Airlines, Leggings and the Customer Experience

You may have heard, United Airlines failed in a big way yesterday. Here’s what happened: the airline barred two teenage girls from boarding and required a child to change clothes after a gate agent decided the leggings they were wearing were inappropriate. That set off waves of anger on social media, with users criticizing what they called an intrusive, sexist policy.

The airline has been in PR damage control mode ever since, while still oddly defending their decision. They noted that teenagers were “pass riders,” meaning they are relatives or friends of United employees and held to a different dress code standard than regular passengers – who are allowed to wear leggings.

So, while the gate agent might have been technically correct in enforcing policy – how is this sound business strategy? Air travel is an incredibly competitive industry, which means the customer experience is what determines success and failure. Customers are more than willing to jump to a competitor if you don’t provide the best possible experience. In this case, United’s competitors smell blood in the water:


Customer-facing employees need to feel empowered to provide a best-in-class experience for customers. Yes, rules and policies are in place for reason, but there are also reasons employees at airlines and hotels are given latitude to make things just a little better for individual customers (without harming the experience of others) when they have a chance. In fact, it’s a key strategy to build brand loyalty and the success of the organization depends on it.

Finally, if we are that concerned about what people wear on a flight, let’s start with this guy.