On June 5th, Avital* was boarding a 6 AM flight from Las Vegas to New York in a comfy cotton dress, a loose open flannel shirt and a colorful scarf when she was told that her cleavage was "inappropriate." The airline dealt with the incident as it has many, many times in the past (at least when customers contact media outlets to complain): by offering the aggrieved customer an apology and a refund. Why won't Southwest stop kicking people off flights for reasons even the airline will admit are over-the-top?
Although Avital was told she wouldn't be able to fly if she didn't button up her flannel shirt, she bravely bared her breasts all the way onto the plane. "I didn't want to let the representative's Big Feelings about my breasts change the way I intended to board my flight," she explained. "And lo and behold, the plane didn't fall out of the sky...my cleavage did not interfere with the plane's ability to function properly." Imagine that!
Check out Avital's early morning flying attire; pretty casual, right? (And cute, which is impressive, given that she probably woke up before daybreak.) She wasn't exactly verging into XXX territory with her rope belt and Birkenstock-y sandals. Is it really inappropriate for a self-described large-chested woman to wear a non-constricting sundress on a 100-degree day? More to the point: is it really the airline's responsibility to dictate what is and isn't appropriate apparel? "To add insult to injury, the guy sitting in front of me on the plane was wearing a shirt with an actual Trojan condom embedded behind a clear plastic applique and had no trouble getting on his flight," Avital added. "Slut shaming, pure and simple." We'd have to agree.
Southwest spokesperson Christi McNeill told us that the company offered Avital an apology and a refund "as a gesture of goodwill," but that their Contract of Carriage allows them to refuse to transport a customer whose clothing is lewd, obscene, or patently offensive. "As a Company that promotes a casual and family-focused atmosphere onboard our aircraft and in our airports, we simply ask that our Customers use good judgment and exercise discretion in deference to other Customers who depend on us to provide a comfortable travel experience," she explained after I asked her how customers should dress for Southwest flights so they're not publicly humiliated and/or prohibited from boarding. "Our Flight Crews and Employees are responsible for the safety and comfort of everyone onboard the flight."
A Brief History of Southwest Humiliation
Southwest Airlines has become synonymous with people getting kicked off flights for ridiculous reasons. Avital is not the first woman to be deemed too slutty-looking to fly; according to Southwest's history, cleavage is not "family-friendly," even though today's median bra size in the US is 36DD. There's Kyla Ebbert, who was escorted off a flight by a Southwest customer service supervisor who called her outfit "inappropriate" back in 2007, even though she looked like any SoCal resident dressed for 106-degree weather, maybe one having a particularly conservative day. A week later, Setara Qassim was forced to wear a blanket by a Southwest flight attendant who thought Setara's top was too low cut. Hey, Southwest: it's difficult — not to mention uncomfortable — to completely cover yourself up if you have larger breasts. What's family-friendly about making your customers feel both emotionally and physically shitty about themselves?
Then there are the multiple people who Southwest felt were too fat to fly, most notoriously Kevin Smith, who tweeted nearly 200 times to his then 1.6 million followers after being told he was a "safety risk" due to his size. Most recently, Kenlie Tiggerman sued the airline in hopes of pressuring them to enact rules barring flight attendants from determining whether or not an obese passenger has to purchase a second seat. "If you're telling me I have to buy two seats, you should tell me at the point of purchase, not the day I'm flying when I check in at the terminal," she said.
If Southwest is legally forced to change their weight policies, will that stop them from kicking people off their flights who are "too emotional" to fly, too vaguely terrorist-y to fly, or, in the case of The L Word's Leisha Hailey, who was kicked off a flight for kissing her girlfriend, too gay to fly? Lest you think they haven't managed to cover all of their bases, the airline once kicked Greenday's Billie Joe Armstrong off a flight for wearing baggy pants. Maybe Southwest Airlines should really be called "Stepford Airlines." Or maybe they should just stop letting their employees judge what's "family-friendly" based on vague standards that aren't even officially mandated by the company.
Hey, Southwest: Sorry Won't Cut It Anymore
Southwest eventually apologized and offered refunds to many of the customers in the cases listed above, but that's because they were either celebrities or spoke out about the situation; who knows how often people who are too embarrassed to come forward get kicked off flights for not living up to Southwest employees' morals? Doesn't it send mixed messages to say "sorry" but still reserve the right to boot people who don't promote the "casual and family-focused atmosphere"? Why won't Southwest publish a dress code on their website? I asked those questions multiple times, but just received different variations on this:
Our Employees are extensively trained to use their best judgment and exercise discretion when handling any Customer issues or concerns. Regarding what to wear when flying Southwest — We simply ask that our Customers use also use good judgment and exercise discretion in deference to other Customers who depend on us to provide a comfortable travel experience.
That's no consolation for Avital, who told us she'll never fly Southwest again but wishes there was a way to make sure other people don't go through the same embarrassing experience. "It seems like only people who raise a big stink get an apology," she said. "What I want to avoid is being subject to individual employee's whims. There's no official channel at Southwest to make sure that doesn't happen."
*Avital asked us to withhold her last name.