Will Airlines Ever Change Their "Customer Of Size" Policies?


Southwest is now claiming it will review its “Customer of Size” policy in response to Kevin Smith’s criticism. But will anything really change?

Southwest’s first blog post about its decision that Smith was “too fat to fly” wasn’t especially apologetic, closing with “If a Customer cannot comfortably lower the armrest and infringes on a portion of another seat, a Customer seated adjacent would be very uncomfortable and a timely exit from the aircraft in the event of an emergency might be compromised if we allow a cramped, restricted seating arrangement.” But on Monday, a post by Linda Rutherford sang a slightly different tune. Rutherford wrote, in part,

Although I’m not here to debate the decision our Employees made, I can tell you that I for one have learned a lot today. The communication among our Employees was not as sharp as it should have been and, it’s apparent that Southwest could have handled this situation differently. […]
Southwest, like most carriers, has a policy to assist passengers who need two seats onboard an aircraft. The policy is an important one for the comfort and safety of all passengers aboard a plane, and we stand by that 25-year-old policy. This has our attention, and we will be reviewing how and when this delicate policy is implemented.

So, uh, mistakes were made? And also Southwest “stands by” (perhaps a poor choice of words) its policy, but is planning to “review” it? Is this all just empty rhetoric, or might Southwest actually implement a just and non-humiliating way for fat people to fly? According to Justin Bachman of BusinessWeek’s Traveler’s Check blog, probably the former. Bachman writes that as Americans get bigger, airlines could “change the seating configuration of the typical domestic airplane from a 3×3 seating to one that has two seats on each side, or maybe a 3×2.” But they probably won’t. He explains:

Such scenarios are not realistic, since the whole point of an airplane is revenue generation and the dictum that more seats equals more money. Passenger size is not a factor. Will it ever be? In all likelihood, not for quite some time, if ever, says Greg Powell, a vice president at BE Aerospace, the Florida company that makes the seats for Southwest’s 737 fleet. Airlines are not clamoring for wider seats – just lighter ones, to reduce fuel burn. That’s why modern airplane seats have become notably thinner in recent years but seat width has not kept pace with that of Americans’.

Kate Harding responded to Southwest’s initial “cramped, restricted seating arrangement comment thusly: “‘If we allowed a cramped, restricted seating arrangement? Because ‘The Greyhound of the Skies’ is positively roomy when there are no fat people on board?'” The truth is, airlines have effectively shifted the blame to fat people for their policy of cramming as many people as possible onto planes with no regard for their comfort. And as one commenter on Traveler’s Check pointed out, this isn’t just a problem for “Customers of Size,” unless “size” means “over 5’5″.” Bob writes,

I work for an airline and have since the 1980’s. I’m also a big guy. Not obese but tall and wide. I’d probably get fired for saying this, but my own airlines is very uncomfortable for anyone over 5 5 and 160 pounds. And if you try to use a laptop and someone has reclined in front of you, forget it. And if someone has a kid in their lap, it is insane. Don’t frame this like it’s just a fat issue. I’m not fat and I’d love to see more space mandated. I want to work on a plane, and can’t. I practically have to fold myself in.
I’ve worked for the airlines business and traveled a lot and let me tell you, seats and space has gotten smaller in the last twenty years. It’s not all about people getting fat. Almost no one who is a journalist has mentioned this, yet considering if they’ve traveled and over 35, they have to know.

“Customers of Size” policies are actually an enormous PR victory for airlines, making customers believe that their lack of personal space is due to the fatness of their seatmates and not to the actions of companies that consistently provide one of the worst services in existence (would we tolerate anywhere else the indignity and discomfort we pay through the nose for in the air?). This works because America’s fat-phobia is so entrenched that even when airlines shrink seats, overbook flights, and generally dicks us around in every way, plenty of people will still say “perhaps one should be penalized for being overweight” and not “perhaps companies should be penalized for a shitty product.” Maybe Kevin Smith‘s ordeal will bring some attention to the problem. But sadly, things probably won’t change until customers recognize that they’re all being screwed — and until an airline steps up to offer a reasonable alternative.

My Conversation with Kevin Smith [Nuts About Southwest]
Fat Nation: Kevin Smith Is Not Alone In Airplane Space Wars [BusinessWeek: Traveler’s Check Blog]
Kevin Smith: The Face Of Flying While Fat [Broadsheet]
Not So Silent Bob [Nuts About Southwest]

Earlier: Kevin Smith Isn’t The First Person Southwest Deemed “Too Fat To Fly”

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