Looks like the meanest chaperone at your middle school dance has a new gig!
Should an airline be able to tell you what to wear? Earlier this month, Thomas Cook Airlines made the news when a flight attendant tried to kick 21-year-old Emily O’Connor off of a flight from Birmingham, England to the Canary Islands because her crop top was deemed “inappropriate” by the flight manager.
According to O’Connor, shortly after she boarded the plane, four members of the flight staff surrounded her and told her she’d be removed from the flight if she didn’t cover up. When she didn’t, they made a loudspeaker announcement to let other passengers know that her “offensive and inappropriate” shirt was the reason the plane had not yet left. The pilot then held the plane for a total of 20 minutes until O’Connor put a jacket on over her crop top and the flight finally left.
Flying from Bham to Tenerife, Thomas Cook told me that they were going to remove me from the flight if I didn’t “cover up” as I was “causing offence” and was “inappropriate”. They had 4 flight staff around me to get my luggage to take me off the plane. pic.twitter.com/r28nvSYaoY
— Emily O’Connor (@emroseoconnor) March 12, 2019
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To show exactly what all the fuss was about, O’Connor posted a picture of the “offensive” outfit to Twitter, along with a thread detailing her experience. The thread drew comments from people voicing their support (with many saying they had seen similar worn outfits without reprimand from the flight crew) as well as those saying they worked in airports or on planes. “I’m crew myself and would not think twice to ask you to cover up,” wrote Twitter user @jadecharlottex. “I work at an airport, people come through dressed like this all the time?” added user @ZaylieLincoln39. Once the story went viral, Thomas Cook Airlines issued a statement to Yahoo UK saying they were “sorry” for how the situation was handled. But this wording implies that there was a situation to be handled where none existed.
Can an Airline Tell You How to Dress?
Among the myriad of things that make air travel unpleasant, how someone else is dressed fails to register with most travelers. In fact, the only time a lack of attire becomes objectionable is when someone in the row behind you has the audacity to put their bare, crusty feet on your armrest. However, most airlines do have a dress code policy that you can find on their websites. Passengers in violation of that dress code can be asked to cover up or remove themselves from the flight at the discretion of the crew.
Unfortunately, you can’t trust any company to honor your dignity as a human being. Let alone airlines, which frequently target customers for minor offenses or no reason at all.
Thomas Cook’s dress code policy would have been hard for O’Connor to find before her flight because it’s in their in-flight magazine and not on their website. If she had somehow been able to read it before the flight, she might have worn her crop top anyway. Their policy simply states that “Customers wearing inappropriate attire (including items with offensive slogans or images) will not be permitted to travel unless a change of clothes is possible. Footwear must be worn on the aircraft.”
O’Connor’s crop top was blank, free of any slogans or images. Thomas Cook’s dress code policy mentions nothing about exposed skin which, in a way, makes Thomas Cook Airlines right about their policy not being discriminatory. Dress codes about skin are the kind of stipulation used to unfairly target women and girls.
In fact, in their statement, Thomas Cook Airlines was sure to say that their dress code “applies equally to men and women of all ages without discrimination.” But O’Connor later told The Sun that “A gent two rows behind me was wearing shorts and a vest top and nothing was said to him.”
Thomas Cook’s statement seems to admit that something went wrong but saying “Our crews have the difficult task of implementing that policy and don’t always get it right” rings fairly hollow since it seems hard to believe that they would fail at implementing the policy the same way on the same flight. If it’s true that staff only tried to enforce this rule after O’Connor (rightfully) ignored their initial instruction to cover up, this reads more like someone on a power trip because they’re irritated at being ignored—not because this was worth pursuing.
So what should you do if you’re told to cover up on a flight?
Unfortunately, you can’t trust any company to honor your dignity as a human being. Let alone airlines, which frequently target customers for minor offenses or no reason at all. In 2017, a United Airlines gate agent wouldn’t let two teenagers board their flight until they put dresses on over their leggings. A woman on a Southwest flight was told she’d be kicked off if she didn’t cover her cleavage. So the sad truth is there’s not much you can do in the moment that won’t get you kicked off or even arrested. You can ask what specifically is “inappropriate” or where you can find their policy and, if you’re lucky, get them to back down. However, if you sense the situation escalating, for your own safety, do your best to follow the Flight Attendant’s instructions.
But just because you comply in the moment, doesn’t mean you should shut up and take it.
What you can trust is that they care about their money. And bad PR has the potential to threaten it. Take a cue from O’Connor and put your story out there on a site like Twitter (and don’t forget to @ the airline). Even if your story doesn’t make a splash in the news, word of mouth is a powerful thing. Not everyone is going to feel brave or, frankly, safe enough to stand up in the middle of the plane and assert themselves, but by no means does that mean you should be shamed into silence. Make it unprofitable for them to adhere to discriminatory practices.