An earlier version of this said the carrier was Alligiant. My brain must have riffed off "alleged." Good grief I'm a terrible blogger.
Anyway, these guys received vouchers good for free or very cheap first class airline travel from a family friend. They turned up dressed like paying passengers. Their attire was within the bounds of public decency and they wouldn't get a second glance boarding with regular tickets.
The problem is that they weren't flying on regular tickets. They were flying on buddy passes. The airline wasn't going to make any money off of them. Non-rev buddy travel is the airline equivalent of a restaurant employee being allowed to serve left over food to friends at the end of the night. Once all the paying customers are served, the buddies can have some, as long as they behave excruciatingly well, look so respectable that paying customers never guess they are freeloaders, and understand that they will eat what they are served and that there might not be any left for them.
Restaurant food isn't as perishable as airline seats--an empty airline seat becomes unusable by anyone the moment the door is closed--so if restaurants allow their employees to feed their friends, that's probably only in the form of allowing them to take leftovers home. Restaurant employees would probably get in trouble if their friends came in dressed casually to see if there was any free food available.
"But," you might say, "this is different. The airline has a program set up that allow employees' friends to come and get those free seats. They don't have to wait in the alley out of sight of paying customers until after closing." Well they kind of do. They have to wait in the boarding lounge until just before the flight is closed, and they are in no way guaranteed a seat, even if there are empty ones. And they have to be invisible, or at least completely inoffensive, to paying customers.
I'm going to take the men at their word that they had no idea that there was a dress code for first class travel as a non-revenue passenger. I suspect they received the pass from a family member who got it from the friend, and not directly through a friend, because an airline employee with any sense at all will, "put the fear of God into my BP riders," letting them know "I would CUT you," as comments on my Facebook feed put it. If a non-rev behaves inappropriately, the employee loses non-rev travel privileges. The rules were probably printed on the back of the pass, but I can't really fault the guys for not reading the fine print on the ticket.
An agent will call you to the podium give you a boarding pass if a seat is available on the flight. Please do not hover at the counter asking to be boarded. If the agent asks you to check your carry- on luggage, please comply immediately. If your flight is sold out and you are not boarded, please wait until the agent is free before asking for assistance. The agent will either help you or direct you to another source for information.During Travel
Please maintain a polite, appropriate demeanor during guest pass travel and refrain from discussing guest pass travel privileges or the fact that you are flying at a reduced fare.Dress Guidelines
Guest pass travelers in Coach or First Class/Envoy may wear casual attire. US Airways asks its employees and their pass ride rs to exercise good judgment when selecting their travel attire. Clothes should be in good repair, neat, clean, and conservative. Unacceptable attire in any class includes any clothing that is torn, faded, soiled, wrinkled, cut−off, has ragged edges or holes; clothing with offensive graphics or terminology; and provocative or revealing clothing such as micro/miniskirts, bare midriff, halter, tank, tube or bra tops.
Coach Class: Eligible Pass Riders may wear casual attire, including shorts, blue jeans, sandals, and athletic footwear.
First or Envoy Class: Pass travelers may wear casual attire, including blue or black denim attire, skirts, capri-style pants, and sandals, provided it is well−groomed, neat, clean, and conservative. Unacceptable attire in First Class/Envoy includes tee shirts, shorts, jogging suits, athletic gear, baseball−style caps, athletic shoes, beach footwear, flip−flops including Croc−style footwear.
So jeans are okay, but not t-shirts or baseball caps. They were fine in the regular cabin, but didn't meet the requirements for non-rev travel in first class.
The document at this link describes AA's non-rev dress code for first class, including no denim clothing of any kind or colour, no athletic shoes and no skorts. (Skorts is not a typo. Who knew that the scourge of hybrid shorts-skirts was so great they had to be banned?) Notice that t-shirts are grounds for denied boarding to non-revs in any class on that airline. The price of your free ticket is complying with mid-twentieth century dress codes and being well behaved. Here's an e-how on the subject.
The pair probably wouldn't have upset anyone in first class with their casual attire, but on the off chance that a paying passenger is going to be put off by the presence of an under-dressed seatmate, the under-dressed person darn well better have paid a regular fare. There actually IS a cost of putting someone in an empty seat in first class: the person who paid to sit in the next seat is slightly less satisfied, and first class customers either pay a lot of money for their seats, or fly a lot and earn the miles to pay for the upgrade. Either way, you don't want that person to believe that another airline will give them a better chance at a row to themselves.
It's still possible that the US Airways non-rev dress codes are usually waived, and that gate agent who sent the men away to change was selectively applying the dress code because of personal racial prejudice. I imagine that is what the men's lawyer will have to argue to make the case, although the suit claims that they purchased the tickets. Technically they did, as the buddy passes gave a reduced rate, not completely free travel.
Increased airline loads make it hard enough to use a non-rev pass these days that many employees prefer to buy tickets. That combined with the terrible publicity airlines get from incidents like this might lead to the elimination of the privilege. Too bad.