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A weighty issue
Is there any subject as contentious as weight? I mean, I’d rather go up to a stranger and talk about abortion, Iraq, or teabaggers (either kind) than have to ask a fat person to leave an airplane because he’s too fat to fly.
Yesterday Kevin Smith, director, actor, and self-named fat fuck, tweeted that he had been thrown off of a Southwest flight for being too fat. Southwest explained what happened on its blog (here’s a cached text-only shot, since Smith’s legions of fan-boys seem to have crashed Southwest’s blog). Smith tells his side in a series of tweets, such as these (understand that I’m only including the tweets that I feel are the most obnoxious and entertaining; you can see all of his tweets here):
He also tells the story here, in Smodcast #106 (worth listening to for the “Airplane” soundtrack in the background alone, but seriously, it takes off at around 52 minutes when he talks about another fat person being embarrassed on the Southwest flight he eventually ended up on). And if you need another angle on the story, a picture speaks a thousand words, and Smith took a picture of himself on a Southwest flight. I’m a fairly normal-sized person. Yes, I’ve been trying to lose weight for years, but those 30 or 40 pounds I’d love to get rid of keep me from looking good in a bathing suit, they do not keep me from sitting comfortably in any seat, anywhere. And based on that picture his shoulders and arms would be completely crowding me.
Having a policy isn’t enough
According to Southwest’s Q&A for “Customer of Size” (I LOVE that. Airlines also need to have policies for “Body of Stink” and “Baby of Volume.”) the armrest is the most important piece of this puzzle. You have to be able to lower the armrest and travel comfortably with it down. In addition, they also mention that you can’t “compromise any portion of adjacent seating,” which according to his own picture Smith clearly does: if the armrest were in the up position, frankly I’m not sure how he’d be able to move it to the down position without contorting like a circus freak. Once he did, he could probably fit just fine, and we could fly just fine, as long as he didn’t mind my cheek being up against his shoulder for the whole flight. But his shoulder and arm are clearly in the next seat’s space, and I’m not sure that has anything to do with weight. The seats are just fucking narrow. It’s a bargain airline and you get what you pay for.
But it’s all kind-of irrelevant. The problem is scattershot enforcement of the policy. Kevin Smith freely admits in the Smodcast that he routinely sometimes buys two seats because he doesn’t like sitting next to other people, and he can afford it, so why not? The problem is that Southwest, on its blog, seems to hold this up as proof that Smith is too fat to fly in one seat. It seems really weird to me that his willingness to blow extra money for another seat (something I would totally do if I could afford it) is being held against him as proof that he needs the extra seat. And we’re back to the crux of the problem: despite a detailed policy, it’s still not clear if he was too fat to fly in one seat. Because right now the whole thing is basically up to an employee’s whim.
Consumerist has a couple of stories about Southwest’s inconsistency with this policy. The policy isn’t the problem, it’s the fact that enforcement seems to be completely subjective. Catch a Southwest employee on the wrong day, and you’re screwed. And to make things even worse, if things go really wrong, they’re not going to tell you you can’t fly in one seat until you’re already seated, and if there’s no other seat available to buy, you can’t fly. And you get marched off of the plane in front of everybody. If you’re Kevin Smith, who routinely talks in public about how fat he is, that’s not a big deal. But if you’re some nobody with a fragile sense of self and no bully pulpit, you’re humiliated.
What’s the solution?
I don’t see how Southwest can continue to have this policy (and let me stress, I have no problem with the actual policy – if I pay for my little space, I want to be able to use all of it) without figuring out how to enforce it fairly. Weight can’t decide it. A tall person who’s 300lbs will fit into that seat a lot better than a 300lb person who’s 4’11”. You know that little metal box they have you put your carry-on bag in to make sure it will fit on the plane? Well, maybe there needs to be one of those in a room somewhere the same size and shape as the airplane seat. If your size is in question, you can go in there, away from the prying eyes of an airplane full of people, and the staff can move the armrests up and down and buckle you in and confirm (or not) that you fit (or don’t). Because the only thing more important than my comfort on the plane is your dignity, and Southwest needs to find a way to accommodate both, because we’re both paying customers. If you’ve got weight issues you know you’ve got them, and everybody who looks at you knows too. It’s absolutely wrong for you to be embarrassed further at the whim of a flight attendant or gate agent or pilot. And as Smith points out in his Smodcast, you can’t even stand up for yourself and raise a stink over a customer service issue on an airplane anymore. Thanks to September 11th, either the crew will put you in handcuffs or another passenger will tackle you like your crotch is on fire. You have to just be quiet and take it.
Get your act together, Southwest. You’ve got a policy in place, you’ve had it for a long time. So you should be better at enforcing it at this point. Whether someone agrees with your policy or not, they’ve got to have the proper tools to decide whether or not to fly your airline. It can’t be like a game of fatty roulette.