Coronavirus is the worry that’s casting its shadow at most airports these days.
But the threat of a different kind of exposure took center stage just before an Oct. 6 Southwest Airlines flight took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
Airline employees refused to let a ticketed female passenger board a plane because they deemed her outfit “lewd, obscene and offensive.”
Kayla Eubanks, a 22-year-old Chicago model and travel blogger, was set to get on her flight from the Big Apple to the Windy City when ticket agents stopped her. They told her that her low-cut top bared too much and was a violation of Southwest Airlines’ passenger dress code.
They gave her an ultimatum: cover up or be booted off the flight.
Eubanks bristled at the notion that her attire was offensive. She aired the ticket takers out on Twitter, criticizing Southwest for “policing women’s bodies” in a series of blistering tweets and videos fired off as she clashed with the airline’s employees.
“I was offended because I’ve seen people go further wearing less,” Eubanks told Atlanta Black Star on Tuesday, Oct. 13. “I’ve seen men on planes shirtless, in mesh tops and work out clothes with their nipples visible. It just didn’t make sense to me. It also isn’t fair that the decision is at the discretion of the employee that’s working for the day. That allows personal biases to decide whether my attire is appropriate.”
Eubanks was wearing a skirt and a midriff halter top that exposed her cleavage. According to her tweets, four ticket clerks made the determination that the top violated the airline’s dress code.
That set off a back and forth as Eubanks demanded to see the policy in writing. She claimed she waited about 30 minutes for agents to produce the policy to no avail, causing the flight to be delayed.
Eubanks posted a series of videos of her tiffs with customer service agents both before and after the flight. By Tuesday, the videos had more than 1.7 million views.
Southwest Airlines did not issue a written apology. But a company spokesman said officials contacted Eubanks directly to make amends, offering her a “gesture of goodwill” in the form of a refund for her flight.
Southwest did issue a brief statement addressing the incident. It cited the airline’s “contract of carriage” customer policy, which indicates the company reserves the right to remove unruly or disruptive passengers from flights. One of the offenses laid out in that policy is passengers wearing clothes that are considered “lewd, obscene or patently offensive.”
“Our employees are responsible for the well-being and comfort of everyone onboard the flight,” the statement read. “Our employees discreetly notified the passenger of this clothing policy and attempted to resolve the conversation before boarding.”
But Eubanks pointed out that no passengers complained about her outfit, only airline staff that took umbrage. She questioned the merits of such a policy, calling it a double standard against women.
“The dangers of policing women’s bodies are very apparent,” she wrote in a statement to ABS. “Society has shifted the blame from those assaulting and sexualizing women to the women themselves. Too often we see the victims blamed. Too often we as women are asked, ‘Well what were you wearing?’ or ‘Maybe if you dressed this way, it wouldn’t have happened.’ And that’s simply not true. Women should be able to dress and live freely.”
One of the videos Eubanks tweeted shows her initially confronting a female ticket agent at LaGuardia for keeping her off the plane. But the woman is unmoved by Eubanks’ pleas, telling her that she must change clothes to board the flight.
At one point, the ticket agent even summonsed the flight’s captain, who tried to lighten the mood.
“They’re hatin’ on you cuz you’re looking good,” the pilot joked as he walked up.
That didn’t amuse Eubanks, who remained adamant she wanted to see the dress code in writing. The pilot assured her he wouldn’t take off without her and shifted his focus to mediation.
“If they have it in their book where they want you to cover up, are you willing to do that,” he asked Eubanks. “If they’re like, ‘The rule says you’ve got to cover up,’ do you have something that you can cover up with?”
The sides settled on a compromise. Eubanks was finally allowed to board the plane after she agreed to wear a T-shirt that the pilot loaned her. But she took it off midway through and was told she had to meet with Southwest Airlines supervisors when the plane landed in Chicago.
During that exchange, two airline officials reiterated that the halter top violated the airline’s dress code and advised her to dress more appropriately on future flights.
“Well it reveals quite a bit,” one of the men said when Eubanks pressed him to explain how her top was lewd and offensive.
“So should I leave them at home,” she asked sarcastically. “Yes, my boobs. Because I feel like if I didn’t have any right now, it wouldn’t be a problem.
“I don’t understand how my body part is obscene,” she added moments later.
After more back and forth, they reached an impasse and one of the supervisors ended the conversation with another ultimatum.
“If you choose to wear that again and try to fly on us, you won’t,” he told Eubanks.
Eubanks still appeared puzzled by the ordeal and maintained her stance this week that she was treated unfairly.
“Why is it that the conversations are that women who dress a certain way don’t respect themselves and not men who can’t compose themselves or choose to constantly catcall and harass women don’t respect themselves,” she said. “And even more so Black women are so regularly ridiculed and berated and compared to the likeness of animals for simply existing. It’s inexcusable. How do we as women feel safe? We simply do not.”