Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fat Chance: What the Pilot Saw

If you follow travel news, you've probably heard about the angry online exchange between movie director/actor Kevin Smith, a self-described fat guy, and Southwest Airlines, which ejected Smith from a flight prior to takeoff when the captain saw Smith wasn't able to fit into a seat on a crowded plane.

Smith took exception to being ejected, sounded off on his Twitter page, and an embarrased Southwest gave him a $100 U.S. voucher, put him on a later flight, apologized on Twitter and called Smith on the phone to say how abjectly sorry they were for following their own rules.

According to Smith, he had bought and paid for two seats, to help him get comfortable, on a later flight from Oakland, California, to Burbank, but boarded the earlier flight on standby to reach his destination sooner, thus inadvertently setting off the crisis. Smith's fans voiced full-throated support for him in online chatter.

A clear case of discrimination, right?

Not necessarily.

Smith wrote "I'm way fat...But I'm not THERE just yet, '' in his initial complaint about Southwest. He is a person of girth. I was a movie critic and feature writer a decade back. When I was working that gig, I interviewed Smith just after his first hit movie, "Clerks,'' came out. (His new effort is the Bruce Willis star vehicle "Cop Out.'') Smith was a big guy then, and judging from recent photos, is a bigger guy now.

So, what to do at a time when travelers are growing larger and aircraft operated by cash-strapped commercial airlines are growing smaller and more crowded?

Airlines, considering the expanding waistlines of passengers, have to decide what to do when a person who is way overweight can't fit into a seat or raise and lower the armrest. Some carriers - United Airlines, Air France and, of course, Southwest, among them - require hefty travelers to pay for two seats, with the understanding that the second-seat fare will be refunded if the plane doesn't fill up. The issue, airlines say, is the safety and especially the comfort of smaller passengers, who feel themselves practically smothered by their seatmates.

One voice of reason amid the rants and the vents appeared in an story, attributed to David Margulies, a public-relations executive who specializes in crisis management.

According to the report, "Margulies questioned whether the airline was being too polite by apologizing to Smith when its policy was both fair and reasonable. He said too many companies backed down from reasonable policies beause they are scared of negative publicity...''

According to the report, Margulies issued a statement, saying in part "Southwest has taken a very reasonable and fair approach to dealing with the issue of overweight customers and should be applauded for their actions. This is the time that customers and employees should take to the Internet in defense of the company.''

Consider this post a defense. Discrimination against travelers on the basis of, say, race or ethnicity is wrong; race and ethnicity are not chosen. Poundage is; losing weight may not be easy, but it is do-able. Overweight people can choose to slim down or not.

Moreover: In an age when commercial flights are increasingly crowded and cramped, and medical experts are deeply concerned about an epidemic of health-threatening obesity, and airlines are trying to cut their considerable fuel costs and go green in part by taking excess weight off of their planes, devising policies for heavy passengers is not illogical or unfair.

Now, the airlines need to be consistent and courageous and stand by their policies.

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