some years ago, an encounter was highlighted by the media when a man was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight for wearing a t-shirt with the f-word on it.

Incidents such as these ignite a debate online, often criticizing the way airlines slut-shame women for their clothes and asking if they should find a way to be less ambiguous about dress codes.

But the question remains: Do airlines really have a say in what you can or can’t wear on the plane?

They do. When you buy a ticket, you enter a contract with the airline and they reserve the right to deny you boarding if you don’t hold up to your end of this “contract of carriage” or “conditions of carriage.” Which means that airlines can refuse to fly you if the flight attendant finds your appearance inappropriate or offensive to other passengers. 

Policing clothes seems unnecessary, but every airline has guidelines (however ambiguous) that more or less give them the right to ask you to cover up. For most, there is no specific information on what kind of clothes can get you booted from a flight—staff use their own discretion.

American Airlines

In its conditions of carriage, American Airlines states, “Dress appropriately; bare feet or offensive clothing aren’t allowed.” 

Alaska Airlines

Under its refusal to transport clause, it is mentioned that passengers who are barefoot, who have uncovered torso (midriff is okay), or those with offensive or lewd clothing may be removed from an aircraft at any point. Offensive odors can also result in refusal of transport.

Hawaiian Airlines

It has a written dress code for passengers. The airline clarifies on its website that it expects passengers to cover the upper and lower parts of the torso and wear footwear.

JetBlue Airways

Barefoot passengers and those whose clothing is lewd, obscene, or patently offensive can cause refusal or removal for the comfort or safety of other passengers, JetBlue’s conditions say. Footwear is mandatory, too.

United Airlines

The contract of carriage declares that the airline can refuse to transport passengers if they “are barefoot, not properly clothed, or whose clothing is lewd, obscene or offensive.”

Delta Air Lines

Barefoot passengers are a no-go here, too, and Delta can also deny transportation when “the passenger’s conduct, attire, hygiene or odor creates an unreasonable risk of offense or annoyance to other passengers.”

If you think you have been discriminated against and treated unfairly, you can file a complaint with the airline as well as the Department of Transportation. If nothing else, tweet about it!

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