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Going to the airport? Check your outfit

Talk about a fashion no-no: Last week an MIT student waited for a friend at Boston’s Logan International Airport in an outfit that not only drew attention, it nearly got her killed.
Duane Hoffmann /

Talk about a fashion no-no: Last week an MIT student waited for a friend at Boston’s Logan International Airport in an outfit that not only drew attention, it nearly got her killed.

Star Simpson was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt decorated with a circuit board, LED lights and wires connected to a 9-volt battery. Simpson didn’t try to pass through security, but her wired attire made airport staff very concerned. Simpson ended up surrounded by officers with guns drawn.

For some time now, the Department of Homeland Security has pegged the U.S. threat level at high, or orange, for all domestic and international flights. And two of the hijacked 9/11 flights took off from Logan. Even though Simpson claimed her shirt was a creative and non-threatening work of art, you really can’t blame folks in Boston for being wary.

While sweatshirt, circuit board and student are safe and sound, the incident brings us back to a question posed in a recent Well-Mannered Traveler column: Should there be a dress code for air travel?

The discussion began when two young women shared their stories (with every media outlet they could) about being told by representatives on Southwest Airlines to cover up or be left behind. Reader response ran hot and heavy. And many of those comments were about the pros and cons of dress codes for air travel.

Marge from Oak Harbor, Wash., wrote: “I'm having a hard time figuring out how airlines can dictate what their passengers wear when people can pretty much wear what they want anywhere else.” Kenneth Johnston from Farmers Branch, Texas, thought a dress code was “far too subjective” an area “for an airline to be dealing with. Especially since styles and what is appropriate change as much as the weather.” And on the “Bad Trips” discussion board, Road.warrior wrote: “If the airlines are going to pull passengers off for not being ‘decent,’ or make them cover up, they need to have published dress codes.”

Many Well-Mannered Traveler readers pointed out that plenty of public places already post rules about appropriate dress in their establishments. So as Sherzine McKenzie from Nacogdoches, Texas, noted: “[I]f these airlines have dress codes, it should be public knowledge. Similar to how some stores have signs in their windows that say, ‘No shoes, no shirt, no service.’”

But if airlines do establish and post dress codes, enforcement could be problematic. Overworked flight crews rarely notice when passengers board with oversized carry-on bags. Would there really be time to take a tape measure to all those skimpy skirts? (Several readers, meanwhile, gallantly volunteered for a stint as skirt-length-monitor.)

Understanding that not everyone flies with extra outfits, Wanda McGarry from Lausanne, Switzerland, suggested following the lead of hospitals and European churches: “Airlines will just have to start stocking paper cover-ups ... they are not the fashion statement that most folks want to make. Having to [wear them] a few times would probably discourage [passengers] from trying to travel in inappropriate clothes in the first place.”

Cover-ups notwithstanding, Cynthia Dunn’s comment suggests airlines might be able to cash in on this controversy: “Dress codes are a wonderful idea and have been adopted by many companies in order to protect the image of the company. I would be willing to pay a higher ticket price to an airline with an enforced dress code.”

But several readers wrote to say the discussion about dress codes shouldn’t focus on inadvertently catching a glimpse of another passenger’s, um, bottom line. What really matters is health, safety and, oh yeah, etiquette.

A Northwest Airlines flight attendant advised wearing clothes that cover the arms and legs. “I see ‘accidents’ including vomit, urine and feces on the seats with only the cover of the seats changed. Who would wear shorts or a mini-skirt and sit in an aircraft seat?”


Another flight attendant wrote: “I believe business casual dress should be considered appropriate ... for comfort, safety and etiquette. Travel is an adventure. You never know who you may meet. Airports and airplanes are not clean environments, nor are they uniformly climate-controlled. Passengers are frequently hot then chilled while on a plane. And I wouldn't touch those onboard blankets with tongs, much less wrap them around bare skin.”

For Travis Allen, the U.S. aviation manager for a large company, safety is key. “Full-coverage clothing provides good protection from flash fires and when evacuating from an aircraft. That means long trousers and preferably long sleeve shirts.” Natural fibers such as cotton or wool provide more protection in a fire than synthetic fabrics, and “flip-flops, sandals and open back shoes should not be worn,” he says. “These suggestions probably won't provide a high-fashion answer when traveling, but they do enhance passenger safety.”

Will we soon be seeing dress codes printed on the backside of our boarding passes? I doubt it. After a great deal of negative feedback, Southwest issued an apology, of sorts, for allowing employees to pass judgment on flying attire. For now, the only in-flight accessory travelers must wear is a seatbelt.