Wedged in the Window Seat

By Robert Mark on February 22nd, 2010

spirit1 I have a confession.

I’m responsible for much of the hate spewed at my friends Christi Day and Linda Rutherford at Southwest Airlines when a Southwest pilot tossed director Kevin Smith off a flight last week. The aircraft captain decided Smith was too gastronomically challenged to fit into the seat. Smith blogged and Tweeted ( let’s see, what’s a good word for rudely) about being asked to leave the flight which caused the airline no small amount of embarrassment, despite the fact that Rutherford posted a public apology on behalf of Southwest.

All I can say is that I’m really, really sorry to have put my friends in this corner.

I could have prevented this mess if only I’d spoken up about the chunky guy that squished me into a window seat when I climbed aboard a Southwest flight back from San Antonio to Midway through Nashville a few days before. But I didn’t. I was too uncomfortable to ask this guy to move they hell over to his own seat and leave me mine, even with the armrest down. Nope I sat sideways from SAT to BNA with my mouth shut.

And let’s be serious, that’s what this is all about … skinny, wimpy guys like me who don’t want to make a scene because they’re afraid a lunatic chubbo like Smith is going to haul off on them. So we suffer in silence. And we shouldn’t. I’m sorry they’re overweight, but it’s not my fault.

The Southwest people did the right thing by pulling Smith off the flight. Sure they could probably have offered him a free ticket rather than a voucher, but considering Smith’s short fuse, I doubt it would have helped anyway. That’s OK though. As one of my clients told me after the Smith affair, she would never change her mind about Southwest based on the rantings of a guy who had everything to gain for himself – as in free publicity – by going nuts on his blog and Twitter.

That being said, this incident again shows the power of social media on a brand. Ignore it at your peril.

And Christi and Linda. I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t be squished against the window again. I’ll speak up first next time so people like Kevin Smith won’t be able to say that some mean old airline is picking on them. I’ll pick on them first. But I’ll make sure I speak up nicely, using clean persuasive words in case it’s Smith sitting next to me — Rob Mark

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20 Responses to “Wedged in the Window Seat”

  1. FlyingPhotog Says:

    I’m with you, Rob. Those of us stuck “in the wedge” should speak up.

  2. Carl Says:

    What’s next, people with BO? People’s feet are too big? Don’t like sitting next to black people?

    I’m a big guy, and honestly I have flown 5+ hour flights with my shoulders hunched forward to avoid taking any ones personal space. What about big people that aren’t overweight and are just big tall people? Ever sat next to a WWF wrestler, I have, and their shoulders took up a lot more space than your average overweight American.

    Personally I would like to see airlines get stricter with carry on luggage first, then they can add a area that says if you don’t fit in this space, you’re too big to fly and need to be checked. The rules airlines are going to apply need to be clearly visible and well published.

  3. Rob Mark Says:

    Excellent point Carl.

    Without trying to sound like a guy who says “Why can’t we all just get along,” I’d go the extra mile for someone who was big if they just once even looked like they noticed they were hanging over my seat.

  4. Christi Day Says:

    Hey Rob -

    Thank you for finally taking ownership of this situation ; ) Just kidding. It was a very interesting week for us on the communication team! Hopefully this next week will be a bit quieter!

    Christi

  5. John Kosak Says:

    I would like to weigh in on the topic. Disclaimer: I am most likely closer to Kevin’s size than I am to yours. I have two problems with this issue. The first relates directly to Southwest. It appears that even though they have had this policy in place for over 25 years, the implementation of that policy has been spotty. It’s one thing to be told at the start of your flying that you’re going to require two seats. It’s quite another to let someone fly the first leg of their itinerary and then strand them because another captain, flight attendant or customer now believes that this “customer of size” needs two seats instead of one. With a large portion of our society being “super-sized” these days, it might be a good time for Southwest and other airlines to train their staff on recognizing these situations and how to deal with them.

    My second problem is that in coach class, everyone shares an armrest. That armrest is barely big enough to support the arm of one small person, let alone a pair of arms. So how does an airline decide who is encroaching on whom when they are already forcing customers to share the armrest? Shouldn’t they really be giving a discount for the poor sap that gets stuck with the middle seat and has to share an armrest on both sides?

    I believe that everyone is entitled to be as comfortable as possible when they travel. However, if the airlines are part of the problem with the way they pack people into an aircraft, perhaps they owe it to us to fix that first. JetBlue is one of my favorite airlines to fly because they took out one row of seats to give everyone on the flight more legroom. I’m more inclined to fly JetBlue now after experiencing that extra space on a trip from Dulles to Longbeach and back, even if their ticket was a little more expensive than another airline, because of the extra legroom. I have also experienced this extra legroom on a Compass Airlines Embraer 175 aircraft.

    I’m hoping that in the future more airlines like JetBlue and Compass will work to increase our comfort as coach passengers realizing that happy flyers, no matter what size, will choose their airline more often than embarrassed or disenfranchised customers.

    John Kosak
    Defender13 on Twitter

  6. Leslie from Toulouse Says:

    Just wanted to say I thought that this was a brilliant article. I hope that it gets a really good circulation.

    On an LHR-IAH Continental flight last year the man in front of me literally took up 3 seats. He sat in the middle seat with the 2 arm rests up and 3 extension belts (I know how many belts because I asked).

    Fortunately this was a 3/4s empty B777- his wife took up 2 seats in the row in front of him.

    He couldn’t ever lever himself out of his seat(s) without help- in an evac- potential tragedy.

    Sorry about the hassle for your friends but you were right.

    Take care-

    Leslie Storie-Pugh France

  7. TennTom Says:

    I think the most disheartening thing about the original post is the attitude of the author toward fat people. It is hard to take him seriously.

    I am half the size I used to be, so I have seen this issue from both sides. Nowadays, I (once again) fly Southwest (from Nashville, it is often the only option unless you want to fly all day). Nobody has mentioned the ridiculously narrow seats (in addition to the aforementioned lack of leg room). They are hardly comfortable for a “normal” person- whoever that is. The population is getting larger, and the seats have gotten smaller.

    I love flying Southwest! My personal “downsizing” has opened up the world to me. I enjoy traveling (flying, not so much), and one of my favorite vacations is relaxing on a cruise ship (another difficult option for an obese person). I appreciate SWA’s stance on extra fees… it can save one HUNDREDS of dollars on one round trip. I have always had a great experience with Southwest’s staff, which I can’t say for most of the other airlines. SWA does a lot of things right, but I think they need to work on this policy.

    As one commenter pointed out… there is a lot of inconsistency in the policy enforcement. You can get to your destination without any issues, only to be confronted with the policy on your return flight(s). A lot of travelers don’t have a lot of bucks laying around to suddenly by another seat, if required.

    Let me assure you that Southwest has accomplished a lot by the publicity this policy has generated over the years. I know quite a few people who will not consider flying with them because of it. So, I guess it is already “working” in that regard.

    Other airlines have similar policies, and I am not sure why Southwest is always the one that gets the bad publicity. Do they administer it differently?

    As you can tell, I am all over the board on this issue. I understand all sides… and agree with much of what each side says. I hope Southwest can find a better solution in the long term… and I know they are working on it because they are that kind of company.

    I know the OP was coming to the defense of his friends at SWA, but the tone and hostility show his lack of objectivity on the subject.

  8. Rob Mark Says:

    Dear TennTom:

    Thanks for your note. My post was meant a bit tongue in cheek, but not that much.

    I’m NOT a large guy. That’s OK with me although I always wished I were taller which might have altered some of my opinions here. But I’m not, so I’m stuck.

    Large people are stuck with themselves too, whether they like it or not.

    All I ask for is a little consideration when they plunk themselves down next to me. Just pretend even that you noticed you’re squishing me. The acknowledgement would go along way for me.

    But as to your final point about why Southwest gets this kind of heat. I think it’s because they’ve put themselves out into the conversation stream. Do that and your number just comes up I think.

    I’m not holding my breath for United or American to try this. They’d shut their blog down in a week.

    Rob

  9. Norman Says:

    At 6’6″ I feel the need for space Rob. When some dork reclines his seat without thought or consideration I am absolutely sure he isn’t aware how close to death by garotting with my shoelaces he really is.

    As for really large people – it is a problem that the lighter loads of recessional days will relieve I suppose. Every cloud has a silver lining… ;-)

  10. No Name Says:

    How about the airlines just start charging everyone by weight? Each traveler shows up at the airport with all of their baggage and carry-on items and stands on a scale, and the ticket price is computed based on the total weight of passenger + baggage, which would do away with the extra bag fees that we all hate because it drives everyone to bring all their junk into the passenger cabin as carry-on items. Book flights on a baseline or estimated weight. Above a certain weight threshold, you get an extra seat. Minimum of one seat per person, so no more ‘laps’, but pay less for a small person (i.e., a child) than for a full-size adult.

  11. TennTom Says:

    Thanks for the post back, Rob. Sometimes I scan things so quickly I don’t pick up on the “tongue in cheek” part.

    You make a couple of other really good points. Yes, large people are “stuck with themselves”, too. Believe me, it isn’t fun to fly. I am a long-legged 6’1″, and I have had some really miserable flights- just because of the legroom.

    I laughed when I read the post about flying next to a WWA wrestler. That happened to me on a commuter plane, once. Apparently there was a match in Portland, and all of the wrestlers converged on the same flight in Charlotte.

    There are so many ways flying can become unpleasant. At the top of my list is people who reline their seats into you lap… just because they can.

    Thank goodness smoking is no longer allowed on flights! (and I used to be a smoker)

    Lets save the screaming baby for another time! :)

    As I said, I am a big fan of Southwest, and (thankfully) they are the primary airline for Nashville.

  12. Robert Mark Says:

    You and Norman have my vote against the folks who want to whack those people who not simply recline on your legs, but seem to relish in throwing the seat into reverse.

    I make sure I cross and uncross my legs frequently just so I can jab a knee back aty them. I fell really silly saying this.

    But what about that reader’s suggestion earlier — tickets by weight. If it was based on 180 pound person and you paid more if heavier and less if you were lighter, what would happen? That would be really interesting I think.

    Christi — are you listening on this one?

  13. John Kosak Says:

    Rob –

    I would have to go on a diet if we paid by weight. However, it would address another concern of mine as a dispatcher. The weight and balance is based on some pretty outdated “average” weights. I weigh in at 285 pounds, plus my camera bag with computer and a carry-on, I’m tipping the scales at well over 300 pounds for one person. I remember being on a regional jet once when we had to burn off over 45 minutes worth of fuel to be under our max landing weight at the destination because we were only traveling from LAN-GRR (Lansing to Grand Rapids, MI). If they had weighed me and the others, I fear we might have had to sit another five minutes for me.

  14. Adam Rosenbloom Says:

    I could be wrong about this, but the when this story first broke, I remember hearing that Smith was flying standby on an earlier flight and HAD purchased two seats for his ticketed flight. He was aware of the policy and (presumably) had played by its rules before. Now he wanted to get home early, but they only found him one seat. I really don’t see how he can be outraged about the enforcement of a policy with which he had originally intended to cooperate. I’ll shut up if this was the first time Smith had ever flown Southwest, but that seems unlikely.

    On the issue of the policy itself, safety is the real issue here. We hear that all the time from airlines and in aviation in general, even when it only seems to apply marginally, but I really think that it does here. Very few travelers seriously consider what they would do “in the unlikely event of an evacuation…”

    I also think that this is difficult to communicate to the non-aviation community. I think most people would be surprised to learn how much airlines really do invest in safety. Most people get to the airport, get on the plane, fall asleep, and wake up in a new place, with no concern for how they got there (this is not a negative judgement, just an observation).

    For me, and probably lots of the people who read this blog, what goes on behind the scenes is a lot more interesting and important. This is where safety takes center stage. The FAA does not allow any component of a plane to be flammable because of the fire danger in flight or in a crash. The flight attendants tell you how to buckle your seatbelt and where the exits are because emergencies really do happen. The A380 was evacuated in under 5 minutes during a certification test. Do you think that could have happened with 300 unprepared, people who needed a flight attendants help to get out of their seat?

    Airlines have these policies and the FAA has these regulations so that people can evacuate safely if an emergency happens. I think that the second comment’s extrapolations of this policy to African Americans and people with big feet are unwarranted and inappropriate. And Rob, I don’t think it’s about being uncomfortable next to a bigger person either. I had a flight from DFW to ORD next to a big guy last year that was no problem, but a flight less than half as long from ORD to RST with a smelly guy that was twice as bad. Despite the uncomfortable smell, I still could have made it out of the plane in an emergency (unless the rest of the passengers and I created a log jam at the door trying to escape the smell). The issue is safety, plain and simple.

  15. Carl Says:

    @Adam you’re making a sweeping assumption about large people being unable to move or get out in an emergency. I suppose we should also bar disabled people of regular weight as they may obstruct someone from evacuating the plane?

    I actually believe the FAA should research this, and should probably have rules and policies around this, as we can see that airlines are inconsistent in their approach.

  16. No Name Says:

    I agree that there is a safety issue with evacuations, specifically that the emergency exits are too small and the aisles too narrow to facilitate a safe evacuation even for those of us who are not much larger than average. We’ve known about this even before the British Airtours 737 incident that killed 55 people in Manchester in 1985; this is not a new problem. Why aren’t the exit doors larger? Why aren’t the aisles and the exit rows wider? Do you think maybe it’s because the airlines want to be able to pack in as many seats as they possibly can, and FAA either won’t or can’t tell them to provide evacuation and exit routes that meet standards similar to ordinary building codes?

  17. Adam Rosenbloom Says:

    Sorry, @Carl. Let me be more clear. I’m not saying large people are all unable to get out of their seats quickly. I’m talking about large people WHO are unable to get out of their seats fast enough in an emergency, and I believe the FAA is too. If someone is unable to put the armrests on their seat down easily without parts of their body hanging over them, how quickly will they be able to move down the aisle and out the emergency exit? Giving all occupants the ability to exit the plane quickly in an emergency is a high priority for the FAA.

    To your second point, @Carl, they do reject people of normal weight if they have reason to believe they’d block people from getting out of the plane. Thats why they ask those questions to everyone sitting in exit rows.

    I want to reiterate my main point from my last comment: this is a safety issue, not a moral one.

  18. Carl Says:

    @Adam,

    OK so if I read that clearly, large people, disabled people in none emergency exits are ok then? So the person wedged against the window could still be left in a tricky situation, but most people would get off?

    Old people can move pretty slow too, new rules for them maybe.

  19. B-Rad Says:

    Great post Rob!

    This issue simply comes down to business. They make policies they stick to them. You accept them when you buy the ticket. If you don’t like it go somewhere else. The problem here is that the most profitable airline in history standards didn’t “fit” Kevin Smith’s needs.

    There is a reason Southwest made this policy and it is the same reason you don’t have a lemon chicken dinner with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy on your flight. They are a LOW BUDGET airline! So go ahead and rant. They make decisions that keep them profitable.

    Southwest has perfected the airline business by performing outstanding customer service. For that I will always be a Raving Fan.

    “To err is human, to forgive divine”

  20. Robert Mark Says:

    Kevin Smith lost me when I found out that he purchased two tickets, which was his admission that he was a wide-body ( sorry, that’s what pilots call folks like this).

    When the stand-by opening came up, it was for a single seat, which should have honestly rung the bell for the CSA as well, but that’s water under the bridge.

    He knew a two-seat guy in a one-guy seat was going to be a problem. I agree with B-Rad and the safety comments.

    Sorry Kevin. If you don’t like it, don’t fly Southwest. That’s what I did with United. They seem to screw something up every time I fly them, so I simply stopped buying their product.

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