Southwest Airlines Has a Big, Fat Kevin Smith Problem

If you're an airline looking for a candidate upon whom to enforce a controversial and inconsistently applied policy, don't choose a famous film director -- especially one with a cult following and a keen grasp of the power of social media.Southwest Airlines (LUV) failed to heed this (admittedly post facto) bit of advice, and now it has a sizable public relations problem on its hands. The debacle began on Saturday, when the flight crew on a Southwest plane heading from Oakland to Burbank instructed Kevin Smith (pictured), the filmmaker behind Clerks, Chasing Amy and Dogma, to exit the plane, saying he was in violation of the company's "Customers of Size" policy.

That policy requires passengers whose girth makes them unable to fit into a seat with the armrests down, or whose bodies spill over into adjacent seats, to buy a second ticket. The policy is meant to ensure the comfort of other passengers and to prevent traffic jams in case of an emergency evacuation.

Going Public

After briefly protesting, Smith complied -- then immediately took to Twitter to lambaste the airline for misapplying the policy and publicly humiliating him in the process. Appealing directly to his 1.6 million-plus followers, the director acknowledged that he's "way fat" but said he had, in fact, been able to lower the armrests, and had demonstrated as much to the flight attendant who asked him to leave. Smith was assigned to a different plane -- where, he says, he made a point of confining himself to a single seat, armrests down.

Southwest was quick to apologize for Smith's unsatisfactory "travel experience," but has yet to concede anything beyond clumsy handling of an unfortunate situation. In a blog post addressing the incident, the airline took an implied swipe at Smith for going public with his grievance (the post was titled "Not So Silent Bob," a reference to Silent Bob, a character Smith has played in several films) and claimed that Smith himself knew he was fat enough to require a second seat, having purchased extra seats for himself on past flights.

Smith -- who, it should be noted, has a new film to promote -- isn't letting the issue die. He says the extra seats were simply for privacy, and that he will gladly submit to a televised demonstration of his ability to fit in a standard airplane seat.

"An Opportunity for Some Retraining"

A spokeswoman for Southwest says the company has no plans at this time to review the "Customers of Size" policy, but she says the incident will be treated as an "opportunity for some retraining of how to implement [it]." She also says that since Smith made his complaints public, the company has heard from both customers who oppose the policy and those who support it.

Without question, Smith is a hefty fellow, the sort of seatmate who could indeed make a cross-country flight even more cramped and unpleasant than it already is. But even if you don't take up a lot of space yourself, and even if you (ahem) find Smith's movies witless and self-congratulatory, it's hard not to sympathize with him in his fight against an industry that all too often treats people like cargo.
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