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I’m a big fan of both writer/director Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines, so I was sad to hear about the online battle that’s been raging between them since last Saturday. Because I love them both so, I’ve made it a point to dig deeper and find out as much of the whole story as I can, and knowing more makes the story that much sadder: It’s clear that this whole mess could have easily been avoided.
If you haven’t heard yet, here’s a summary of the basic story as reported by the Los Angeles Times: Last Saturday, Smith was escorted off a Southwest flight because, Southwest employees told him, the captain had determined that his size posed a “safety risk” to other passengers. Smith politely left the plane when he was asked to, but he didn’t buy their explanation, and was particularly peeved because he saw this as a sign of systematic mistreatment of larger passengers. He shared his displeasure with his Twitter readership—which, unfortunately for Southwest, amounts to over 1.6 million people.
To my disappointment, neither the news reports, nor Smith’s Twitter feed, nor even the vague apologetic post written on Southwest’s blog by their representative, Linda Rutherford, makes clear what, exactly, happened. My fan-girl brain was spinning with questions: Was Smith posing a safety risk, or pushing another passenger out of his or her seat space? Was he violating an FAA regulation or posted Southwest policy? Who decided to eject him from the plane, and what reason did they give? And why was a Hollywood star flying on a discount airline that has only cramped, economy-class seats?
I wanted to know more because, as I’ve said, I’m a fan of both Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines. I love Smith’s work: his smart, sometimes satirical, but often just goofy comedy. I think Dogma, in particular, is brilliant, and Smith himself is a great storyteller. On the other hand, I’ve flown Southwest for five of the six flights I’ve taken this year. I love that they’re cheap (because so am I), but I’ve also found their attitude towards passengers to be fun, courteous, and friendly. On my last trip, a baggage checking agent went far out of her way to help me avoid a $50 overweight baggage fee, even though the problem was entirely my fault. I have always thought highly of both parties in this argument, and I’d like to continue to do so. So I wanted to know: What really happened?
Because Southwest is being very careful about what they say, (They are in the middle of a PR nightmare, after all.) the best source I could find for the full story was Smith’s own podcast, Smodcast. As soon as he arrived home on Saturday, Smith recorded the hour-and-a-half-long episode #106, entitled “Go Fuck Yourself, Southwest Airlines,” in which he discusses the incident with his wife, journalist Jennifer Schwalbach Smith. Yes, it’s clearly just one side of a heated argument, but Southwest has not questioned Smith’s version of the events that went down, and some bloggers have praised Smith for his honestly. The podcast answered all of my questions:
Smith was flying Southwest because it’s a very convenient way to get from the Bay Area, where he had business, to Burbank, an airport that he loves and that is near his home. He has flown Southwest often, many times a week in some cases, because loved their corporate attitude and friendly service—until last Saturday, that is. He usually buys two seats for himself because a) he’s rolling in dough and can afford to, b) he jokes, “I just don’t like people!” so he avoids being crammed up against strangers, and c) as he puts it, “I’m fat! I know I’m fat!” and while he proudly and repeatedly insists that he has always been able to fit in an airline seat with the armrests down and buckle his seatbelt without an extender, he is more comfortable with more space. On Saturday evening, though, Smith was in a hurry because he’d been away from home for days and he missed his beautiful wife (He put it a bit more graphically in his podcast.) and so he asked to switch to an earlier flight. The early flight had only one seat left.
Rather than assigning seats, Southwest lets passengers pick their own. Smith chose a seat in the center of a row, between (as he tells it) two adorable, tiny ladies who were very polite and gave no complaints about having him between them. He was about to fasten his seat belt when a flight attendant told him that the captain had asked her to remove him due to “safety concerns.” It took him a moment to figure out that she was talking about his size. He pulled down the armrests to show that he could fit between them, and asked the other passengers in his row if they were uncomfortable. Both said they were fine. The flight attendant still insisted on escorting him from the plane.
Smith went calmly and politely, not wanting to cause a stir and get arrested by Homeland Security, but once back inside the airport, he began arguing (in a calm voice, he insists) with the gate agent, demanding to know on what grounds he was ejected, and who made the decision. The captain could not have made the call, he argued, as the captain could not possibly have seen him. (Rutherford’s post on Southwest’s blog later admitted that it was not the captain who made the call.) After getting the same unsatisfying reply over and over, Smith then spent the two-plus hours he had to wait for his next flight telling his 1.6 million Twitter followers exactly what he thought of Southwest Airlines. As the enormity of Southwest’s PR problem became clear, a manager walked over to Smith where he sat by the gate, apologized profusely, and offered him a voucher for $100 in credit to be used when (if!) he flys Southwest again. Smith accepted the voucher, but assured the manager that this was far from making things right.
That’s where most of the news coverage ends, but I think the best part of the story—and the most damning for Southwest—is what happened on that later flight. This flight was not crowded, so Smith used the two seats he had originally paid for, taking a window seat towards the front of the plane and setting his voucher as a placeholder in the middle seat. A pleasant young lady sat down in the aisle seat, and Smith noticed that she was about his size, perhaps a bit larger. A few minutes later, a Southwest customer service agent escorted her off the plane while Smith watched, thinking to himself, “Are you kidding me? Not again!”
The young lady did return to her seat before the plane took off, but she was noticeably upset and fighting back tears. At this point, Smith says, his previous anger at Southwest seemed petty and small. Now he was far angrier because, among so many other things, Kevin Smith is a little girl’s dad. “I just kept thinking of our daughter,” Smith told his wife on the podcast. “If that were my daughter, I would have punched somebody’s lights out!”
Late in the flight, the young lady introduced herself as Natali, and told Smith what had happened to her. He later invited her to tell her full story on Smodcast episode #107, “Thinnicism,” posted today. Natali tells listeners that she flies all the time, on Southwest and on other airlines. Although she was always nervous about her size and careful to pick a seat where she’d be most comfortable and least likely to scrunch anyone else, her size had not been a problem up until that flight.
On the flight from Oakland to Burbank, however, a flight attendant pulled her aside and told her she must sit in the aisle seat of Smith’s row. Then a customer service agent boarded the plane to tell Natali that there was a problem and she would have to step off. Back inside the airport, the agent told her that she had to buy a second seat—something she had never done before because she, like Smith, had always been able to fit in one seat with the armrests down and a non-extended seatbelt fastened. Natali pointed out to the agent that the seat next to her was already empty, but the was told that it belonged to Mr. Smith, and it would be unfair to him if she used it.
Natali continued the debate until she was finally allowed to get back on the plane, now very upset and very much aware of the dirty looks she was getting from some passengers. She has since left phone and internet messages for Southwest, with no response from them. “Believe me, you’ll hear from them now!” Smith declared. The pair went on to speculate that maybe Southwest was putting on a show for Smith, trying to prove that they treated all large people equally.
If it was a staged show, I’d have to say that it backfired completely, adding paternal rage to Smith’s personal indignation, and showing that Smith’s ejection was not an isolated case of poor judgment, but rather a sign of a systemic problem. After reading through Southwest’s web site, Smith says he’s found no clear guidelines about when a passenger’s size is or isn’t a problem. Fitting between armrests is a suggested test, but this was not used in Smith’s case or Natali’s: Both of them did fit between armrests. The site also suggests that the captain can decide, based on his or her judgment, but Southwest’s blog post admits that the captain did not actually make the call in Smith’s case, and the captain wasn’t even mentioned in Natali’s case. As of now, there is no way for a passenger to know what will or won’t be a problem, and the rules can change from flight to flight. In fact, Natali was on a connecting flight, having just made the much longer trip from Des Moines to Oakland in one seat with no problems. Smith concludes that, when flying Southwest, “If you’re over 200 pounds, I would think twice, because they could grab you at any time.”
This nightmare—for larger airline passengers and for Southwest—could have been avoided if Southwest had set solid, clear policies, shared them with their customers, and stuck to them. Of course airline employees have an obligation to look out for safety, and to provide an entire seat to every passenger who pays for one, and it’s true some people just don’t fit in one seat (many people, actually, since the CDC estimates that 67% percent of American adults are overweight and airplane seats are designed to stuff as many customers into a plane as possible). But these should not be subjective judgment calls. A person is either overflowing into someone else’s seat, or he’s not. A person is either getting in the way of safe flying procedures (buckling seatbelts, keeping the aisle clear, etc.), or she’s not. Airlines can tell us clearly what size bags fit as carry-ons. Why can’t they tell us what size bodies fit in their seats?
I’m not suggesting that they set boxes by the gate with signs that say, “If your butt doesn’t fit in this box, you’ll need to check it as baggage,” or that airline employees should measure passengers’ waists as they board the plane. Instead, airlines could simply set clear, common-sense rules, enforce them to the letter on every flight, and post them on their web sites and ticket envelopes so that passengers could plan accordingly. For example, if the web site said, “Our seats are 17 inches wide. If your body does not fit in a space this size, you’ll need to buy a second seat. If you do fit in this space, but would be uncomfortable in it, please consider buying a second seat. If you cannot sit in one seat with the armrests down, you will be asked to purchase another seat or to leave the plane.”
Of course this won’t make everyone happy, and some passengers will still be humiliated and inconvenienced by being removed from planes when they simply can’t fit and can’t afford a second seat. Still, clear, objective policies would go a long way towards decreasing the embarrassment for everyone concerned. Passengers would know exactly what to expect, and airline staff be able to explain—in a completely factual, non-euphemistic, non-insulting way—the rare occasions when they really must take someone off the plane. Most importantly, no more Kevin Smiths and Natalis would be humiliated when there really isn’t a problem, and nobody would have to live in fear of being suddenly singled out because some hidden, unnamed person arbitrarily decides that they are (as so many headlines have called Smith) “too fat to fly.”