Airline flies into Twitter trouble with "fat" director

15th Feb 2010

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.

Replies (3)

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By Lior Arussy
15th Feb 2010 22:14

To all those tweeters out there who bad mouth Southwest Airlines, I would like to see what would you have done if you were seated next to a person of large size who might have taken over 1/2 of your seat.

Everyone is smart as long as it does not happen to them.

Southwest has a responsibility to ALL its customers including those who paid good money for their tickets and should receive decent size seat in return.


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By lbickerdike
18th Feb 2010 11:05

I think the point Smith was making was that they waited until he was seated, with his luggage stowed away, and the plane full of gawping spectators before they informed him he couldn't fly. He then had the embarrassment of leaving the plane in front of an audience.


I couldn't agree more that the 2-seat rule is there for a reason. But the airline should have identified MUCH earlier on that here was an overweight passenger, with only one seat available, and advised him BEFORE he boarded that he couldn't fly. He was treated incredibly shoddily because they had failed to communicate amongst themselves.

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Aki Kalliatakis Photo
By aki.kalliatakis1
19th Feb 2010 06:27

Airlines - good or bad - don't want to take responsibility for this. The fact of the matter is that there will be passengers of different lengths and breadths on every flight. Tall people are often offered seats neat emergency exits, but most others are not considered. Here's the extremely simple solution: in the long and drawn out process of checking in, whether with a live human being or on the web or even at the self-help kiosks at airports, passengers need to be recorded as one of fat, medium or thin. Then the computer, already programmed by a smart IT programmer, allocates a seat so that you don't get these mishaps. Of course, this whole problem would go away if greedy airlines made seats a little wider and more comfortable, but that, of course, would be asking for too much. Although I've always admired Southwest and Herb Kelleher - from a distance, since I've never travelled to USA - this incident, and other similar incidents involving fat people, have tarnished their image.

PS You know how Virgin Atlantic dealt with my ex-rugby-player-now-just-fat-old-fart physique? The first thing that happened was that a young lady noticed that I was struggling to click the belt, and she offered me the extension belt without me asking. (I hadn't even realised this thing existed until then. Apparently aimed at pregnant women, but fat guys also qualify!) After my return trip, I wrote to thank them for their proactive customer-delighting action, and for saving me some embarrassment, and they sent me my own extension belt with a note that said: "Dear Sir, Please accept this with our compliments, so that you never have to ask again." Wow!

Aki K

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