You can wear what you want on a flight, but beware ‘buddy pass’ rules

United Airlines found itself in the middle of a public relations kerfuffle this weekend after it did not allow two young girls to board a flight because they were wearing leggings.

It was later revealed that the girls were traveling on employee passes, sometimes colloquially referred to as “buddy passes.” Such passes allow family and friends of airline employees to fly for free or at deep discounts, but they also come with conditions that include dress-code guidelines.

But that detail emerged only after the story went viral across social media, leaving some casual fliers wondering what the dust-up means for them.

“Nothing,” says Henry Harteveldt, founder of the San Francisco-based travel consultancy Atmosphere Research Group.

“The only thing a passenger needs to know when they fly is that an airline may have a set of standards around language,” he says, adding that clothing with lewd or hateful messages are the most likely to cause problems.

“Beyond that, as a passenger, you can wear pretty much anything that is socially acceptable,” Harteveldt says. “That may vary based on the part of the world you’re traveling in. But, in the United States, leggings and yoga pants are worn by many passengers.”

However, that’s not the case for fliers flying on employee passes.

“Airlines have two sets of standards when it comes to attire on a plane,” Harteveldt says. “There’s one for those of us who make up the traveling public and who are paying for our tickets. And there’s a second set of standards that applies to people who are traveling on airline passes. In the airline business, you’re called a ‘non-revenue’ passenger. This includes airline employees and friends who may be using so-called 'buddy passes'.”

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Chris Alexakis