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Story highlights

Danny Cevallos says people overreacted to the leggings ban on Twitter

The airline, he says, was just enforcing a policy that applies to very few of its travelers

Editor’s Note: Danny Cevallos (@CevallosLaw) is a CNN legal analyst and a personal injury and criminal defense attorney practicing in Pennsylvania and the US Virgin Islands. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

On Sunday night the “Internet” supposedly “erupted” after a gate agent for United Airlines denied entry to a girl and two other passengers for improper clothing — leggings.

The reality is a bit more complicated.

The controversy began when Shannon Watts, who founded Moms Demand Action to fight gun violence, tweeted that she saw a United staff member bar girls in leggings from boarding a flight. She wanted to know if it was because “spandex is not allowed.”

Actress Patricia Arquette quickly followed up, tweeting to her followers: “Leggings are business attire for 10 year olds. Their business is being children.”

And United scrambled to explain itself, eventually saying that the travelers were on “company benefit travel,” for which there’s a dress code that doesn’t apply to all other travelers.

United’s tweet was correct. Arquette’s tweet was also clever, and correct — about ten-year-olds in general, but not in this situation.

Of course, the “Internet” did not really “erupt.” People were angry on Twitter. And there’s a huge difference.

Only 21 percent of all adults online in the United States even use Twitter. And that 21 percent? They don’t always represent the public at large. Sometimes they just represent what really vocal people think.

Think of the angriest, most opinionated guy in your office. Does he speak for you and your colleagues? Probably not.

The point is, sometimes the people who erupt on Twitter aren’t representative — they’re reactive. That’s what happened here.

As a general rule, are leggings improper attire? For shopping at Target, no way. For ten year olds? Generally, no. For anyone – adult or child – attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner? It might be inappropriate. It depends. Context matters.

For airlines? Leggings are on the high end of what people wear nowadays. People used to dress up for air travel, even for vacations. Now adults routinely dress like they’re going to a slumber party when they fly. So people initially learning of the leggings story had to know there was more to the story, before anyone “erupted” on Twitter.

Here’s the rest of the story: the passengers were “Pass Riders.” United employees or their dependents can fly standby on a space-available basis. They pay a fraction of what the rest of us pay. But there are tradeoffs. Pass Riders are prioritized last on standby.

Plus, “non-revs,” short for “non-revenue,” are subjected to a dress code, which only they can access on the United website with a password; it’s not publicly available.

United’s code bans, among many other things, form-fitting and lycra/spandex clothing, or anything inappropriately revealing. Non-revs are perceived as a kind of unidentified representative of the airline, sometimes known only to the flight crew. Pass Riders — even a ten-year-old child — are treated more like United employees than members of the public.

Was a United employee a little overzealous in this case? Probably. But denying boarding to Pass Riders was within the employee’s discretion. Airline employees have a lot of discretion, if you haven’t noticed.

When it comes to non-revenue passengers, airlines have even more discretion. The airline, at its sole discretion, may cancel pass travel privileges for conduct deemed “detrimental” to United.

I once flew “non-rev,” in college, thanks to the kindness of others, who took pity on a twenty-year old with a negative account balance. I naively wore jeans and was almost denied boarding. I should have known better. They cut me a break. That was back in 1999. The point is, this system has been around for a while.

Nowadays, it’s not an oppressive dress code either — it’s well below the “business casual” that people with actual jobs wear to work. Pass Riders can apparently even wear jeans and sneakers now, too. The airline just asks that they dress in a way that, at a minimum, raises the bar of air apparel on the flight. The idea appears to be this: the other passengers may not know who you are, but we know, and we want you to help us with the aesthetics, not be part of the problem.

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In this case, people on Twitter simply didn’t understand the Pass Rider system, and instead saw what they wanted to see: a nationwide ban on yoga pants, or misogynist, ageist policies of discrimination against women and children. And just like that, an outrage was born.

Frankly, the real controversy should be more about improving dress code standards on airplanes, not relaxing them. Have you flown lately? People are allowed on planes barefoot and shirtless these days.

Where’s the Twitter outrage when that happens?

If you want to push a candle through a paper plate and hold a vigil, protesting the bare-chested old guy in the exit row is a noble cause. There’s no reason to erupt over a dress code that is part of an agreed-upon contract between airline and Pass Rider. All the airline is trying to do is raise the standards of those under its control. The general public should try to do the same.