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United Airlines is under siege on Twitter after airline employees reportedly stopped two young girls from boarding because they were wearing leggings.
USA TODAY

You’ve heard of snakes on a plane? (Cue the shrieking.) Now the latest horror is … leggings on a plane?

But wait, not so fast, and cut out that tweet-shrieking, please.

Despite what you might have heard, thanks to clumsy tweeting by United Airlines, leggings are not verboten on its airplanes, at least for paying passengers.

Because, duh, leggings are perfectly appropriate attire, not to mention perfectly comfortable attire, in this era of air travel as cattle drive-turned-security nightmare.

Even United says so, belatedly, in a statement issued Monday. “To our regular customers, your leggings are welcome,” the airline posted on its website.

Etiquette experts say so, too. “Nowadays women do it (wear leggings on flights) all the time and of course it’s appropriate,” says Lizzie Post, co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast produced by the Emily Post Institute. She’s co-president of the institute and the great-great granddaughter of America’s best-known etiquette expert, Emily Post.

“But what’s appropriate is so incredibly subjective,” Post adds. To some families, she notes, women wearing any kind of pants is inappropriate. College students who wear pajamas on flights might be considered dressed in inappropriate attire. Wearing leggings to a job interview? Probably not good, she says.

“You should always be aware of how you dress and how others might form an opinion of how you dress, and do what you will with that.”

Faye de Muyshondt, author of Socialsklzfor Success: How to Give Children the Skills They Need to Thrive in the Modern World, also advises that wearing leggings on flights is not suddenly beyond the pale.

“People are looking to be more comfortable — our culture is becoming less and less formal,” she says. “As far as flying goes, you’re paying for your ticket, you’re paying for the experience. Do you need to dress up to travel? I don’t think so.”

These reminders are necessary because of the social-media tizzy that ensued Sunday after word spread United would not allow two young girls to board a flight because they were wearing leggings. It turned out the girls were traveling on employee “buddy” passes, flying for free or at deep discounts, but also under conditions that include dress-code guidelines: No leggings allowed.

But that relevant detail did not come out until later. Instead, the company sent out legalistic tweets about “compliance with our dress code policy for company benefit travel” and failed to make clear that the policy did not apply to all passengers. Meanwhile, celebrities sputtered on Twitter about sexist, outdated and unfair policies regarding flight attire.

But context is important, say Post and de Muyshondt. You may question why United thinks little girls in leggings somehow ruins the airline’s reputation (as opposed to, say, whether your flight arrived on time or they lost your luggage), but private companies have the right to set dress codes for those who represent it.

“I think it’s different if you’re talking about being a ‘buddy’ and representing a company,” says de Muyshondt. “If you’re a buddy, it’s a pretty big honor. The least you can do is adhere to a dress code.”

Post says the polite thing to do is to respect a company’s policy, but any company should use “tact, discretion and care” when enforcing a policy.

“It’s not about whether it’s OK to wear leggings — they didn’t handle situation with tact,” Post says.

Disputes about flight attire bubble up occasionally, especially when passengers are wearing clothes with lewd or hateful messages, which most airlines ban. Also, there’s no doubt that the definition of “appropriate” has changed since the days when most people thought they were supposed to get dressed up to fly.

“It was a very different time and period in the country when traveling was a privilege, a very special occasion and you dressed up for it,” says de Muyshondt. “Many more people have had the experience of traveling. It’s not as fancy, if you will.”