JetBlue Defends Decision to Ask Passenger to Replace Booty Shorts Before Boarding Flight. Will the Incident Affect Its Brand?
Word to the wise, air travelers: JetBlue and booty shorts don’t mix. Maggie McMuffin found out the hard way when the airline recently asked her to slip out of her skimpy striped bottoms and into something less “offensive.”
The Seattle-based burlesque performer (Maggie McMuffin is her stage name), a self-proclaimed “panty boss” and “pelvis of justice,” got her knickers in a twist, so to speak, when the airline put the odd ask to her at Logan International Airport in Boston.
"The gate lead spoke to me on behalf of the flight crew and pilot," she tells Entrepreneur. "I was approached a few minutes before boarding. It made me surprised and then angry and embarrassed."
Despite feeling disrespected by the unusual demand, and after her suggestion to tie her sweater around her waist was rejected, McMuffin acquiesced to the airline's request. Complying on the quick to avoid missing her flight, the performer rushed to purchase a pair of $22 loose-fitting sleep trunk-style shorts at a store inside the airport. She slid them on over her “too high to fly” shorts before boarding the flight to Seattle.
Once on board, she snapped a picture of herself wearing the baggy floral replacement shorts in the airplane bathroom. She later tweeted the image out. Her tweetpic, along with selfies of her in the original short-shorts shared on KIRO7 (and now just about everywhere else online), ignited an angry backlash against JetBlue. Critics took to social media to lambaste the airline with allegations of blatant sexism. There’s even a fledgling hashtag for the backlash: #BootyShortSupport.
JetBlue, for its part, tells Entrepreneur that it did not refuse to board McMuffin, only that it requested she change her bottoms. (She was also wearing matching striped thigh-highs and a long-sleeved knit sweater.)
“The gate and onboard crew discussed the customer’s clothing and determined that the burlesque shorts may offend other families on the flight,” says JetBlue Airways director of corporate communications Doug McGraw. “While the customer was not denied boarding, the crewmembers politely asked if she could change. The customer agreed and continued on the flight without interruption.”
McGraw went on to say that JetBlue stands by its decision to ask McMuffin to change and has made two gestures of “good will” to ease the situation. “We support our crewmembers’ discretion to make these difficult decisions, and we decided to reimburse the customer for the cost of the new shorts and offered a credit for future flight as a goodwill gesture.”
McMuffin says JetBlue offered her a $162 flight credit and confirms that she did receive an apology from the company. "I would appreciate an apology from the pilot," she says. "I would also like to see JetBlue be more clear with consumers in the future about expectations for them. Dress codes should not be subjective."
From a branding and customer retention standpoint, the incident won’t make so much as a dent in JetBlue’s reputation, nor its bottom line, says veteran airline industry expert Brett Snyder. “This won’t matter, there will be no impact,” the founder and president of Cranky Concierge, a Long Beach, Calif.-based air travel assistance company, tells Entrepreneur.
He points to a similar incident in 2007, when a Southwest Airlines flight attendant asked a passenger named Kyla Ebbert to get off of a plane bound from San Diego to Tucson because her skirt was deemed too short. Don’t recall the incident? It’s probably because “it was quickly forgotten,” Synder says. So was the time Southwest booted Daniel Podolsky from a flight for wearing a T-shirt with the F-word on it.
Passenger attire hiccups like these don’t happen often because, as Snyder says, most airlines don’t have a “cut and dry” dress code. “This is usually covered on the ‘Refusal to Transport’ section of the airline’s contract of carriage, and JetBlue has nothing specific. Kudos to Hawaiian [Airlines] for actually having one, but most airlines do not.”
He says what happened to McMuffin sometimes occurs when airline employees are forced to make a judgement call at the gate. “Since it's a subjective rule that's enforced by gate agents and flight crews, it never gets applied uniformly. Sometimes it will be a combination of dress code and attitude.”
Such might’ve been the case with McMuffin. Snyder suspects there’s a bit more to the story than the length of her short-shorts. “The person who is denied boarding always ends up initially coming off as a completely innocent participant, but it can sometimes later come out that he or she was belligerent or drunk or something else.” No matter: “The reality is that any airline has the right to refuse service, so JetBlue certainly has the right to do it.”
George Hobica, founder and president of TripAdvisor subsidiary Airfarewatchdog.com, agrees with Snyder. He doesn’t think ordering McMuffin not to wear revealing shorts on a plane will tarnish JetBlue’s brand in the least. “There will be no effect at all,” he says. “However, from photos I’ve seen, [McMuffin] was no less appropriately dressed than some male passengers I’ve seen who wear skimpy gym clothes on board, like cut-off shorts, muscle T-shirts, etc.”
Brand damage or no brand damage, Hobica says JetBlue is still eating a considerable slice of humble pie. “Well, I’ve seen guys with very skimpy gym shorts on planes -- the kinds marathoners run in -- and they’ve not been asked to ‘cover up,’ so I would say this is just prudery or sexism on the part of the Jetblue crew. The fact that JetBlue is apologizing, compensating and trying to make this go away suggests that corporate is embarrassed by the whole thing.”
As they it should be, says McMuffin. "JetBlue is sending a message that women's bodies are open to subjective policing on behalf of individual employees," she says. "What they did also says that if someone is deemed wrong by a single employee, it makes them less than a customer and less than a person."