The danger of upsetting customers in a micro-blogging age was highlighted again over the weekend after Southwest Airlines threw an outspoken film director off a plane for being too fat.
Kevin Smith, a US director of cult films such as Chasing Amy and Clerks, in which he played a character called Silent Bob, forced the airline into issuing an apology after venting his spleen on Twitter in a move that resulted in complaints from his 1.64 million followers.
Smith was ejected from a flight from Oakland to Burbank on Saturday after being informed by a flight attendant that his bulk meant that he was a "safety risk". Southwest’s booking guidelines for a "customer of size" state that passengers who are unable to lower both armrests when seated need to book another seat because the "encroachment of a large seatmate" makes the flight uncomfortable for others.
Smith tweeted in response: "I’m way fat. But I’m not THERE yet. But if I am, why wait til [sic] my bag is up, and I’m seated WITH ARM RESTS DOWN. In front of a packed plane with a bunch of folks who’d already ided me as ‘Silent Bob’."
A barrage of tweets followed condemning the airline for its policy and prompting other angry customers to share similar stories of rejection. Conscious of the PR disaster unfolding around it, Southwest’s various tweets on its Twitter feed apologising for the incident and promising that Smith would receive a call from its vice president of customer relations.
A blog from the airline’s Christi Day, entitled 'Not So Silent Bob', also indicated that the carrier was "sincerely sorry" for his "travel experience", but that it wanted to clarify a few points "since the situation has received a lot of public attention".
Smith, the blog stated, had originally purchases two Southwest seats, but decided to change his plans and board an earlier flight, which meant going on standby. By the time he came to board, there was only one seat left, but the pilot determined that he needed more than one to comply with safety and comfort regulations. As result, Smith was put on his original flight and given a $100 travel voucher for his inconvenience.
The blog added that Southwest introduced its ‘customer of size’ policy 25 years ago and said that "most, if not all" carriers had similar policies in place - although, unlike others, it refunded the second seat purchased if the flight was not full.
But the controversy continues to rumble on, with some social networkers criticising the tone and in particular the title of the blog, and Smith himself Tweeting to dispute the blog's claim that as soon as they saw the first Tweet from Smith, they contacted him personally to apologise for his experience."
The controversy will come as a blow to Southwest Airlines, which is traditionally viewed as a very customer-centric and socially sophisticated organisation.