An Employee Enforced The American Airlines Dress Code. Then The Backlash Came.

A two-time cancer survivor attempted to board an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Charlotte, but was told she wouldn’t be able to fly unless she covered up her yellow hoodie which said “F- cancer.”

American Airlines is apologizing, saying its policies “prohibit clothing that displays offensive statements and inappropriate language from being worn on board” (so the passenger was breaking its rules) but its employees “should have taken the broader context of the message displayed on the customer’s shirt into consideration when explaining our policies.” So the airline’s employee was in the wrong for enforcing company policy – because the airline wishes to “reaffirm [its] support for efforts to fight cancer.”

I guess I just don’t know what to do with this, so I’m glad I don’t work for American Airlines. The airline’s policy says “Dress appropriately; bare feet or offensive clothing aren’t allowed.” Each employee is supposed to decide what’s appropriate, and the airline doesn’t back them up if they guess wrong.

Over the summer a passenger was kicked off of a flight for wearing an F-12 mask. This is a little bit more controversial of a message, perhaps (anti-police) but:

So if employees are supposed to ‘take context into account’ when enforcing these rules, should they allow someone to wear an F-12 mask? Will it depend on the employee, with each one interpreting ‘context’ differently?

To be sure this is tough in a world of evolving standards, especially where the airline isn’t providing clear direction and training to employees. They want a policy so they can enforce it in egregious cases, but that risks backlash when it’s enforced in ways that offends groups, too. The lesson here seems to be it’s up to the employee to enforce rules based on whether they think the twitter mobs will approve.

Should this sweatshirt be allowed? Should an employee, following the airline’s dress rules, know to allow it?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You know what, there are standards of behavior and consideration that should be given to others when in public. That shirt might not bother some people but I guarantee it DOES bother a lot of others. And, it does absolutely nothing to promote the fight against cancer. I could get into the issue of entitlement but I better leave that one alone.

  2. If AA can’t afford the consequences, they should never put down that rule.

    Since “cancer” used to describe some ethnic groups, I think that employee did it right.

  3. No matter the context the “F” word, no wait, having “FUCK” on her shirt is offensive. Seems simple enough just as it offensive and out of place in this comment.

  4. Perhaps the best course for clothing requirements for boarding a commercial flight is to dress invisibly, that is, in a way that attracts the least attention. Plain tops/tshirts, etc.

  5. How it can be handled:

    *AA agent asks her to come out of earshot of other passengers.*

    “Hi ma’am. Thank you for choosing to fly with us today. I appreciate the sentiment of the slogan on your shirt, but unfortunately one of the words used violates American’s dress code policy onboard our aircraft. Do you have another garment you can use to cover up the word while onboard? If not, I would be happy to find you something you can use or change in to. My apologies for the inconvenience.”

  6. I suppose there are many reasons behind the policy but one would be that small children are also on the plane. Parents may not want their children to learn words like this in any context, until they are old enough to understand the context.

    I agree with the sentiment behind the shirt but I think the policy and the employee are both right. Prevaricating spineless manage my like this will cause more problems than it will solve.

    I also disagree with the sentiment behind F-12 but if the mask only had the letter and not the full word it should have been allowed because it didn’t violate the policy.

  7. Well another example of Black Privledge. Rules seem not to apply to them. She could have had “screw” cancer and that probably would have flown.

  8. If I’d seen the shirt with that message, I might well have given the thumbs up to the woman for the sentiment it conveys and even might have been curious enough to ask why she’s wearing it. And I have no problem with the F word personally. BUT I appreciate that other passengers might well have a problem, not least parents who don’t want young kids to see the word. So I have to agree that this was an appropriate application of the AA policy.

  9. Having witnessed what family and friends go through to survive cancer I can understand the visceral emotion this woman may be feeling about having done so. However, all of us should take a moment to think about how our choices will effect others. This woman could have used many words to indicate she had beat cancer that would not have been offensive to others. Words that would have drawn praise and congratulations for having won. Instead, some were not offended but others were, and some were hopefully using her as an example to their children of what need to do in public. Some will say no one has the right to tell her what to wear, but businesses do have a right to set a dress code to maintain the atmosphere and decorum the business wants to maintain. If the AA employee acted discreetly and professionally the employee was in the right and AA should have stood behind the decision. AA just opened the door for every coarse expression to be used on clothing, backpacks, luggage, if the context in someone’s eyes justifies it.

  10. AA was WRONG to countermand this employee.

    The employee handled the situation correctly.

    A good employee !!

    The employee who admonished him SHOULD BE the employee admonished.

  11. Think they’ll allow me to wear a sweatshirt with F**k The Police and the BLM logo on it? How about a MAGA one with F**k Your Feelings on it? Which of the two would get me kicked off?……We both know the answer to that. I’m glad she survived cancer but AA needs to tell her (and her sense of entitlement) to F**k Off.

  12. Oh this is more interesting than you’re letting on, Gary.

    “Fuck Cancer” is an actual non-profit dedicated to its defeat. This clothing may be theirs and actually a brand, possibly trademarked.

    Employee was not in the wrong. If anyone on the airline side is wrong, it’s AA’s intentionally ambiguous policy (and fuck them for throwing an employee under the bus on this).

    Honestly, though, the customer was probably most in the wrong here. I’m sympathetic to bringing attention to the fight against cancer. Fuck cancer! However, even Ryan Reynolds agreed to change the organization’s name and advertising during the promotional period for Deadpool 2 because of the tie-ins he wanted to do promoting the “F Cancer” campaign.

  13. No, just enforce the rules for crying out loud. None of this context crap. People need to take responsibility and understand that offensive language on clothing shouldn’t be worn on the plane. How frickin hard is that? Once you open the door to some people being allowed to wear offensive language on clothing due to context then other people are going to want to argue about context. Shame on the airline for not backing their employee.

  14. As soon as their condescending CEO opened the BLM floodgates, all “bets” were off. The fact that he or anyone espouses in any way support for this mob of terrorist’s offends me and a whole lot of other people. Ditto, all the other current “social expressions.” Unlike the socialist’s are trying to enforce by law and intimidation, it is a TWO WAY street. Sadly, a genuine cause like fighting cancer gets caught in the middle of it. But, buck up….that’ s the way it is and rules should apply to all.

  15. It’s sad that the customer could not express her feelings without offending others on the plane. There could have been a more intelligent way of showing her feelings about cancer. The F word is used by some as the only way they know how to express themselves. Our public schools have done a POOR job teaching students how to speak without using foul language. I would not want my young grandchildren to be trapped on an airplane with someone who is using such bad judgement. She needs to consider the feelings of those who may be offended by her way of expressing this message. I understand her feelings as I have had cancer.

  16. Don’t write rules you won’t enforce, and don’t fuck your employees for enforcing them.

  17. Sadly, another example of the utter disaster that AA has become. Put into place an ambiguous policy, and then wonder what happened when it gets enforced by people with varying degrees of being easily offended. I happen to agree with management that the woman should not have been denied boarding; their mistake was in thinking that the could write a rule that would clearly cover every situation. The better tact would have been to worry more about truly abusive and threatening language, and not worry so much about what is “offensive” whatever that might be. Perhaps those being offended should learn how to turn their nose away from that which is offending them. It’s really pretty easy. Finally, AA should take a big look at their organization and wonder why, for two years straight, they are last place among US airlines in national polling.

  18. Hey F-her. Not surprised to see the color. It’s time all airlines started getting serious about low lifes on board. You relax standards and its far more difficult to raise them again.

  19. The AA policy is correct and should be enforced. AA policies should be sensitive to ALL passengers, especially children, not just a cancer survivor who decides to wear profane language. How about some decorum for the rest of us?

  20. I like what most have said here. I do not want to think this woman dressed and boarded as she did banking on race to get her a pass on the wording. I may use the word to, but there is such a thing as decency and if people can’t be respectful of the sensitivities of others, then too bad, you don’t fly. Some things shouldn’t have to be spelled out (no pun intended) but for some obviously they have to. So yes, taking the person aside conveying compassion as far as the cause and the rules would have been appropriate. I could conjure up some shirt ideas myself but can’t see myself drawing attention which is clearly intended, in public. For instance I spent yesterday several hours cleaning poop off the floor as a result of my mother who has dementia defecating in the kitchen, walking in it and tracking it through the kitchen and family room. And I am recovering from a serious illness/surgery. SO I would easily say F Alzheimer’s or Dementia or Aortic Dissections.

  21. @Bill says “ Perhaps those being offended should learn how to turn their nose away from that which is offending them. It’s really pretty easy.”

    I agree with this sentiment generally. For example in social media where no ones had to listen to Trump’s videos, so why does Twitter ban any video featuring his voice just like the British banned Jerry Adams voice from UK TV? On Twitter even more than on TV, it’s easy to ignore anything you don’t like.

    But here I don’t see the path to keep our very young children from reading that word, seeing that it’s OK and then using it in school where they will be suspended. Sure, 5 year olds should be just as sensitive to the subtle nuances of context and the urgency of the cause. And if you’ve never met one before you can easily imagine that they could be.

    The airline employee here was enforcing a rule that was written to benefit others including children. It would have been dereliction if her duty to ignore the issue just because she has the grown up ability to keep her nose out of it.

  22. Only because she was black did AA fall to their knees and grovel! Were she a caucasian the police would have been summoned and she would have been marched out of the boarding area and spent the night in the hoosegow. I get the context but would never think of wearing clothing with the F word on it in public, let alone on a plane.

  23. Ok, for context:
    My Zoolander shirt “You can dere-Lick’d” my balls
    My old skool rap shirt “Nigga’s Wit Attitude”
    My Blazing Saddles shirt “Where dem white women at?!”
    My Ka-Ka-Kookie t-shirt with a giant white chocolate macadamia nut cookie
    My “Once you go black you never go back” shirt with Halle Berry
    My “Don’t mess with the bean unless you want the whole burrito” shirt with Sancho resting on a saguaro
    These should all be acceptable according to the rule of “Context” right?

  24. Maybe Americans just need to get over the use of a simple word. The plain fact is that it is just a word. Too many precious, easy to get offended people. Just mind your business, if you don’t like someone’s shirt, then tut to yourself or complain to the other intolerant by products of past generations.

  25. I could say I don’t want to explain the F word to my grandchildren, but truthfully the world offends me. Anyone wearing that shirt is doing so with the expectation and attention that she knew was coming.
    In the make believe world, all people are equal and the same rules apply to everyone. In our world, if you are of a certain race or sexual orientation, you know that the rules won’t be applied to you and you can go way over the line intentionally.
    I am truly sorry that this woman had cancer. Everyone has been touched by this, I lost both parents to cancer. I am glad she is a survivor. Life is unfair and throws many challenges. Deal with them and hopefully learn and move on. If I had been raped or family member murdered should I wear a shirt that says F Rapists? F Murders? Why call out your personal challenge? Is it for the attention, yes I believe it was

  26. Jeff Smith, you nailed it. Here’s a bit of a twist on what you conveyed: Last fall I had the misfortune of suffering an aortic dissection, typically fatal, but being in a city with good EMT’s (thank you my guys in Lyndhurst OH) who got me to the hospital, which took me by helicopter to the main campus of the Cleveland Clinic, known for heart care….I got lucky and survived. But afterward I happend to be googling and I came across an ad of some sort for a seat belt protector that read “I survived aortic dissection”. And it gave me pause…Would anyone want such a thing? Would it get you out of a ticket? Would it help first responders to know immediately you could be in trouble when they arrived? Did I want to advertise it? Want anyone to know? But in any case one doesn’t need to advertise if with offensive language. I have used this word occasionally, less often than others, but I would never be wearing it in public. It’s just wrong. UNLESS you are looking for attention which is what you pointed out.

  27. The root cause is a lack of education and people learning to speak correctly! Kids learn this and other vulgar language on the street corner with their friends, they hear it at home when their parents are yelling at them. The word is a vulgar word that has worked its way into our society thru repeated use by the hip hop groups who think it is cute to use it, repeatedly. I am not a prude or insensitive, but it is vulgar language and needs to go back in the gutter where it belongs. People need to stop glorifying the use of the word, whether for cancer or any other cause. I am sorry the AA did not back up the flight attendants but that is nothing new………it isn’t just children that do not need to see or hear this word, also our older population and those of us that want to live in a decent society and stop seeing vulgar language printed everywhere………

  28. How about a t-shirt that reads “fcuk”?

    That’s a name of a clothing store and brand.

  29. Are Jeff Smith’s comments some kind of sick joke? “Wait, wait, let me get my special sexual orientation card – oh, it’s right here.” The audacity and bigotry of boomers truly knows no bounds. I would like to see you make it through the day as ANY non-majority class then try to make your idiotic comment again. And, Gary, please do a better job moderating – as it is this place is already near 4chan, do you intend to make it the next 8chan?

  30. @Cabin14
    Your thought pattern is why we have to be put up with in an intolerant, rude, inconsiderate of others feelings, “if you don’t like it then ____you”, “if I am in your way so what”, “if I bother others with my loud cell phone conversation, so what not my problem” society. Terribly rude and selfish attitude.

  31. AA is WOKE. Love the smell of virtue signaling in the morning. Shifting all the blame to the employee is the cherry on top. Good Job AA!

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