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Twitter, United Airlines and girls in spandex leggings: How your Sunday #content gets made

You’re welcome.

United Airlines Celebrates Team USA As Over 85 U.S. Athletes Get Ready To Board Their Flight At George Bush Intercontinental Airport In Houston on August 3, 2016, En route To Rio To Chase Their Dreams Of Winning Olympic Gold Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for United Airlines
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

It’s Sunday. Do you have a spare minute to watch a $36 billion corporation get swamped by Twitter?

Here you go.

This morning, Twitter user Shannon Watts reported that girls that were supposed to be on a Denver-to-Minneapolis flight weren’t allowed to board until they changed out of spandex leggings.

Some of the girls changed their clothes, and others never got on the flight, Watts said:

Watts isn’t just an average Twitter user. She’s the founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun-control group formed after the Sandy Hook shootings.

She doesn’t have a Kanye-sized following, but she definitely has an audience. Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg follows her. So does Clara Jeffery, the editor in chief of Mother Jones. I first saw her tweets picked up by Certified Media Influencer (and Code Media speaker) Felix Salmon.

Sometimes, this is the part of the story where a Bigco’s social media team leaps into action to defuse the situation. Something along the lines of “Thanks for your note, we’ll look into it.”

But this is a different version. United’s Twitter doubled down, telling Watts the company had the right to enforce a dress code:

They also repeated the argument to other Twitter users who had picked up on Watts’ story:

Here are some screenshots in case United ever rethinks this approach:

Some important caveats to consider at this point. For the time being, we’ve only heard a single version of this tale, from Watts. We also don’t know if United’s Twitter response represents the entire company or a single member of United’s Twitter team; most of the United responses seem to come from a single rep, using the initials “FS.”

But now, it doesn’t matter. It’s a thing, on Twitter.

It’s also a thing on Twitter on a Sunday, where Donald Trump seems to have been relatively restrained (just a single blast), so we have time. Oh, also: It’s about airline travel.

So now we’re off.

Here’s a story from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where it qualifies as local news. The Strib has presumably sent reporters to interview passengers once they land, so we can assume there will be a second story. Or at least an update.

But the great thing about a Twitter story is that everyone can share a Twitter story. Twitter wants you to share it: That’s why they’ve made this stuff embeddable.

So here are People, New York Magazine and the Washington Post. The Daily Mail is built for this.

Note that most of the stories don’t use hedge words like “allegedly” or “reportedly” in the headline. Hedge words make for boring headlines!

Here is a good headline, from the Washington Post: “Two girls barred from United flight for wearing leggings.” Democracy dies in darkness but we can’t keep the lights on without #content.

And you and me, reader, we’re all in this together: I made a story about a Twitter story, and you’re here, reading my Twitter story. Maybe you’ll share it. (Please share it!)

This one will keep going for a while. In the time that it took me to get this post ready for publication, Shannon Watts has started up her feed again, and she’s using it to tangle with both United and other Twitter users:

I’ve asked United for comment, of course. If they provide one, maybe I’ll get a second post out of it.

Update! Via the Star Tribune, which ended up talking to a real live United press rep. As always, the story gets more complicated once you talk to real live people instead of embedding tweets:

“United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said the two who were turned away were standby ‘pass riders,’ meaning they were traveling as relatives of an employee, and their “attire did not meet our [more strict] pass travel requirements. ... They are representing United Airlines.”

Guerin said he had no information about the younger girl in leggings and whether she was given the same ultimatum, but he said the gate agent would have had the discretion to decide whether the girl was dressed properly before boarding.

But in general, for travelers who are not relatives of employees, Guerin said, “If you are a customer and want to wear your yoga pants, welcome aboard.”

Second update! Perhaps, if you are like me, you think United’s gate personnel erred here, even if company policy says they’re technically correct. You may also think that United’s social team has compounded the effort by reflexively defending its gate personnel.

But! In the spirit of reaching across the aisle, let’s hear from someone who has a different perspective — and who also says they are a United employee.

Employee X sent me an email this afternoon and said I could print this, as long as I didn’t disclose his/her identity. I did ask Employee X to verify that they are an actual United employee. After some back and forth, I’m now comfortable publishing this:

Just a quick note:

I am a United Employee.

I have three daughters who have been pass traveling all their lives. We are all very aware of the dress code while traveling for free on a company provided benefit. In fact, the United employee dress code is far less stringent than Deltas or my former employer Continental's was.

It's sad that this activist took to social media to try and right a wrong that doesn't exist. These employees knew better and should have dressed their children according to the rules. You will notice the employee wasn't the one complaining, I'm sure he was more embarrassed than anything.

As far as it being sexist, if the girls had been wearing shorts, they would have been let on. Had the dad been wearing yoga pants, he would have been denied as well. Seems fair.

Not everything is a travesty of justice.

Last update! It took a full day (in news cycle terms) but United’s social and comms team have finally weighed in. Tl;dr: We’re sorry you were offended. We’re not sorry we didn’t let those kids on the plane.

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