United Airlines and the Spandex-induced PR Punishment

United Airlines Versus Leggings

United Airlines has recently been branded “sexist” by social media users from around the world for the recent incident involving three girls, a gate agent, and some leggings.

If you don’t know the details of the story, click here, or here, or here, or here. It’s everywhere and has become a PR nightmare for United Airlines. #boycottunited has been trending and celebrities like Sarah Silverman have gone so far as rebooking flights during her tour to avoid the airline. 

The airline’s responses to date have been callous, bureaucratic, and robotic.

We at BMF recognize that hindsight is 20/20 but we have some recommendations for United had we been called Sunday evening.

First. United has not even mentioned the most important underlying issue, the catalyst causing this situation to go viral. Not once.

United, you should address the fact that a lot of people think your company policies are sexist.

Spewing your company policies and how you reserve the right to let the gate agent decide if your “buddy pass” users are appropriately dress does not solve the problem.

And guess what? No one cares about your employee handbook.

What did people see?

Three girls barred from boarding a flight and separated from their family because of spandex leggings.

So that is the issue that needs to be addressed.

According to The New York Times, Jonathan Guerin, a spokesman for United, said pass travelers are “representing” the company and as such are not allowed to wear Lycra and spandex leggings, tattered or ripped jeans, midriff shirts, flip-flops or any article of clothing that shows their undergarments.

No one knew that they were classified as friends and family of United Airlines. No one knew the girls were supposed to be held to a “higher standard” required of employees’ friends and families. So, don’t use that as the solution and expect people to be appeased.

Second. United, you must own the fact that maybe some of your policies should be reviewed.

There’s no harm in reviewing a policy! If United reviews their company policy regarding employee travels and finds that the rule is important to their image and they should continue to ban leggings on “buddy pass” users, so be it. But at least agree to have the conversation.

Documents, including the United “Contract of Carriage,” are meant to adapt. Amendments, re-writes, and edits are essential to keep moving forward.

Third. Let’s see a little humanity!

This was an inconvenience for the girls. Everyone at some point has had travel woes. Whether it’s by plane, train, or automobile, it’s hard and this should be acknowledged.

In terms of responses, none of the social media posts by United sound human. In one they used the verb “shall.” Who have you heard recently use the word “shall” in conversation? 

“I shall go to the grocery store now.”

“I shall suggest to Rebecca that we carpool tomorrow.”

“I shall pick you up at 8.”

It doesn’t sound very friendly, to say the least.

However, we will give a nod to Delta Airlines for injecting a little humor on their Twitter feed. It’s a little combative but may the best airline win. 

So, United. Next time: 

1. Address the actual issue.
2. Consider that you might be at fault and respond accordingly.
3. Show your human voice.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with us on social media!


These tips are appropriate for United Airlines as well as other companies during crises. Transparency and humanity are paramount when dealing with social media crises and BMF prioritizes these in all of our PR services.