Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My take on the Southwest vs. Kevin Smith Fattie Throwdown

I've been following the story of director and actor Kevin Smith's recent travel woes with popular carrier Southwest Airlines with more than a little interest. The issue surrounds the apparently long-standing policy of Southwest to allow it's individual employees to make judgment calls about a passenger's size and whether a given passenger is "too fat to fly".  I've got a horse in this race because I am what is commonly known as a "fat chick" myself.

There are, naturally, at least two sides to every story. Kevin Smith's side can be heard on his podcast in his own words and voice at "SModcast #106: Go Fuck Yourself, Southwest Airlines", and you can read his two (as of this blogging) online journal posts about it entitled "'Burn Hollywood, Burn!' Writes Unhappy Middle-Aged Woman" and "Running Out of Gas On This Subject".  Southwest Airlines also have two blog posts on the subject so far: "Not So Silent Bob" and "My Conversation with Kevin Smith". In addition, both Smith and Southwest are on Twitter at @ThatKevinSmith and @SouthwestAir, respectively, the former of which essentially broke this story by tweeting his frustrations in the immediate aftermath of his being removed from the flight on which he was already seated.

Now clearly, Southwest Airlines must take it's Customer Service Commitment very seriously - it's a nearly 30-page document, after all. Why, right there on page two it clearly states "Southwest is proud
to incorporate its voluntary Customer Service Commitment in its official Contract of
Carriage reinforcing our pledge to provide safe, affordable, reliable, timely, courteous,
and efficient air transportation and baggage handling service on every flight we operate...". Well, I don't know if publicly humiliating anyone (celebrity or not) is what I'd necessarily call being courteous, but I'm not a dictionary editor or anything so what the heck do I know?

The party line Kevin Smith was given in his recent experience was that his sitting in his seat was a "safety issue". Now, according to him, he could buckle his safety belt without any need for an extender, the armrests on both sides of his seat could be fully put down without a problem, and the women seated on either side of him said that he was not infringing upon their seats. He wasn't seated in an exit row, to the best of my understanding, either. So where, exactly, did this "safety" issue come into play?

Some comments on various blogs and Twitter discussions have been along the "if there's an accident, I don't want to be blocked in by some lard ass who's wedged into their seat". And you know, I get that...to a point. But right there on page seven of that Customer Service Commitment document it says
"In compliance with 14 CFR Part 382 at least 50% of our aisle seats are fitted with moveable armrests on the aisle seat in order to facilitate a safe and dignified transfer from a boarding chair to the aircraft seat." 
Now maybe it's just how I'm reading it and I'm completely misinformed, but that SEEMS to be saying that at least 50% of their aisle seats are built to accommodate folks who require wheelchairs to board. Not to be politically incorrect, but it would seem like those people would be just as much of a safety hazard for blocking Joe Doe in as the average fat person. If it comes down to safety, I have to ask - how safe is it to let anyone fly who has an injury or illness or disability that renders them incapable of escaping a plane in an emergency without assistance? I suppose infants and children who aren't really good at walking yet should be banned from flying, too, since they'd potentially block the more able-bodied passengers escape route.

Oh, I forgot. It's OKAY to discriminate against people for their size. If someone was removed from a flight for the color of their skin or their religious beliefs, there wouldn't even be a debate - that sort of discrimination is not acceptable, period. But if you shop at Lane Bryant or some men's Big and Tall store, it's apparently perfectly fine to eject them from the flight EVEN IF THEY AREN'T DOING ANYTHING WRONG.

Here's a novel idea. How about we don't discriminate against ANYONE?

Having said all of this, let me be clear on an important point. I'm absolutely aware that safety is of the utmost importance on a flight. It's why I don't put up too much of a fuss when I'm told to remove my shoes or even to throw away the bottled water I JUST purchased because I can't take it through the security check-point (but I am, of course, allowed to purchase ANOTHER new bottle of water once I get through security). If there was a LEGITIMATE reason for why "fatness" equals "safety", I'd like to hear it. But honestly? I fear it's much more about how fatness makes the non-fat uncomfortable - and I'm not just referring to physicality, here.

If I get to the point where I need to buy two seats, I will do so. Frankly, having armrests dig into my fleshy rolls for several hours isn't all that appealing an idea. The "Guidelines for Customers of Size" states the following:
"Customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who compromise any portion of adjacent seating should proactively book the number of seats needed prior to travel. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats and measures 17 inches in width. This purchase serves as a notification of a special seating need and allows us to process a refund of the additional seating cost after travel (provided the flight doesn’t oversell). Most importantly, it ensures that all on board have access to safe and comfortable seating."
Wait a minute. Back up to the gate! Did I just read that last sentence correctly? "ALL on board have access to safe and COMFORTABLE seating"?! Even if I lost lots of weight, I'd STILL not have access to COMFORTABLE seating - I'm 5'11" tall! Sure, there's more leg room in the emergency exit row, but as I'm still recovering from last summer's injury I'm not eligible to sit there. Oh, and even if I somehow figured out a way to shrink down to a more airline-friendly 5'6" or so, I experience discomfort if I'm sitting near someone with overwhelming body odor, or waaaaaay too much cologne/perfume, or a pitiful crying baby, or...

So yeah. I'm still trying to figure out how someone who measures 16.5" in width is SAFE while someone who is 17.25" in width is UNSAFE.

I don't love the idea of having certain weights/sizes classified as a disability - there are plenty of us fatties who can move and shake right along with the rest of the world! - but I'm wondering if that's what it's going to take to STOP THE DISCRIMINATION.

Kevin Smith is not, by a long-shot, the first person to have experienced this oh-so-special brand of size discrimination. This man was denied boarding for his size on a return trip (yet the trip TO his destination was, magically, just fine): the airline said he was denied due to his behavior, but who WOULDN'T be visibly upset when told "you're too fat to fly"?! Southwest has run into problems with it's fat passenger policy a few times over the years. And this issue isn't just cropping up in the United States. A French man was humiliated by his experience with Air France.

The fact of the matter is that the MAJORITY of Americans (according to a recent study, 68 percent) are overweight. I understand that airlines strive to keep operating costs low and profits high, and that to do otherwise would probably result in their company going under. However, when considering the fact that over half the US population may be subject to this rather abstract and hard-to-uniformly-enforce policy, the airlines MUST understand that this sort of public relations snafu is going to have a potentially negative impact on their bottom line as more paying customers fear being humiliated publicly for THEIR "bottom" line.

I know Kevin Smith isn't everyone's cup of tea. I understand that many people think he's just some spoiled celebrity who didn't get his way. I even understand that plenty of people think fat people = _insert your own negative fat stereotype here_.

Personally, though, I think this case is just one in which they humiliated a fat person who just happens to have access to a lot of people and just happens to be unwilling and unable to quietly go away with his head hung in embarrassment. Many of us who are fat, or who have been fat, already know how easy it is to be emotionally beat down and to feel ashamed of who we are and how we look. We know how hard it is sometimes to speak up; we know it's much easier and generally less painful to just try to walk away with what little shred of dignity we've managed to cling to when being made to feel like something less than human. I'm GLAD a celebrity has brought this issue back to the forefront, because so often we average Janes and Joes simply don't have a loud enough voice to be heard.

This policy that Southwest (and many other airlines) have about customers of size is understandable, but it's far too subjective and has been handled far too callously. This policy is NOT clear and definitive, which leaves it up to each individual airline employee along the path from ticket purchase to plane departure. I hope this most recent uproar will bring much needed attention and change to the issue. NO ONE deserves to be treated as "less than" - not for their size, not for their religion, not for their gender, not for their race, not for any reason.

I really liked this person's blog on the subject, as well, if you care to read it:
Southwest Fails Kevin Smith and Themselves


  1. Nice brain squeezin there T...Eloquently put as usual ;)

  2. really enjoyed this blog!

    Thanks T for sharing!


  3. The armrests have never dug into my sides, but I do have broad shoulders for a girl my size and unless I squish up against the window, find myself touching the person next to me. I am terrified that I will be booted off my SWA flight to Vegas in a couple of weeks.

  4. Thanks for linking to my blog in the PS. Glad you liked it!

    Kellie Parker


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