Kevin Smith and the Customers of Size

By | February 15, 2010
The passenger cabin of a Southwest Airlines Bo...
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Kevin Smith is well known for being an outspoken individual. Professionally, he is a well known actor/director/comedian/writer/podcaster.

Southwest is the classic low-cost carrier with a long-standing reputation for good customer service, and a simple, consistent product. They also have a long-standing policy for “Customers of Size.” They are not alone in having such a policy, which states if the armrests cannot come down, you must buy another seat, which will be refunded if the plane isn’t full.

We hate the debate over large customers, be they big, tall, or both. It never ends. And it invariably gets into an argument about the obesity issue in America. We’ve often said the only fair thing to do is size the seats to the statistically average American and accept that some people, many through no fault of their own, don’t fit the average. Airline seats, as we’ve mentioned before, are narrower than a standard office chair, for example. We think this is an industry problem, not a Southwest one.

We tried to stay out of it this time. But then Kevin Smith had to podcast about it. And that got our ire up on the issue. He does not seem to have any sense of what Southwest Airlines is about, or the state of the industry in general.

For one, he referred to Southwest as an Air Bus. We assume he was calling it like a bus in the air, not like the manufacturer Airbus, as Southwest is exclusively Boeing 737. This is obviously a man who has never experienced airlines like Skybus, Ryanair, and a large amount of discount carriers that make Southwest look luxurious by comparison. He refers to all of the Southwest Airlines employees as disinterested and apathetic, when they consistently get kudos for their service.

Mr. Smith admitted that in his travels he often buys two seats, as “Southwest is dirt cheap,” and we appreciate he recognizes this in an age with such downward pressure on fares. But, Smith recognizes that his comfort would be impacted by being limited to a single seat, regardless of whether or ot he could fit in a single seat.  He admits he buys Business Select so he can board first.

He was ticketed for a later flight, and was on standby for the flight in question. He also recounted how an employee asked if he was a revenue passenger. Boarding as a standby, it was quite possible he was travelling on airline pass, otherwise known as non-revenue travel. Mr. Smith misinterpreted the phrase.

From his statement, the gate agent implied he was a Customer of Size, and later boarded the plane after he had sat down to tell him he must be removed in an oddly speedy amount of time. The pacing of events in his story seems rather odd, if you listen to it. The most suspicious thing is his insistence that he was polite through the entire ordeal, which seems inconsistent with his public personality.

However, we do not think Southwest apologized to Kevin Smith for his experience merely because he is Kevin Smith. They are very proactive and responsive to complaints. They set aside a specific blog post because of the news it was getting, which any organization would do. Conversely, regardless of what happens, there is no good way to handle this issue.

Yes, they have a policy, and they have had it for years. It isn’t a secret and they do try to handle it with as much delicacy as possible, but sometimes there is no good way to handle it, and some people are better at it than others. The advice we have for Southwest Airlines is to find ways to better enforce their policy, since they are not going to change the basic tenets of the policy. Be uniform, and try to avoid giving anyone the feeling they are being discriminated against. They have always been most visible of all airlines in enforcing it.

They may have handled it wrong. They may have been wrong to remove him from the plane, or they may not have been. It would hardly be the first time we felt an airline provided bad customer service, but we’ll side with them over Kevin Smith. He admitted he is not looking for an apology, he is looking to “scorch Earth,” and even compared them to Hitler.

Honestly, listening to his podcast was an hour and a half we wish we could have back. Writing about it is even harder.