I will never forget the morning I strolled into Love Field and rolled up to the ticket counter to claim my seat on a mostly empty flight from Dallas to Houston. The gate agent took one look at me and said something like, "You know you can't fly like that, right?"
It was the summer before my senior year in college, and I was working part-time in Houston but living in Dallas, and to accomplish this I had been flying back and forth on free airline passes, just as I'd done my entire life as the child of a flight attendant and a pilot.
The difference this time was that I was freshly 21 and not fully aware of how truly awful one looks after a bar crawl and only a couple hours of sleep. I was bleary eyed, my hair was a mess and my eye makeup was smeared from the night before, but the gate agent singled out my tank top as the problem. I had no luggage on me, so I had to buy a $25 Dallas t-shirt from the airport store before washing my face and walking back to the same gate agent, who handed over my boarding pass without further incident.
Once in Houston I threw the t-shirt in the trash, ashamed. But even then I knew I had no one to blame for it but myself. I knew the dress code, and I knew that my outfit—watch the pun—wouldn't fly. The same is true for the three young girls at the heart of a travel nightmare gone viral this week, who were not allowed to board a United flight until they changed or put something on over their leggings. These girls, too, were flying on passes and no, leggings are not part of the dress code.
Most people who are not members of the amazing airline pass benefit club don't realize that each airline has a stricter dress code for those of us who are flying courtesy of the airline, probably because, "Ugh, I can't wear yoga pants on this free flight across the country," is about as relatable a complaint as "Ugh, I can't fit all my money in my wallet." Why the dress codes? On some airlines stand-by passengers have the possibility of getting seated in first class, and they are expected to look presentable. But generally people tend to behave as well as they are dressed, and even though the days of gussying up to board a flight are long gone, that doesn't mean those flying while representing the airline should be at the forefront of the race to the bottom.
Some in response to the United story have been decrying the dress code as sexist, and on some level that's true—we as a society police women's bodies with a lot more scrutiny than men's—but unlike, say, a school dress code this one is easy to avoid if you disagree with it: Just pay for your ticket.
Enforcement is always going to be subjective, but usually that means that some employees will give you extra leeway and others expect you to tow the line, not that the line itself is blurred. I've boarded a flight in a skirt only to be told it's too short on the return two days later. To get mad about this would be like objecting to being pulled over for speeding just because you've driven fast on that road before and no one said anything to you about it then.
When it comes to the United girls, it's hard to say who should have been more prepared: the mother, who is the airline employee and the one who needs to communicate what's expected of non-revenue passengers; the father with the girls, who may or may not have been given enough information when making sure they were dressed properly; even the girls should take some responsibility—as airline kids it's doubtful this is their first flight, and 10 is not too young to be expected to know what you should be wearing as the guest of the airline. (I was flying unaccompanied about once a week at 11 while in charge of my 7-year-old sister.)
Not to be a traitor to my generation or anything, but the whole controversy smacks of millennial entitlement. Repeat after me: No one owes you a free flight. I played fast and loose with the dress code sometimes, but the other non-revenue rules I treated as sacrosanct: be quiet and polite to the crew and ask for as little as possible to make the flight attendants' lives just a little easier. On a short flight I wouldn't order a drink, and I'm still completely horrified when anyone I'm flying with hits the call button.
Every once in a while I'll hear a horror story of a young woman (it's always a young woman) who gets removed from a flight by a flight attendant because her outfit was deemed lewd or inappropriate. I find this much more troubling; passengers are not given the same kind of coaching as to what (if any) rules there are for what to wear while flying, and there's usually some serious body-shaming involved. But this is not the same thing as expecting people who receive an amazing benefit—flying across the country for free!—to follow the guidelines of the airline sponsoring their travel.
Now that I'm an adult, I've lost most of my flight privileges, and anyways these days flights tend to be fuller as airlines try to maximize profits, so more often than not I pay for a ticket rather than risk sitting at the airport all day trying to get somewhere on standby. I can't put into words how great it feels to walk on an airplane like a total slob in no makeup, a sweatshirt and yoga pants. But I never forget that I've paid for the freedom to do so.