The air stewards clearly didn’t know what they were taking on, that grey morning at Birmingham Airport two weeks ago. To be fair it was 7.25am, an indecent hour at which to be smiley, effusive and welcoming.
But they did an admirable job as one Emily O’Connor boarded the plane. Chatty, self-assured and excited to be heading off to Tenerife for some winter sun with her girlfriends, she exchanged a bit of banter about the rudeness of the hour, before taking her seat.
When one of them called after her: ‘Madam, you’re going to have to cover up before we take off,’ so certain was Emily, who is studying accountancy at Birmingham University, that it was a playful joke, she actually laughed along.
‘I turned and saw that she wasn’t smiling, I said “Sorry?”. She said something like: “There’s an appropriate attire policy, so you’re going to have to cover up,” ’ recalls Emily, who was wearing a small broderie anglaise crop top — or bralette, depending on your perspective — teamed with high-waisted orange trousers.
Emily (pictured above) boarding her Thomas Cook flight back from Tenerife, wearing the outfit that cabin crew deemed as unacceptable
Her gym-honed arms, chest and midriff were all visible as she had removed her denim jacket, she says, after becoming too warm.
What made this demand surprising for Emily — who lives in an impressive house in Solihull with her mother and stepfather, who works in finance — was that she had walked through Birmingham Airport’s passport control, security and presented her boarding pass wearing the same outfit, without anyone batting an eyelid. What’s more, she’d travelled with the same airline, Thomas Cook, on at least three previous occasions, wearing the ensemble, and no one had told her to cover up.
Many other young women may have scuttled off self-consciously to their seat, pulling on their jacket as they went and hoping nobody else had heard the exchange, and that would have been the last of it. However, as the airline has now discovered to its cost, Emily O’Connor is a young woman used to standing up for herself and her beliefs. She was not prepared to take this affront to her sartorial tastes lying down.
Emily says that both her original outfit (left) and the more conservative look (right) are feminist statements
Since the incident Emily has appeared on national television alongside etiquette expert Liz Brewer, who argued that her outfit was offensive
She is the same young woman who successfully campaigned — sending a letter to her headmaster with more than 100 students’ signatures — for a change to the uniform for the girls at King Edward VI Five Ways grammar school, aged 12.
Thanks to her, the Year 7 and 8 girls now wear more comfortable blouses and skirts, like the older girls, instead of shirts, ties and straight skirts.
She’s also a fully-fledged millennial with an inbuilt assumption that every iota of her life is worth sharing.
While in days gone by she might have complained to her friends and family, or fired off an indignant letter, Emily took to Twitter. A storm ensued with thousands of people expressing what they think is appropriate attire for the modern woman.
Today, Emily remains unrepentant and angry. She recalls how she refused to back down to the flight attendant, saying: ‘Show me where the policy is and I’m happy to comply.
‘I was pretty sure there was no policy as I’ve flown with Thomas Cook loads of times and never heard of it.
Emily appeared on TV show ‘This Morning’ to argue her case
‘I sat down texting on my phone as the aircraft filled up — our party of six girls, my friends and cousins, were scattered throughout the plane so I was beside a young couple.
A male air steward came over and said: “Excuse me, following on from what my colleague said I refer you to page 113 of the in-flight magazine, there’s an appropriate attire policy.” It read: “Customers wearing inappropriate attire (including items with offensive slogans or images) will not be permitted to travel unless a change of clothes is possible.”
‘So I asked: “Can you show me where it says that a cropped top is inappropriate?” He walked off.
‘By then other people sitting nearby were looking at me. I was embarrassed by the attention, but knew there was no policy stating you can’t wear a cropped top, so I stood my ground, on principle.
‘I bought it in the clothing department at Zara, not the underwear department, so I knew it was suitable.’ And, she insists, she was ‘too hot’ to put her jacket on.
‘Next thing the flight manager, approached me with five air crew and they surrounded my aisle seat.
‘She said: “Madam, we’ve told you, you need to cover yourself up, your outfit is inappropriate and you’re causing offence, so you need to put a jacket on.” I said: “I don’t understand who I’m offending. I’m just sitting in my seat and no one can see me.”
‘I unbuckled my seatbelt and stepped into the aisle, and the whole plane was listening by this point. I projected my voice and said: “Can I just have everyone’s attention? Just wondering if anyone has an objection to my outfit, if anyone deems it inappropriate or offensive? If you do, please just say now and I’m happy to put something else on.”
Brewer told This Morning: ‘This is not a crop top, this is a bra’, trying to physically show viewers the back of Emily’s garment
‘No one said a word and that’s when I told the flight manager: “I don’t understand who is deeming this to be inappropriate” and one of the crew said: “Well, there’s six flight members here who deem your outfit to be inappropriate” and I replied: “Well there’s about 250 or 300 people on this flight who disagree, because no one has said anything.”
‘At that point one of them said: “Right, where’s your bag, we need to take you off the flight.” ’
As the stand-off continued, a male passenger in his 60s, presumably frustrated that the flight was being delayed, spoke up.
‘A man in front of me shouted: “Shut up you pathetic woman. Just put a f****** jacket on!”,’ recalls Emily, visibly shaken as she remembers this interjection. ‘It was massively intimidating.’
Emily who, unsurprisingly, considers herself a feminist was deeply offended by what she saw as this fellow passenger’s pejorative, and aggressive, use of the word ‘woman’. She believes he, not her, should have been reprimanded.
While the cabin crew were mostly in their 30s, she believes that differences in attitudes between her own and the older generation were the cause of this confrontation. It was a typical case of a millennial being picked on, she asserts.
For while it’s safe to say that none of her fellow holidaymakers — nor indeed, surely, the crew — would have batted an eyelid at Emily’s outfit in the sunny climes in which they were headed. She believes that they need to keep up with those, like her, in their teens and 20s, who take a much more liberal attitude to people’s fashion choices, whatever the setting.
‘When I’m out with friends we will be wolf-whistled and men will make suggestive comments. Some might suggest that if you cover up you won’t get that abuse, but that’s not the case. I can be walking in a pair of jeans and a blouse and get beeped at by men in vans and I’m not doing anything sexually provocative.
‘These men tend to be older, I don’t see my male friends my age behaving like this. Everyone should be able to wear what we want, without worrying about the impact on others, male or female.’
Emily was only spared the humiliation of being marched off the plane — a walk of shame usually only reserved for passengers who are drunk, abusive or even violent — when her cousin intervened.
‘She came down the plane with her jacket for me and said: “Oh Emily, just put this on and we’ll complain afterwards,” she recalls.
‘Backing down when I knew I wasn’t in the wrong felt humiliating but I listened to her and put the denim jacket over my shoulders. The flight staff insisted I put my arms in the sleeves before they would walk away.
‘I was so stunned at being treated like a troublemaker, or a criminal, that, throughout the four-and-a-half hour flight, I kept saying to the couple next to me: “I can’t believe what just happened.”
‘They agreed that it was “really bad” and a woman in the row in front turned to me and said: “I can’t believe they spoke to you like that, it’s disgusting.” ’
Emily’s father and uncle were waiting to collect the party at Tenerife South Airport when they landed, on time, despite the 20-minute delay taking off.
Seeing how distressed his daughter was by the experience, her dad — who, she says, knows she is an independent woman and has never criticised her choice of outfits — wanted to speak to the Thomas Cook staff on the ground.
However, Emily, who had already sent a tweet to the company complaining about her treatment, told him she would handle it herself.
Still the incident cast a shadow over the short break as Emily was unable to put it out of her mind.
‘I felt like crying but it’s not really my way. I’ve always been quite tough, so I managed to hold it together,’ says Emily. ‘But it spoilt my holiday. I couldn’t stop my thoughts turning to the way I was treated, how awkward the whole flight was, the way I was sexualised — presumably that’s why they thought my outfit was inappropriate, though no one said so — that man calling me a “pathetic woman” and nobody standing up for me.
‘We all need to remember that, just because someone tells you to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it, or that it’s right.’
Indeed, on the return flight four days later, with a different cabin crew, Emily wore the same outfit, which she had also worn on recent trips to Marbella and Madrid, and no one said a word.
She assumes that the outfit may have been viewed differently because she was travelling from a hot climate, something she says is illogical, given that, on the way out, she dressed in preparation for the heat on landing.
It was not until March 12, ten days after the incident, when, sick of a lack of apology from Thomas Cook, Emily tweeted about her experience on the flight.
‘I posted photos of me in the outfit, because Thomas Cook was not progressing my case as I thought they should,’ she says.
‘Then on March 13 they issued an apology and have been very good since, promising they will speak to the crew involved and admitting the policy is not clear and that they were “over-zealous” in the way they dealt with it.’
Thomas Cook said: ‘We are sorry we upset Miss O’Connor. It’s clear we could have handled the situation better. In common with most airlines, we have an appropriate clothing policy. This applies equally to men and women of all ages without discrimination.
‘Our crews have the difficult task of implementing that policy and don’t always get it right.’
With her impressive clutch of A-stars, As and Bs at GCSE and A-level, Emily is well on course to qualify as an accountant next year, aged 22.
But one suspects this isn’t the last we will hear of this fearless young woman. So best to check ahead of you in the departure gate queue this summer and if you spot a flash of tanned flesh up ahead, prepare for a bit of turbulence.