Twitter uproar over United Airlines “leggings-gate”


Debate rippled through the Twitter-verse – and beyond – on Sunday when a United Airlines gate agent told two girls flying on United employee passes that they could not board the plane wearing leggings.

Shannon Watts, founder of the anti-gun violence group MomsDemand, overhead part of the discussion and sent out a multi-part tweet to her followers.

After asking  if Watts was speaking with the passenger, United’s social media team initially tweeted that the airline had the right to refuse transport to passenger “not properly clothed.”

Then the airline learned that the ‘spandex girls’ were flying on a United employee pass, which comes with a dress code.

United’s dress code explanation – and subsequent comments by higher-up PR staff, came after Twitter was flooded with comments by people who were upset over girls being told what they could or could not wear – even when flying on free employee passes.

As you may imagine, the story was covered extensively throughout the day.

Here are good recaps from CNN, from the Runway Girl Network, from Flight Chic , and others, including flight attendant and author Heather Poole –

And a final word from United:


American Airlines vs. the Vet

Earlier this week, for a story on’s Overhead Bin, I talked with Dawn Wilcox, a disabled veteran from Kileen, Texas who claims American Airlines employees did not help her when she told them she needed to use the restroom on a flight between LaGuardia Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport last Saturday, Oct. 29.

Wilcox said she had informed the flight attendants shortly before landing that she needed to be taken off the plane first so that she could go to the bathroom.

“They landed and started letting people off,” said Wilcox. “I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m really about to go in my pants.’ I was almost in tears. They’d already let three quarters of the people off and it was too late, I’d already wet my pants.”

In a statement about the incident, American Airlines said it reached out to Wilcox and apologized to her for her “discomfort and overall experience with us.” But the airline also said it was looking into this event further because flight attendants reported a different version of the story.

On Wednesday, an American Airlines representative got in touch with me to let me know what their investigation turned up.

Here’s their statement:

Since Ms. Wilcox’s request came during the aircraft’s decent into DFW – a time when everyone must remain seated for safety – American’s flight attendants offered specific assistance to Ms. Wilcox, telling her they would use the special, onboard wheelchair (they are carried onboard all our aircraft) to take her to one of the aircraft lavatories just as soon as the aircraft reached the gate and before any other passengers deplaned.

Ms. Wilcox declined that offer of assistance, saying she preferred to use her personal wheelchair to reach a restroom in the terminal. Flight attendants reminded her that her wheelchair was stowed in the cargo compartment of the aircraft and that it would take some time to unload it and bring it up to her – which would further compound her urgent need to get to a restroom. Ms. Wilcox nonetheless insisted on waiting for her personal wheelchair.

There are other facts about Ms. Wilcox’s travel, while not directly related to the onboard incident described above, that call into question the credibility of her public statements and allegations.”

Those “other facts,” including the discovery that Wilcox requested and received a bereavement fare to attend a family funeral that was not happening, do seem to poke some holes in this story.

Perhaps the Department of Transportation will end up doing its own inquiry of this incident.

In the meantime, here’s a link to the DOT rules that spell out the responsibilities of travelers, airlines and airports regarding the needs of disabled fliers.

Tales of the TSA: Pistole apologizes, screeners scorned

First, an update on a story I wrote about here on Saturday: Pat-down leaves bladder cancer survivor covered in urine.

A few days ago I chatted with and wrote a story about Tom Sawyer, a retired special education teach and bladder cancer survivor from Michigan who ended up humiliated and covered in urine after a botched enhanced pat-down at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

You can read the full story here, but here’s the update:

Today Sawyer got a call phone call from Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole. “First he apologized,” Sawyer told me. “And I thanked him. Then I told him off a bit. He said, ‘Tell me more. What do you think needs to be done?’ ”

Sawyer suggested that TSA screeners undergo training to help them better understand travelers with medical conditions. He even offered to attend a meeting to show the staff what an ostomy bag looks like. “Pistole said he just may take me up on that.”

That’s an encouraging sign. And even some of the Transportation Security Officers I spoke with today while putting together a story for about the stresses of being a TSA worker said they thought Pistole did the right thing.

Here’s that story: TSA workers face verbal abuse from travelers.

Airline passengers aren’t the only ones complaining about the Transportation Security Administration’s new enhanced security procedures. Many TSA employees aren’t too happy, either.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents TSA workers, is urging the TSA to do more to protect its employees from abuse from airline passengers angry over the new security methods. The union reports that some members “have reported instances in which passengers have become angry, belligerent and even physical with TSOs (transportation security officers). In Indianapolis, for example, a TSO was punched by a passenger who didn’t like the new screening process,” the union said in a Nov. 17 statement posted on its website.

Union President John Gage called on TSA to provide an educational pamphlet to each passenger describing both their rights and the details of the new procedures, which include full-body scans and enhanced pat-downs.

“This absence of information has resulted in a backlash against the character and professionalism of TSOs,” said Gage in a statement. “TSA must act now — before the Thanksgiving rush — to ensure that TSOs are not being left to fend for themselves.”

“Our concern is that the public not confuse the people implementing the policies with the people who developed the policies,” said Sharon Pinnock, the union’s director of membership and organization.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday the government will take into account the public’s concerns and complaints as it evaluates airport security measures. He says TSA procedures will continue to evolve.

Some travelers have vowed to disrupt airport security Wednesday in a protest timed for the busiest travel day of the year, as millions of Americans fly off for annual family feasts.

“TSOs are trained security professionals,” Pinnock said. “Despite this call for chaos and disruption, it’s our belief that our members and people we represent will respond as the security professionals that they are.”

Valyria Lewis, local president of AFGE Local 555, which represents TSA screeners in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, said TSOs are trained to screen passengers who opt out of full-body scans.

“But we’d like TSA to hand out pamphlets detailing what opt out means. When someone opts out of the X-ray scanners, they’re opting in for the pat-down,” Lewis said. “And once we explain what the pat-down is, you can’t go back and change your mind and say ‘OK, I’ll go through the scanner.’ We’d like that explained so officers aren’t caught in that crossfire.”

The National Treasury Employees Union, the largest independent federal union, has launched a campaign in support of the TSA to educate the public about the critical role played by TSA officers in helping secure the safety of air travel.

“We stand by them this holiday season and ask the American public to stand by them as well and respect the difficult job they perform to protect our skies and our country,” said NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley in a statement.

Complaints of verbal abuse

Full-body scanners are now in place at close to 70 airports and send virtually naked images of passengers to a TSA screener at a remote location. Those who wish to avoid the scanners must instead undergo a new, open-palmed pat-down that many travelers, and even some security officers, feel is too personally invasive.

TSA chief John Pistole said Monday on NBC’s TODAY show that the agency is reviewing its passenger screening methods to ensure they are as minimally invasive as possible. “We’re going to look at how can we do the most effective screening in the least invasive way knowing that there’s always a trade-off between security and privacy,” Pistole said.

Pistole noted that those getting body searches constitute “a very small percent” of the 34 million people who have flown since the new policy went into effect.

“Obviously our work force has received the brunt of the frustration from passengers but seem to be dealing with it quite well, as they have been reassured they are doing a critical job at a critical time,” said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez.

“The thing to keep in mind is that stress affects screeners as much as it does travelers,” said Tom Murphy, director of the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University. Murphy has provided customer-service training to screeners at many U.S. airports. “While senior government officials explore how to achieve optimum security in less intrusive, and therefore less stressful, ways my recommendation to travelers is to try to see this from the screeners’ point of view.”

A stressful job

Guy Winch, an expert on the psychology of complaining and customer service and the author of a forthcoming book, “The Squeaky Wheel,” is concerned with the stress levels TSA employees may be experiencing this week on the job.

He explains that the “emotional labor” TSA workers must do — “processing people regardless of hostile exchanges … and looking for explosives and weapons” — makes the stakes for performing their duties correctly “as high as they get.” Winch says the best thing TSA administrators can do for employees doing enhanced pat-downs is to provide an extra layer of managerial and supervisory support. “They need to convey the message that superiors are aware of the stresses the employees are under and are there to support them.”

Winch says having a mental health professional on staff or available as a referral “can be crucial in helping the people who did not make these rules but are charged with enforcing and implementing them nonetheless.”

Stewart Baker, who worked at the Department of Homeland Security as its first secretary of policy under President George W. Bush, suspects the new security protocols and the aggressive reaction of some passengers is hurting TSA morale.

“TSA has made a lot of progress in training its officers to be professional even in the face of unhappy passengers, but the latest protocols — and press coverage of the most inflammatory stories — have led to a much higher level of hostility,” said Baker.

“Instead of making this Wednesday National Opt-Out Day in which a bunch of self-appointed guardians of liberty slow down the line for everyone by asking for pat-downs,” said Baker, “maybe what we need is a day when everyone who goes through the line says, ‘Thanks for what you do.’ ”


Have a comment or a story to share about your ecurity checkpoint experience? Please leave your comments below.

And if you have

Tidbits for travelers: Talk back at Gatwick

Lots of airports are using Twitter as a tool to interact with travelers passing through.

London’s Gatwick Airport has been one of them.

Now the airport is kicking its social media program up a notch by integrating Twitter messages into the physical space of the airport. Throughout the day, Gatwick passengers will see this message on the check-in monitors.

Airport officials say reaching out by Twitter is part of an overall airport upgrade and rebranding program that will improve facilities but also “provide passengers with a more human and personal experience.”

That sounds promising.

The goals is to monitor and respond to in-airport comments 24 hours a day.

But not yet: while Twitter works round-the-clock, Gatwick’s social media team does not. So for now you can talk back to Gatwick on Twitter, but the airport will only Tweet back during working hours.

London Gatwick Airport Twitter screen

Sleep wardens help hotel guests sleep tight

Slamming doors, arguments in the hallways, blaring TVs and all-night parties.

If you’ve spent much time in hotels you’ve probably had to contend with it all once or twice.

In my Well-Mannered Traveler column on this week, you’ll learn how one hotel chain has come up with a novel way to deal with noisy guests.

See the column, below.

As a New Yorker, Patricia Luebke is used to sleeping through a lot of ambient noise. But there was no chance she was going to get any shut-eye with a party going on in the hallway outside her Cincinnati hotel room door.

She tried complaining to the hotel management. “But they did nothing,” Luebke said. “By the time party finally broke up, at around 4 a.m., I was screaming at the front desk. In retrospect, I should have called the police.”

If only Luebke’s hotel had sleep wardens like those now patrolling the hallways and public areas at all of the Travelodge properties in the United Kingdom. These specially-trained staff members monitor the hotels’ nighttime noise levels and issue warnings to any guest disturbing the peace.

If the noise continues after a warning, sleep wardens can tell offenders to pack up their stuff and leave so that the sweet dreams of other guests cannot be jeopardized.

Why sleep wardens? Travelodge U.K.’s Shakila Ahmed says the chain knows that people don’t check into their hotels in search of spa treatments or an upscale, luxury experience.

“They’re traveling from A to B and they need a comfortable room so they can get a good night’s sleep,” Ahmed says. So the company, which considers itself a “retailer of sleep,” conducts studies to find out what keeps guests awake at night.

In the latest survey of 6,000 adults, money worries, work-related stress and noise showed up as the major causes of sleep deprivation.

Beyond keeping rates low, a hotel can’t do much about the first two sleep-inhibitors. But Travelodge UK decided to try to tackle the third. So in addition to sending sleep wardens into the halls, the chain has asked its hotels to reschedule deliveries so that rumbling, sleep-interrupting trucks don’t arrive too early in the morning.

“We’re not saying you need to be in bed with the lights out by a certain time,” said Ahmed. “We’re just asking our guests to have good bedtime etiquette, and we’re letting them know that we’re going to be very serious about monitoring the noise levels in our hotels.”

Waiving the right to party

Other hotels may lack sleep wardens, but do have other strategies for dealing with noisy guests.

A popular tool is the “party waiver” presented at check-in. “This identifies that we have the right to ask guests to stop any noise after 10 p.m.,” said Tom Waithe, director of operations for Kimpton Hotels in the Pacific Northwest. “If they don’t, we can ask them to leave. They’ll forfeit any deposits or room charges and we have the right to add charges for the room of any other guests who complain about the noise as well.”

And what can be done about amorous couples who get a bit too loud?  “They usually just get a knock on the door or a phone call,” Waithe said. “We hate to have to explain the noise complaint to someone in this situation.”

At the El Diablo Tranquilo Hostel in the Uruguayan beach town of Punta del Diablo, the staff patrols the dorm rooms and will ask chatting bunk mates to finish their discussion in a common area. Those playing cards or having a loud discussion will be encouraged to head down to the bar.

“If a guest refuses to move,” said owner Brian Meissner, “we cite an anonymous guest complaint and point out that we’re not asking them to leave the hostel or even to quiet down; just to move.”

Meissner pays overtime and rewards staff that have to “babysit” guests that don’t cooperate. “Nothing quiets someone down like the knowledge that they are forcing someone to sit and attend them,” he said.

Many experienced travelers have their own way of dealing with noise at hotels.

Some go the defensive route, bringing along earplugs, noise-blocking headphones, sound machines and over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids. Before reserving a room, many road warriors call ahead to find out if there are any weddings, large meetings or conventions booked into the hotel during their stay. And when checking in, some guests request rooms far away from elevators, ice machines and bars.

Others go on the offensive. Los Angeles hypnotherapist Nancy Irwin says if a complaint to the hotel manager doesn’t get results, she’ll call a noisy guest herself. “I simply say I am the night manager and that they need to keep the noise level down. It nearly always works.”

What  strategy works for you?