Calcutta/San Diego, Sept. 8: The passenger couldn’t be a terror suspect, she had so little to hide.
Kyla Ebbert, 23, was ordered off an American plane not because she was “Arabic looking” or carried a hidden penknife but because the airline thought her skirt too short.
Airline officials in Calcutta couldn’t recall any passenger ever being offloaded in strait-laced India for indecent dressing, so Ebbert wouldn’t have worried too much while boarding her flight from California, the home of liberal living, on July 3.
Just as she had settled down in her seat, a Southwest Airlines employee asked her to leave the plane, Ebbert told NBC’s Today show yesterday.
“You’re dressed inappropriately. This is a family airline. You’re too provocative to fly on this plane,” she quoted the employee as saying.
“I said, ‘What part is it' The shirt' The skirt' Which part'’ and he said the whole thing.”
Ebbert, a student headed from San Diego city to Tucson in Arizona for a doctor’s appointment, was allowed back on the plane after she offered to adjust her sweater. But she felt humiliated and embarrassed.
“I felt like everybody was staring at me. They had all heard him lecturing me,” said Ebbert, appearing on the show in the same short white skirt, white shirt and green sweater she said she wore on the flight.
An airline spokesperson said Ebbert had been led out to the walkway and spoken to “away from the other customers”. Ebbert’s “adjustments” included covering her stomach, he added.
Southwest, whose passenger dress code bans anything “lewd, obscene or patently offensive”, had two years ago controversially ejected another American passenger.
Lorrie Heasley’s T-shirt featured pictures of President George Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice above a phrase playing on the title of the comedy film Meet the Fockers.
Airline operators in India said they had no passenger dress codes but would not allow anyone to board in “skimpy” dresses.
“The co-passengers may raise objections,” a Jet Airways official explained. But how short is “skimpy”'
“Usually, airline staff at the airport decide if anyone’s dress is improper,” he replied.
Officials of national carrier Indian (now Air India) and British Airways agreed. “We would go by the reaction of the other passengers,” a BA spokesperson said.
Such a policy had led American Airlines to remove a passenger after others complained about his body odour. He was handed a voucher for a nearby hotel and returned for a later flight after a bath.
An official of a private Indian airline said a flier could be offloaded if he wore a sleeveless shirt that showed rashes or festering wounds on his arm.
The director-general of civil aviation, Kanu Gohen, confirmed there were no written dress codes for passengers, but added: “Indians don’t wear indecent clothes, especially while travelling on a plane.”
Airline sources said some passengers do wear short T-shirts or shorts on Mumbai-Goa flights “but they are not so bad that the passengers need to be offloaded”.
However, Kingfisher airhostesses, who work in skirts, “can’t wear short skirts, T-shirts, shorts or other revealing dresses” while flying on free passes on vacation.
Many may feel that the fear of skin sometimes goes beyond clothes. Since 9/11, dozens of people have been refused seats because their co-passengers thought them “Arabic-looking” and therefore terror suspects, or they wore T-shirts with Arabic legends, or held Quranic prayers loudly in the terminal.
In contrast to Ebbert, however, three women were offloaded from a packed British Airways flight for being too modest. The Arab princesses, robed from head to toe, had refused to sit next to male passengers they didn’t know.