September 2007 Ethics Dunces

Southwest Airlines

The Scoreboard feels rather badly about piling on while the airlines are getting bashed from all sides, but I've been flying a lot lately, and it is clear that airline employees are reaching the point that too many school administrators reached long ago: unable to use common sense when it's called for, and ethically without a clue.

Southwest Airlines, it seems, has been reprimanding and even ejecting passengers who its attendants feel are dressed inappropriately. First we learned that a student and Hooter waitress named Kyla Ebbert was ushered off a flight for wearing an outfit that was "too revealing." Now another woman has reported that she was made to cover up with a blanket. The two women's garb were very different---Setera Qassim had a lot more skin exposed under her blanket than Ebbert did, yet Ebbert was the one kicked off. That tells you something about where the actions of Southwest failed both logically and ethically. What are the standards? And what's the reasoning?

Photos make it clear that the two had some things in common: both are young, fit, attractive, busty and damn proud of it. Southwest is obviously engaging in reverse "lookism." There is no question, and I speak from experience, that Kyla and Setera are far, far better dressed and far, far more pleasant to look at than the vast majority of my fellow air travelers, including me. Yet nobody is confronting the obese men in tank tops, the sixty year-old women in shorts, or the unshaven street musicians wearing flip-flops on dirty feet. There are passengers who are drunk, who immodestly breast-feed their babies, who watch hard-porn movies on their laptops, who smell terrible. There are some who look awful, and would look awful no matter how hard they tried. Nobody's telling them that they have to cover their goiters or their deformed arms peeking out from short-sleeve shirts or their hairy backs and ears. Probably nobody should. But if people are going to be allowed to look scruffy, ugly, dirty or unusual, how can it be fair to treat the unusually attractive and sexy more harshly when they make fashion choices that cause them to look less good, or perhaps too good?

If the airlines want to enforce some kind of policy on dress and deportment, fine: I have some ideas for them. But singling out the young and attractive for dressing provocatively is unfair, inherently arbitrary, and just plain dumb. What's the theory? If you can't help looking awful, that's OK, but if you look good and flaunt it, out you go? Based on the photos of Ebbert and Qassim, I'm convinced that those to women would look provocative dressed as the Michelin Man or in chicken suits. (By the way, are chicken suits acceptable on Southwest? I've got to test that one out.)

The airlines cannot ethically enforce a dress code if they haven't created and publicized one. Sadly, the days when people regarded their dress in public as a demonstration of respect for others are long gone, and airplane passengers are Exhibit A, B and C. Dress codes weren't necessary when people had manners, but our culture hasn't valued manners for several decades. Some killjoys, like me, will continue to fight to restore the concept---manners are ethical, after all---but we are realistic about the chances of success, which are approximately zero.

If there were a coherent airplane dress code, the two persecuted women would be way, way down the list of offenders, if dressing sexy-casual on a plane is an offense at all. If they were naked, OK---Southwest would have a point. Tassels and a G-string? Yeah, that's not appropriate public dress (yet). A grass skirt? A Wonder Woman costume? A toga? Hmmmm.

But the airline's treatment of the two women, and probably others who haven't come forward, was wrong. And unfair. And really silly.




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