By Shawn Chitnis

DENVER (CBS4) – United Airlines defended its dress code Monday for passengers flying free as family and friends of employees, but brand experts following the industry think the company should consider changing the policy.

“I believe that anything that was done 30 or 40 years ago could have been very unintentionally sexist,” said Professor Darrin Duber-Smith with Metro State University of Denver.

(credit: CBS)

Teenage girls flying from Denver International Airport to Minneapolis on Sunday were stopped by a gate attendant because they were wearing leggings. Their family was flying using pass riders — free tickets given by an employee of the airline.

Shannon Watts saw the girls stopped for their attire and took to Twitter. She is a well-known gun control advocate with a large following on the social media platform.

“We heard her say, ‘Look I don’t make the rules I just enforce them,'” she told CBS4 on Sunday via Skype.

Shannon Watts talks to CBS4 via Skype (credit: CBS)

Watts went on to question the fairness of the policy, asking if it was sexist toward women and young girls. Many on Twitter joined the conversation creating an online backlash toward United Airlines. Several celebrities tweeted their disapproval of the policy as well. Watts wrote more on the topic Monday in an article on Medium.

“I don’t think leggings are inappropriate for women or little girls,” She went on to say in the interview with CBS. “This 10-year-old girl looked like a normal little kid.”

United replied initially to tweets on Sunday and then clarified in a statement that regular paying customers can wear leggings. But the airlines asks anyone using a “pass rider” to follow a different standard because they’re flying for free. Friends and family of employees using the service are representing the airline and are asked not to wear form-fitting clothing, according to United.

Duber-Smith teaches marketing at MSU-Denver and studies how brands can be impacted by such incidents. He says a dress code that hasn’t been changed for decades seems out of date in 2017.

Professor Darrin Duber-Smith with Metro State University of Denver is interviewed by CBS4’s Shawn Chitnis (credit: CBS)

“This policy has been an industry standard for a very long time and every airline has their own policy and this time I think it might be time to review these policies,” he said.

United told CBS4 on Monday it regularly reviews guidelines and their policies have evolved over time. The airline does not consider this policy to favor one gender over the other and was never designed to be sexist.

LINKS: United Statement | Shannon Watts Medium Article | Shanon Watts Twitter

Shawn Chitnis reports on the CBS4 Morning News. Email him story ideas at and connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.


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