You’re off to catch a flight for your long-awaited beach holiday. You’ve paid for the hotel, bulk-bought the SPF and made an in-flight playlist to die for. The last thing you’re thinking about, I’d wager, is the modesty of your outfit.
Yet, in recent years there have been a spate of cases where airline staff have deemed a passenger’s clothing - usually a woman’s - “inappropriate”, resulting in them either being kicked off their flight or forced to cover up.
On Saturday, a former Miss Universe, Olivia Culpo, was allegedly told to cover up by American Airlines staff, or risk being unable to board her flight to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico.
The model was wearing a pair of skintight black shorts with a crop top, which showed her midriff, and a long black cardigan.
Ms Culpo’s sister Aurora posted a video to Instagram after the incident, explaining that her sister had been called up to the airline desk at the gate so staff could “tell her that she needs to put a blouse on otherwise she can’t get on the plane”.
“Tell me is that not so f**ked up?” marvelled Aurora Culpo.
A second video showed the sisters speaking to a fellow passenger who was wearing a crop top very similar to Ms Culpo’s, but was not singled out by the airline.
And it’s not the first time this has happened. In September 2021 a US woman accused Alaska Airlines of harassment after she was removed from a flight for wearing an outfit the flight attendant deemed “inappropriate”.
Ray Lin Howard, a plus-size rapper and stylist from Fairbanks, Alaska who goes by the stage name Fat Trophy Wife, shared her experience in a TikTok video that has been viewed more than nine million times.
UK-based airlines aren’t off the hook, either. In March 2019 passenger Emily O’Connor tweeted a thread saying she’d been left “shaking and upset” after flight crew on a Thomas Cook flight from Birmingham to Tenerife had threatened to kick her off the plane unless she covered up her crop top and high-waisted trousers combo.
O’Conor made the point that not one member of airport staff had commented on her outfit and that, when she asked, no fellow passengers said they had a problem with it. And yet, when she went to board the plane, she claimed that airline staff humiliated her by threatening to remove her luggage from the aircraft unless she covered up, and by making announcements over the tannoy about the situation.
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
— . (@emroseoconnor) March 12, 2019
So, what are the rules around what we wear on a plane?
Confusingly, each airline worldwide can determine its own dress code, and most are vague or non-existent. Some - mainly US carriers - have a “conditions of carriage” set of terms and conditions that includes dress code requirements for passengers, but many do not.
For example, Alaska Airlines’ policy says: “The requirement is simply a neat and well-groomed appearance. Clothing that is soiled or tattered and bare feet are never acceptable. You are expected to use good judgment, but customer service agents will have the final authority to refuse travel for inappropriate attire or appearance.”
America Airlines’ passenger responsibilities declaration states: “To ensure a safe environment for everyone, you must… Dress appropriately; bare feet or offensive clothing aren’t allowed.” There is no elaboration on what constitutes “offensive clothing”, nor who decides what that definition is.
Each airline worldwide can determine its own dress code, and most are vague or non-existent
Meanwhile, Thomas Cook does not feature any kind of dress code on its website.
Essentially this means that any cabin crew member could conceivably take offence to any outfit on a whim, with little advance guidance for passengers from the airline on what to avoid.
Katherine Allen of Hugh James, a legal firm that deals with individual consumer claims among other cases, says it’s rare for UK airlines to have dress codes in place.
“BA and Virgin do reserve the right to refuse to carry you in certain circumstances, but if you look at the circumstances listed, they don’t say anything about dress code.
“They do have some information around denying boarding ‘if you or your baggage affect the comfort of other passengers’,” she adds, pointing out that this would be difficult to apply to clothing.
Most cases where airlines have objected to clothing have involved hot destinations or departure points, from which some people prefer to wear beach-ready or light garments. This is understandable - if anything, more of us have been caught out doing things the opposite way round, arriving to tropical climes in suddenly-stifling jeans and jumpers.
In June 2019, Houston-based doctor Tisha Rowe had a stand-off with an American Airlines staff member on a journey from sultry Jamaica to just-as-warm Miami when a flight attendant told her she couldn’t fly without covering her strapless jumpsuit. Without larger items of clothing on hand, Rowe was forced to cover herself up with an airline blanket in order to board.
“I like to be comfortable when I travel,” a shocked Rowe told the Washington Postat the time. Her attire, she says, was not “significantly different than other passengers I’ve seen” on planes, as she demonstrated by posting a picture of the typical holiday look on Twitter.
Here is what i was wearing when @AmericanAir asked me to deplane for a talk. At which point I was asked to “cover up”. When defending my outfit I was threatened with not getting back on the flight unless I walked down the aisle wrapped in a blanket. #notsofriendlyskies pic.twitter.com/AYQNNriLcq
— Tisha Rowe MD, MBA (@tisharowemd) July 1, 2019
It’s worth noting that, like Ray Lin Howard, Dr Rowe is a full-figured woman of colour. Commenters on her tweet insisted that it was unlikely that a slim white woman in the same outfit would be questioned by cabin crew, while her lawyer, Geoffrey Berg, called the incident a “sexist, racist attack.”
“I felt like I was being discriminated against for being a fat, tattooed, mixed-race woman, which in turn left me full of emotions like anger, disappointment, helplessness, humiliation and confusion,” Howard told press after her run-in with Alaska Airlines.
Dr Rowe advised those challenged on their inflight dress to seek legal recourse.
“I think they should pursue legal action. Until airlines treat all passengers fairly and put clear dress codes in writing they should be held responsible for the mental anguish they cause through their callous behaviour,” she told The Independent.
She says she was offered a settlement by American Airlines, but refused it.
The difficulty for claimants dealing with airlines who refuse them boarding, says Allen, is that any payouts from airlines are often worth less than you’d spend instructing a solicitor.
“I’d always advise people, don’t instruct a law firm if you’re going to end up spending more in costs than you would get in damages. We’re always happy to give advice, but often people don’t want to pursue these cases.”
Happily, outfit shaming remains relatively rare on a global scale, and incidents are especially uncommon in the UK and Europe.
Travel expert Rob Staines, who worked as cabin crew for many years, says: “In my experience of working for multiple airlines, crew are not told to look out for passengers dressed ‘inappropriately’.”
He told The Independent that in 17 years of working for numerous carriers, he had never seen anything like the cases outlined above.
Until airlines treat all passengers fairly and put clear dress codes in writing they should be held responsible for the mental anguish they cause
Dr Tisha Rowe
Crew might be prompted to act if someone is wearing clothing that is “overtly sexual or emblazoned with offensive language or imagery”, says Staines, but will only act “if other passengers highlight an issue”.
Lawyer Katherine Allen agrees that it is an unlikely scenario within Europe.
“I think it’s unlikely here because we have the ‘denied boarding’ regulations in the UK and Europe, so if you’ve been refused boarding and re-routed onto a different flight, you might be entitled to compensation.
“So UK and European airlines don’t want to deny boarding because they don’t want to pay compensation. It’s a European piece of legislation but it’s still in place in the UK, and it’s here to stay for a while.”
The US, she says, doesn’t have this legislation - hence airline staff’s willingness to confront more passengers.
“From a practical point of view, I’d say check the terms and conditions before you fly,” she says.
“If there’s anything about dress code, and you’re not sure whether what you’re wearing complies, then shove a jacket or jogging bottoms in your hand luggage so you can pop them on.”
Allen feels it is an outdated policy that could be seen as discriminating against women.
Rob Staines agrees: “Most airlines actively encourage crew to treat all passengers as individuals and to reserve judgment on personal appearance.”
After all, he says: “It’s often the case that the most casually-dressed passenger could be the one sitting in a premium cabin, bringing in the most revenue.”