Too fat to fly – Kevin Smith Vs. Southwestair – Solutions Inside…

http://shavingoccam.com/2010/02/18/too-fat-to-fly-kevin-smith-vs-southwestair-solutions-inside/

I’ve been following the online “blogfight” of director Kevin Smith and my friends at Southwest Airlines with more than a little interest. It’s a sad situation for me. You see, I’m a big fan of both Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines. I love Kevin’s movies, and without Southwest carting me to Lubbock for two years every weekend, I probably wouldn’t be married and have the great life I do. Also, I have great respect for the reputation that Southwest Airlines has create. I have met Linda Rutherford many times through events at her alma mater (and mine) Texas Tech University. I even attended her admission to the Mass Communications Hall of Fame this last October.  I’m also scheduled to speak on a panel with Christi Day, Alice Wilson and Ginger Hardage – three of Southwest’s leading social media folks (one of which was directly involved with the Kevin Smith brouhaha)- on March 25.

And I am a “Customer of Size”.

My first incident with being a customer of size happened on a trip to Las Vegas for Pubcon in 2007. I had just started my company and was traveling with my business partner. We were running late and when we boarded the plane, there weren’t many seats left. I sat down and the flight attendant came over and very rudely told me if I ever wanted to fly Southwest Airlines again I would need to buy two seats (in front of the entire plane). She then told me she wanted my name so she could “flag” me in the system. I just told her she didn’t need to do that and chalked it up to  bad day for the flight attendant – but she was right. I needed two seats. And I have purchased two seats on every (13 now) Southwest flight I have been on since.

I’m a big guy. I always have been. In recent years I’ve put even more weight. It’s something I’ve struggled with and I know the shame that accompanies being obese.In fact, not to get too personal, but I’m scheduled to have weight loss surgery in the near future.

I don’t have a problem with the policy. I understand that Southwest’s seats are smaller and they need this policy. I also understand airline crisis communication better than most, having spent years in the PR trenches of American Airlines (via Weber Shandwick).

I’m not going to be a Monday morning quarterback on the social media strategy implemented by Southwest. I won’t comment on what Kevin Smith has said. I reserve the right to  put those in a later post.  But I do have a problem with how those who buy two seats on Southwest are treated. And in this post, I want to provide a roadmap to at least fix that system.

So here we go.

Problem: When I buy two tickets online at SWA, it’s very simple. But the simpleness stops once you reach the airport. I can’t do self-check in. I have to go to the desk. This can be very inconvenient, and downright embarrassing when traveling with companions (hence the reason I try to travel alone most of the time).

Solution: Allow self check-in of Customer of Size. This shouldn’t be a hard fix for your system at all.

Problem: When I do get to the counter, the people there inevitably have no clue how to “merge” my tickets. I don’t know what this means, but I’ll bet over the last couple of years I’ve spent almost 13 hours at the customer desk waiting for someone who knew how to work the system. Last time this happened, the nice woman behind the counter gave me (and I didn’t ask for it) the number for customer service and told me to complain about this because it was ridiculous. I never called. I’m still ashamed of being fat.

Solution: Fix the system to be more friendly (see the first solution) and train your people on how to check-in customers of size.

Problem: There doesn’t seem to be a way to get Rapid Rewards credits for both tickets. I pay for two full fairs, and I should get credit for both. This is wrong.

Solution: Allow customers of size to get Rapid Rewards credits for both tickets without having to call in and make a stink, which I DO NOT want to do.

Problem: As a Customer of Size, I am expected to pre-board with all the people in wheelchairs, invalids and others. This may sound callous, but this is embarrassing. I can walk. My weight does not require me to pre-board. I know the reason for this – so the big guy can sit down first and put my card out so no one sits next to me and I don’t get stuck in a middle isle.

Solution: Putting Customers of Size automatically in the “A” boarding group will save us embarrassment. And not having employees get angry with us (this happened to me) when we try to board with the A group instead to save embarrassment for Customers of Size traveling with other travel companions.

Problem: Having to constantly ask for a seatbelt extender

Solution: This isn’t a problem on every flight, but it has happened pretty often. I am seated, and I have to remind the flight attendent to bring a seatbelt extender many times. This is a common problem on other airlines (where I don’t buy two seats) as well. But, if I’m paying for two seats, tell the flight attendants I’m there and have an extender ready. Better yet, don’t make me ask for it. Just bring it to me. You can see that I need it.

Most of the people that work for Southwest are very compassionate, and I’ve only run into a few “fatty haters” in my flying on the airline. But when you do run into those folks, you want to crawl away and fly with the baggage (Hey, that would be cheaper, bags fly FREE!). But the bottom line is that most of the time it’s still cheaper for me to fly Southwest with two tickets than to buy one ticket on another airline. So I do it and put up with the problems.

Hopefully someone at SWA will read this and we can get a couple of these items fixed.

And to Kevin Smith – man, Clerks was so genius it made me want to write movies until I realized that I don’t have the talent – so I went into marketing and advertising instead. I’m just a fan…And I admire your fight for us fatties. I do wish you would make it less about the fact that you fit in the seat and more about the injustice of the policy…but that’s for another post.

Comments

  1. Tony –

    Wow, great feedback. I’ve read most of the commentary/posts that everyone has written about this subject. All of the feedback, trust me, we are thrilled to have. Please continue to help us improve and evolve – that’s the only way we can get better : ) I am excited to meet you in person in March! I’m a little nervous about being completely outnumbered by a bunch of Red Raiders!

    Thanks again for writing this and your loyalty to Southwest!

    Christi Day

  2. Goes to show that North Texas largest and smartest brains are Red Raiders alumni. The flights are really short, just over an hour right Tony? Up and Down.

    Your response could not have been better…..from one “seat filler” to another! Let’s hope Southwest takes your advice.

    Cheers,
    Mike Stewart

  3. I really don’t like how the airlines have used their seat designs and policies in such a way that has generated a higher level of hostility towards people of size.

    I happen to know from taking architectural courses in college that there are standards for designing the minimum size for spaces intended for humans, and the airlines have seats that are way below the minimums in coach. An average American male cannot sit in many of the seats without his shoulders being wider than the seat armrests. I’ve sat on many flights where I’ve been in a row of three men, and we essentially had to all sit sideways, stacked like a deck of cards.

    So, people of average size already start out being uncomfortable, and that exagerates the size of those who are above average when they’re seated next to one another.

    So, I think the airlines are responsible to a large degree for trying to make larger people the “bad guys” in all this. It’s not right. They have no right to get on a high-horse about above-average-size people taking up space when they haven’t given anyone sufficient space to begin with.

  4. Tony, you make some great points here. Its refreshing to here real issues and solutions from someone who has experienced this. I am starting to understand whats really happening now. Its interesting to me because many of my family members are overweight and always refrain from flying for family vacations…. hope southwest will make some changes to accommodate this.

    Good luck to you and Christi on the Panel. Wish I could be there!

    Randy

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