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Airlines can say: You can't wear that

By David Koenig
AP Airlines Writer


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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onevoice82 wrote:
It is not a free speech issue. Like the article points out.....this is a private company and they can enforce degrees of standard. Don't use the service if you don't like their policies! I do not patronize restaurants that require a suit and tie for that very same principle.
on August 25,2012 | 06:36AM
haleiwalad1 wrote:
very good response, 1voice.....
on August 25,2012 | 07:04AM
daniwitz13 wrote:
You should tell this to the people that protested and boycotted Chic fil A . It's a private company. Pity.
on August 25,2012 | 10:56AM
thanks4reading wrote:
I disagree...The airlines are operating out of tax payer funded airports and have to apply routes from federal agencies. Tax payer funded employees screen passengers. Also, airlines are involved with interstate commerce. Unless federal regulations allow an airline to prohibit air travel for specific behavior, it should be allowed. By way of comparison, restaurants don't tend to operate out of tax payer funded buildings nor require inspection by government employees. Also, once an airline sells you a ticket, they can only cancel your license to travel on their plane if you violate federal law or the terms of the ticket. Dress restrictions need to be specifically explained.
on August 25,2012 | 01:22PM
RJR wrote:
Restaurants are inspected by the Board of Health and employees need TB tests that can be administered by State funded health clinics so they are similar to airlines.
on August 25,2012 | 01:50PM
EducatedLocalBoy wrote:
thanks4reading intuitively is right on point as to what the legal issue is regarding the application of the first amendment to airlines policies. Regarding the use of the F-word in conjunction with a pro-choice slogan, there is definitely a first amendment issue if the first amendment applies to the airlines. In addition to the Shelley v. Kraemer state action issue, airlines may be considered the 21st century functional equivalent of a public street, and thus have the first amendment attach. There were several cases involving Fort Sam Houston where this issue arose, vis-a-vis the first amendment.
on August 25,2012 | 07:28PM
kahuku01 wrote:
Airports in the US are almost never supported by local taxes or by local governmental jurisdictions. Airports are primarily supported by user fees. Aircraft landing fees: office, counter, baggage claim fee: gate rental fees: fuel fees on fuel that is sold at the airport. Rates and charges vary from airport to airport.
on August 26,2012 | 06:15AM
EducatedLocalBoy wrote:
There might be a first amendment issue on clothing because the amount of federal government regulation, price support, limit on damages that can be claimed for lost luggage and security rules might be sufficient to attach Shelley v. Kraemer state action to airlines regulations, especially since the enforcement of.these dress code rules requires governmental police to enforce it Remember, the attorney who gave his opinion that airlines are private companies works for the airline industry, so his opinion is not objective.
on August 25,2012 | 07:20PM
johncdechon wrote:
Why do some people (often trash) get upset when OTHER people have to say something? Are they kids who don't know how to dress themselves? Were they just coming from a Jerry Springer Show audition? If they had enough class/decorum to know how to dress (even if only temporary changing a t-shirt or wearing a mock camisole to cover cleavage just during a flight) then no one would else HAVE to say anything, would they. But as America continues its moral decline, more and more people feel there are no boundaries anymore and just do whatever they want. Then act surprised/angry when they discover not everyone is as classless/trashy as they are.
on August 25,2012 | 06:53AM
turbolink wrote:
- applause - Very well said, thank you!
on August 25,2012 | 07:05AM
justchecking wrote:
applauding you ...
on August 25,2012 | 08:58AM
all_fed_up wrote:
Thumbs up!
on August 25,2012 | 10:16AM
kahuku01 wrote:
You're right and these individuals(often trash) upbringing starts at home and not enforced at schools. The very ones that act surprised/angry when they discover that their child is classless/trashy are the parents, the very one that continues to defend their child whether their wrong or not. Typical child like parents attitude.
on August 26,2012 | 06:33AM
Oye_Como_Va wrote:
Makes one wonder whether the woman passenger on that flight from the Phillipines where that guy who was recently charges for sexually fondling her was dressed the same way?
on August 26,2012 | 03:52PM
MakaniKai wrote:
johncdechon - Bravo!!!!!!!!!!!!!
on August 27,2012 | 09:06AM
Steve96785 wrote:
I remember the days when everyone dressed up for a flight. At 5 yrs old, my grandparents bought me a new suit before flying me home to my parents. Nobody had to enforce a dress code because everyone already followed on. If you wanted to dress down, you took the train or the bus. I don't want to go back to suit and tie days, but it is amazing just how poorly most Americans look on flights these days. Frankly, I wish that Wal-Mart and other stores held people to a dress code.
on August 25,2012 | 07:39AM
turbolink wrote:
Wal-Mart would go out of business and the Internet world would be deprived of a continuing thread of modern fashion trends in the "People of Wal-Mart" series.
on August 25,2012 | 08:34AM
stingray65 wrote:
Steve: you just hit the nail right on the head!! That is the fact of life. People fly with no class whatsoever now a days.
on August 25,2012 | 09:01AM
SteveToo wrote:
This "Steve" say's you're nuts. Why should I wear a suit for anything other than my daughters wedding? I was forced to wear ties back in Jr. High School and that probably influenced my joining the navy were no TIGHT tie around my neck was needed. I"m 69 and have not worn a tie since Jr. High School. When I fly I wear loose long pants for comfort and a long sleeve shirt to keep warm.
on August 25,2012 | 09:18AM
oktink wrote:
At one time during the 60s/70s, you couldn't wear or show anything with the peace symbol on the airplane. If you patronize a business you play by their rules. The woman wearing the revealing clevage dress probably was trying to stay cool with the 100 Vegas heat. Frankly the dress was too long...
on August 25,2012 | 08:04AM
stingray65 wrote:
Okthink: I cannot even wear my military dress uniform when we travel before.. That was how ignorant some of Americans!!
on August 25,2012 | 09:05AM
cojef wrote:
One person's appropriate attire is another person objection in the interest od expressing one's free speech rights. Methinks society's fascination for expressing oneself has overshadowed common sense approach in every day living. Political correctness also has loomed to the fore front in our daily living and has caused much of the turmoil. Respect for others in the meantime has become second class. Pardon me if, I happen to injure your egos.
on August 25,2012 | 08:17AM
false wrote:
Today's lack of community civility and common culture means "no holds bar" exists on dress, language, cleanliness or common expected public behavior. We live in a climate of change where everyone for himself and look out for the events of NY being the common rather than the uncommon. Sad world we live in. No common codes of decorum.
on August 25,2012 | 08:46AM
soundofreason wrote:
"Common" >>> Last week, and made a comment about how everybody's so worried about the rights of the "individual" OVER the rights of society as a whole. It was suggested that I move to another country.
on August 25,2012 | 09:35AM
ROBT wrote:
I like the thought of private companies being able to do some of the things that they want BUT it seems like the minorities are the ones who tend to get the wrong side of the bat.
on August 25,2012 | 08:55AM
kahuku01 wrote:
Exactly! like wearing the top of their trousers halfway down their okoles and exposing their underwear and keep on pulling up their trousers every so often. Wondered if this would be acceptable if the opposite gender did the same? Then there's the deaf and dumb that blast their boom box from their cars with their windows rolled down so everyone within 100ft would be able to hear the annoying noise. Majority of these individuals don't realize that they are a bunch of showboats and unpopular with the normal society.
on August 26,2012 | 09:07AM
BO0o07 wrote:
Like restaurants reserving the right to refuse you service, airlines should have the same right. Comon sense should prevail but unfortunately, not everyone have common sense.
on August 25,2012 | 09:05AM
prest1948 wrote:
I agree with most of your post. We just need to remember that common sense is something that was drilled into us that makes it common sense. Common sense is a "natural response" to each situation (we hope). Parents and teachers today are not teaching the next generation what is right and wrong. I feel it's just the lack of respect for the other person. We need to get rid of the "what the hell, noone cares" attitude and live with more respect for each other. Getting off my soap box.
on August 25,2012 | 09:19AM
roughandtough wrote:
If people don't have common sense, I agree with the airlines to not admit them on their planes ! Imagine the uptightness of the passangers who would feel so uncomfortable with these people on board. If you don't like your airlines don't go with them...how many other airlines will put up with such rude people !!!!
on August 25,2012 | 09:24AM
soundofreason wrote:
Cleavage can be wonderful. The, more common, 350 pounds of oozing fat overflowing into YOUR seat - not to much - so let's talk about THAT.
on August 25,2012 | 10:09AM
saveparadise wrote:
Respect the aina and respect other people. If you follow these rules of life you stay on track. People have become abusive with their freedoms. Freedom of speech and expression is taken lightly by some and used to mock society as a whole.
on August 25,2012 | 10:13AM
all_fed_up wrote:
Many restaurants have placards saying, "We have the right to refuse service".
on August 25,2012 | 10:21AM
Grimbold wrote:
The airlines are right!
on August 25,2012 | 10:38AM
false wrote:
The cleavage problem is more about what Men will be responding to and making a nuisance of their interest and oogling. Sloppy is as sloppy is so why would you want to go out in public promoting that definition? Do these people really have any self-worth or care about how they define themselves publicly? Guess not.
on August 25,2012 | 11:07AM
kahuku01 wrote:
It wasn't appealing at all. Just a bunch of fat that created the cleavage. No shape or form that revealed a well shaped woman.
on August 26,2012 | 09:26AM
BH1 wrote:
The photo and the story have no connection. Who the hell is "Avital"? Are we to assume that she was the passenger barred in Vegas? As far as the student in Buffalo who was wearing a shirt mocking terrorism? That's not exercising free speech rights..that's just plain stupid.
on August 25,2012 | 04:04PM
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