UPDATE: Both Kevin Smith and Southwest have made more blogs on this situation. Please see the end of the entry for the links and updates.
Many people have probably heard of Southwest’s controversial Customer of Size policy. And a lot of people have probably heard of the recent issues with Kevin Smith getting booted off of one of their planes for (according to them) violating this policy. Kevin laid out the entire story in a recent SModcast, but here are the highlights.
Kevin Smith is flying to Oakland for the day. He buys an extra seat because they are cheap, and he prefers not to have someone in the seat next to him. (I think anyone that has been on a plane can understand that feeling.) On the way home, he arrives early and asks to get bumped to an earlier flight, which is pretty common with Southwest. He gets put on standby for an earlier flight, and gets on it. However, there’s only one seat available for him, as it’s a nearly full flight. No problem, he says, I only really need one seat. He gets on the plane, buckles his seatbelt (no extender), puts the armrests down, and is approached by a flight attendant. The flight attendant pulls him aside to say that the captain has deemed him a risk because of his size. Despite falling within Southwest’s policy, he was not allowed to fly. Kevin tweets about it, and here we are.
If you’ve met me in person, or maybe seen photos of me, you know that I’m a large girl. This is a complex, and sometimes emotional situation, that I think has 3 separate facets. I want to look at it from all three.
The idea behind the policy sounds logical. You paid for a seat, you should have the space that you bought. It’s to make sure that other people are safe and comfortable. But while that sounds good in theory, there are several problems with it in execution.
First, I do think it’s discriminatory. I fly a decent amount (~25 times a year) and I have had to endure a lot in those flights. Just yesterday, I flew from JFK to SFO and sat next to a young man who had a wild time the night before. He smelled like booze and was clearly hungover. I’ve sat next to people with really bad body odor. I’ve sat next to drunk people (both that boarded the plane drunk and got drunk on the plane). I’ve sat next to chatty people who won’t shut up. I’ve sat next to babies with dirty diapers. I’ve sat next to kids who can’t sit still and smear jelly and other sticky snacks all over the place. I’ve seen people in wheelchairs, people who have casts, and other medical ailments. The point is that while some larger people do take up more than one seat, there are other behaviors, situations, and physical issues that also make people take up more than their allotted room, make passengers uncomfortable, and pose potential safety issues. Yet there are virtually no policies about people in those situations. And the policies that do exist focus on behavior (such as getting drunk before boarding a plane), not on physicality (people using crutches, etc). Large people are easy to spot, easy to single out, and don’t garner as much sympathy from people as someone who needs a wheelchair or crutches. We’re easy targets, both physically and morally.
And if you’re supposed to get all the square inches that you paid for, what about people who recline their seats? Seriously, I’ve had people in front of me recline their seat so far that I could do dental work on them. I’ve nearly had my laptop screen destroyed by people who recline suddenly and without regard to what is going on behind them. Their seat encroaches on the space I paid for, so by the same standard as the Customer of Size policy, the recline function on all seats should be disabled. (I actually do hate when the person in front of me reclines their seat, and I do think it should be disabled. But I know lots of people who vehemently defend their right to recline their seat. Probably some of the same people who would defend Southwest’s Customer of Size policy, which is interesting.)
Second, the policy leaves too much open to personal interpretation. It’s just too subjective. Many people fly on Southwest and are never approached by anyone asking them to buy a second seat or checking to see if they fall within the Customer of Size policy. And then one day *bam* they get hit with it. Whether they violate the policy or not, it starts with one employee’s judgement of that person, and whether to talk to them and investigate their size or not. A policy that starts with individual judgement cannot be uniformly enforced.
Third, and something that thin people probably don’t notice, is that not all seats, not all armrests, and especially not all seat belts are made equally. All three of the planes listed on SeatGuru (a site that helps you pick the best seat on the plane) show that the seats in the back of the plane are narrower than the seats toward the middle. What if a person fits in one of the seats toward the middle, but ends up sitting in the back of the plane and gets kicked off because of it? The armrests on exit row seating usually don’t lift up, and are instead a solid piece of plastic all the way to the bottom of the seat. This can make the seat narrower by a few inches. For some people, this is the tipping point. Finally, and the thing that is so wildly divergent, is the length of the seatbelts. It can vary from seat to seat on the same plane. I’ve had times where I can easily buckle the seat belt, and times where I struggle. You just never know what you’re going to get. I have an extender that I take with me just in case I need it simply for this reason — you just never know. But if your policy is predicated on seats, armrests, and seatbelts, how can that policy possibly be fair when all of these things vary depending on what seat you are in?
The Social Media & PR
Let’s turn from the policy aspect of what happened to how this is being played out online. I first learned about it because I follow Kevin Smith on Twitter. He was obviously angry and the tweets were hard-hitting and coming fast. As the main Twitter person for the SEGA US team, I know what it’s like to have angry customers coming out of nowhere on Twitter. I also know what it’s like to have that situation be something you didn’t know about, can’t control, and/or can’t discuss. So I have empathy for the woman that was on Twitter duty for Southwest when this thing blew up. I will say that I think she did a great job, quickly letting people know that she had seen the tweets, that she had read them all, and that a VP would be following up with Kevin Smith personally. (Whether that actually happened or not is another story. Last I heard, he says he has not been contacted.) But so many companies’ first instinct is to clam up and don’t say anything. No comment… a resounding silence while they scramble to work up a statement. Southwest jumped right into the fray to let people know that they heard and were aware. So thumbs up from me to Christi Day, the Southwest Twitter person, as I think she handled the situation as best she could as it was breaking.
Unfortunately, that’s where my thumbs stop pointing upward and start pointing downward. Southwest then issued a statement (I don’t really think you can call it an apology) on their Nuts About Southwest blog. Straight from the title, I think it’s a little disingenuous. I get that Southwest likes to be quirky and put personality into what they do. But there’s a time and a place, and this is not it. Making a joke upfront just says that you don’t take the situation very seriously. Especially when the joke is somewhat of a negative play on the person that you’re supposedly apologizing to. Yes, Kevin Smith’s character is of Silent Bob. But using “Not So Silent Bob” as your headline implies that he’s being a loudmouth… which is true, but probably not an insinuation it’s okay for Southwest to make. The rest of the statement is just a classic non-apology apology. It’s a “We’re sorry” followed by all the reasons that what they did was right and justified.
I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes there, obviously. I am friends with Paula Berg, who until recently was the leader of the PR/blog/community/social media team at Southwest. She is a good and reasonable person who is very knowledgeable about this stuff and really does care about customers. So I do know that not all Southwest people (or at least former Southwest people) are bad. I also know what it’s like to have to stand behind a company statement or communication strategy that you don’t agree with. So I don’t assume that Christi Day (who wrote the Southwest blog entry and manages their Twitter feed) wrote or agrees with that blog, even though her name is on it. I’m guessing that the statement was scrutinized, agonized, modified, and approved by several people before being given to her to post. And it’s a shame, because it’s a sharp downturn from the positive (well, as positive as it could be) trajectory that she started on via Twitter.
I hope Southwest can go back to a proactive, people-oriented, customer-centric path in resolving this issue. I’m not sure that anything they could do would make Kevin Smith (or lots of other people) fly their airline again, but they have got to try. Stop trying to defend yourself and start making bold moves to take care of your customer, and by extension all of your fans and customers.
Anyone who has met me in person knows that I’m a large girl. So I understand all too well the emotional and personal aspect of this issue. I have never been subjected to Southwest’s Customer of Size policy, but honestly I try to avoid Southwest because I figure it’s just a matter of time before I’m asked to demonstrate that I fit within their policy.
There is no one way to be fat. It’s easy to lump all fat people together as the same thing, but it’s just not true. My wife is about the same weight as me, but we carry it totally differently. I have wide hips. I generally wear tops that are 1-2 sizes smaller than my pants. I never have problems with things fitting over my neck, shoulders, or arms. I always seem to have a hard time with things fitting over my hips. I am pear shaped, and I carry my weight on the bottom. My wife is apple shaped and carries a lot of weight in her arms and upper body. She worries about necklaces being too small and sleeves being too tight. Consequently, although we weigh about the same, she rarely has a problem with seat belts and arm rests, and I am more likely to. Even in the fat world, we come in all shapes and sizes.
In his podcast, Kevin Smith said that as a fat person, you have to navigate the world differently. And it’s so true. You always have to think a few steps ahead. And almost nothing is as easy or simple as it should be. I am constantly aware of my size — getting into a car, riding a crowded bus, or trying to get in an elevator. There’s always a thought of disaster in the back of my mind. What if I sit down on that chair and it breaks? (I saw it happen to someone once… they sat down on a wooden folding chair and it crumbled to the ground. My heart broke because I know that’s the nightmare scenario.) Even simple things like fashion are complicated, because there are only 4 stores in the entire city of San Francisco where I can buy clothes. So if I’m told that I need something at the last minute, even if it’s fairly basic, it’s a mad scramble to find it. If I show up to an event and someone hands me a T-shirt to wear, there’s a good chance that it will be too small. (Especially when the largest size is a large.) It’s just always something.
When you’re not dealing with that, you’re dealing with people constantly judging you. It honestly gets a bit tiring to hear how if I would just put down the Big Mac and pick up a carrot everything would be fine. If it was that easy, don’t you think we would all do it? And just like there’s no one way to be fat, there’s no one way to get there, either. Yes, some people do over eat and under exercise. But some people (like me) have medical conditions that lead to larger frames. Some people (like me) have genes that pre-dispose them to being overweight. Some people have had to take medicines that cause weight gain. I shouldn’t need to pull out the medical condition card to make it okay or excuse my size. And people really need to stop assuming that I’m fat because I eat an entire buffet table twice a day. I’ve had people moo at me when I’m exercising. I’ve had medical technicians take my blood pressure 5 times in a row because they just can’t believe that it’s lower than the standard for normal. I’ve had waitresses passive-aggressively bring me diet soda when I asked for regular. Some days, it feels like the whole world is against you, and it’s not paranoia if they really are after you.
If we’re going to focus on health (which I think we should), then let’s do that. But the first step is to get rid of the ridiculous notion that skinny = healthy. As big as I am, I have none of the medical conditions that one assumes I have because of my size. As I mentioned, my blood pressure is below the standard for normal. My cholesterol is fine. My blood sugar is rock solid. Except for a few minor things (that are in no way caused by my weight), I’m healthy. But I’m not skinny. If I stopped eating, started purging, or got addicted to crack, I could get skinny. But would that mean I’m healthier? Uh, nope… I’d be less healthy. We need to focus on helping people be healthy regardless of their size.
This opens the door to a whole other complicated set of issues. I won’t get into them here, but they include access to healthy food (something my friend Kristie just did an amazing video/blog on when she tried to find healthy food in her district in Boston), designing cities and neighborhoods to be walking-friendly instead of relying on cars, and eliminating discrimination in health care. I am lucky that I live in a place where I have access to fresh organic produce and the money to purchase it. I live in a city that’s fairly friendly to walkers and outdoor exercisers. I have health insurance and can pick a doctor who listens to me and understands me. Not everyone is so lucky. If we really want to solve the problem instead of just bitching, judging, and pointing fingers at people, these are the things we need to start working on.
Finally, there’s the issue of dignity. Kevin Smith said this in his podcast, and it really struck a nerve with me because it’s so true. As fat people, we are constantly being put down, made fun of, and generally told how awful we are as people. But when you’ve been humiliated — be it from someone mooing at you on the street, a chair breaking under you, or getting kicked off of an airplane — you have two choices. You can go in the bathroom and cry, or you can own the moment. And at the end of the day, for your own sanity, dignity, and self-esteem… you HAVE TO own it. I know that it can’t be easy for Kevin Smith to share his Southwest story, no matter how much he makes jokes about it. I heard the story at the end of his podcast about the girl he sat next to on his flight home and it broke my heart, too. I can’t imagine what it’s like to see news stories, comments, and headlines about such an embarrassing and humiliating moment, and about something so personal. It reminds me of Joy Nash and her great series of Fat Rant videos, particularly from the video below. She said that fat hate is one of the only forms of prejudice where the people being subjected to it think they are getting exactly what they deserve. And it’s so true.
I know that this was somewhat of an epic and wandering tome. But it’s a complicated issue that needs to be dealt with from a few different angles. I hope that Southwest revises their unfair and poorly implemented policy. I hope they get back on a customer-centric communications strategy that gives them a chance to turn this into a huge positive for everyone. I hope that people start focusing on issues of health instead of just painting all fat people with the same brush of ignorance. I know that the internet affords anonymity that people use to say whatever mean and hateful thing wanders through their mind and out their fingers. I ask you all to please be better than that. Please treat others with the dignity and respect that all people deserve.
Southwest rep Linda Rutherford finally reached Kevin Smith to talk about the issue. Unfortunately, from what I can tell by reading the blogs on both sides, Southwest is closer but not quite there in terms of making it right.
Kevin’s blog says that Linda did actually sincerely apologize, and admitted that the situation was handled poorly. He says that she also told him that the pilot did not single him out as a safety risk or ask that he be removed from the flight. She said she would update the blog, and all he asked for was that Southwest admit the mistake that they made, and tell the truth that he was not “too fat to fly”.
Linda’s blog says that the captain did not make the judgement call to remove him, and that their staff made a “quick judgement call” that he “might have needed more than one seat”. But she never says that they were wrong, or that he was in fact NOT in violation of their policy. (Something that would have taken ~ 30 seconds to verify.) And then basically reiterates their policy again, and that they stand by it. Like Christi earlier, Linda apparently started off well, and then couldn’t quite stick the landing. All Kevin wanted was for Southwest to admit that they were wrong, and say so in public. Which is really not that much to ask.
Remember earlier when I talked about dignity, self-esteem and needing to own the moment? I think we can all agree that Kevin Smith has a healthy self-esteem and confidence. And he’s not been shy in owning this and discussing it. But I suspected how much it hurt to talk about this experience and have it splashed all over the news, even though it was important. Well, Kevin ends his blog entry talking about “grasping at dignity straws” and how this is going to haunt him for the rest of his life. Even for someone as self-confident and self-actualized about his physical being as Kevin is, there are still deep-running emotions here. These types of situations leave lasting scars.