Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Southwest Airlines' Big Fat Problem

Southwest Airlines has a problem, and it is not related to scheduling snags or lost luggage.  No, their problem is closely related to America's ever-expanding waistline, and how they handle the increasingly more frequent "passenger of size" conflicts that come up.  You may recall hearing about Kevin Smith being kicked off a Southwest flight a couple of years ago, but you may not have heard about the dozen or so other incidents involving not-so-famous people linked here in an article detailing the Smith incident.  But this post is not only about Kevin Smith, for he is far from the only one to have such problems.

The debate about this has raged for some time, especially in an era when airplane seats seem to get smaller and smaller, and an era in which there are fewer flights, less planes, and way more people on each flight.  Let me state just once for the record: I support these policies in principle.  I understand that if someone just does not fit in one seat, that if they are significantly encroaching on another seat or the aisle, there is a legitimate safety and comfort issue there, not only for the overweight passenger but other passengers and the crew.  I understand that larger travelers need to be aware of this and plan accordingly.  But let me shed a bit of light on this from the other side of the issue.

So alright, in the interest of full disclosure I will say this much: I am what you would call a large gentleman.  I was well aware, at a certain point, that I had reached a "borderline" size and was reminded of this often from 2008 to 2010 because I travelled often, all on Southwest Airlines.  I never had a problem and was never required to buy two seats during this period, but I was "profiled" once during a work day trip by a gate agent in San Diego.  She was discreet and sat right next to me to ask if I wanted to pre-board to "make sure" I could fit in one seat.  I was flying a half dozen times or more a month during this time so I knew I'd be fine, but I took the pre-board offer anyway, and indeed everything was fine.  I did, however, familiarize myself with the Southwest "Customers Of Size" policy after this flight.

Things for me came to a crossroads last fall, October 2011, when I knew I was probably too far over the borderline to not be "too fat to fly" in only one seat.  A friend of mine who lived in Massachusetts passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, and to put it mildly the last minute purchase meant I could only afford one seat to make it out for the memorial service.  And so, I simply bought a ticket for one seat and hoped for empty flights.  I had no problem flying out, but the flight back was tougher because the flight was completely full, and I got a late B boarding number and as a result, had no seat I could "hide" in once I got on the plane, like a window seat in the middle of the plane, where there's more width between the seat and the window to squish over into.  I ended up in the very last row in the most pinched seats on the plane inconveniencing two ladies who were travelling from England.  The flight was delayed about 15 minutes over this as Southwest flight attendants agreed to let me fly despite my size and offered the ladies refunds on their tickets.  I was very apologetic and indeed I did accept full blame for all of this, as I did know my size was an issue but was hoping I could skate so I could be able to fly last minute.  I thought this would be the most embarrassed I would ever be on a flight, but I was sorely mistaken.

A couple of months ago I booked a trip to Virginia, with a brief swing up to Boston to visit my now passed-away friend's family on the occasion of my friend's birthday.  Now, obviously after my last experience, I know I am a customer in need of "special treatment" unless and until I go on a radical diet or pay for a lap band, so in an effort to prevent any further embarrassing mishaps, I scheduled my somewhat-tricky itinerary by phone and called back a week after booking my flight to confirm everything was in order.  I arranged to fly back from Boston first class on another airline, mostly because I was able to get a deal on that leg of the trip, and that leg ended up cheaper than buying two seats from Southwest and you cannot beat first class.  But for most of my trip, I was on Southwest's good graces.

So I want to stress again: by the time I got up to the gate an hour before my flight was due to start boarding, I had been told by no less than three people (the two agents I spoke with on the phone and the ticketing agent at check-in) that I was set and had two seats booked for both legs: from San Diego to Virginia and from Virginia to Boston.  But, just to quadruple check, I still went straight to the gate agent (who later told me her name was "Sigi" but would not give her last name) and handed her both of my boarding passes to inform her of my "special needs" and give her advance notice in case I needed to pre-board or something similar.

For some reason, this is where things went insane.  Five minutes of her furrowing her brow at her computer monitor and furiously typing and clicking turned into fifteen, then thirty, and soon enough forty-five.  After asking her several times what the problem was, I heard her vaguely say there was a problem with my Virginia to Boston leg but she never once spoke to me about this in complete sentences and did not indicate there was a problem with the reservation itself or the quantity of seats as purchased, merely the ticket type and how it was entered originally.

So, as I stood at the counter still waiting on "Sigi" to finish her work, my flight starts lining up to board.  I show my mother, who was travelling with me to Virginia, where to stand and then go back to see what is going on.  It was at this point I was informed that I needed to purchase a second seat for my second trip, which was not happening for nine more days.  I was required to do this before I would be allowed to board a flight I, and they, agreed I had paid for in full.  As my protestations caused the gate agent to turn the situation from a minor disagreement into a full-on hostage taking once everyone started boarding the flight I was due to leave on, a fracas that did make me the center of attention for twenty feet around, a snide and discourteous supervisor named Rich Koeing entered the scene to inform me I was an idiot who "booked my trip wrong" and that I had to pay $225 or I would not be allowed to board my airplane. 

By this point my mother was on the plane saving two seats all by herself, seats I had paid for in full, while I tried to ask an unreceptive prick why I should be required to change a trip I was not due to take for nearly nine days when the flight we all agreed I had paid for in full was sitting on the tarmac waiting for me to board?  I was never given an answer to any of these questions, and throughout the whole ordeal I was talked down to, condescended to and basically held against my will.  I finally threw a credit card at the supervisor and cursed him while he proceeded to take his ransom money.  I made sure to take his name and the gate agent's name, promising consequences would follow.  His reply was, "I enjoy your threats very much, sir," which he said with a smug smile of satisfaction.  Oh, he had gotten what he wanted.  But I wasn't through.

I did lodge a complaint when I finally got to my destination, after finally getting on my plane and finding my seats.  In fact, I lodged several, and stressed each time how I was singled out by these two employees and basically made the center of attention because I was a "customer of size" who is admittedly and obviously fat, but also did their level best to make themselves known and accommodate their situation, efforts that of course were all for naught in the end.  This should come as no surprise because as I point out above, Southwest Airlines has a long and sordid history of discrimination of the large.  It is quite obvious they see the large as an annoyance, and a group to be called attention to and inconvenienced, out of pure spite if for no other reason.

In the end, I was refunded the extra seat I had purchased on both of my flights and was told the two employees I named would be "re-trained and reprimanded" but I am not through yet, not by a long shot.  It may take me a bit of time, but I will be pursuing my legal options concerning this and Southwest, if I am able to bring enough attention to this, will be embarrassed once again for treating human beings as garbage.

Southwest Airlines, on the off chance any of your employees are reading this, know the following: your airline hires and harbors a bunch of bigots that make it their personal mission to single out and humiliate large customers for their own personal amusement.  You deserve to be sued into oblivion each and every time this happens to another person, and I, along with Kevin Smith, Kenlie Tiggeman and many others you have humiliated, will devote our energies into making you pay for it by embarrassing you for your lack of sensitivity and discretion.  I, for one, will never fly your airline again for any price, no matter how cheap, and I used to be an A-list frequent flyer.  Your pathetic "refund" was not enough to settle this for me, but nice try anyway.

I may be fat as hell, but I'm still deserving of basic human dignity, at the very least.