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Booting the Biggest Booties

Categories: Opinion

On February 13, 2010, film director Kevin Smith was told by Southwest Airlines he was too fat to fly unless he paid for two seats (CBS News).  Emery Orto was kicked off of a Southwest Airlines flight for being too fat (abcnews).  So was Chip [last name unknown], a Southwest Airlines frequent flier (his blog).  And a "Chicagoland man" (consumerist.com).

Does there appear to be a pattern here?

Reasons for the boot range from pre-flight "weight and balance" issues to potential evacuation risks to discomfort of passengers who might be seated next to the alleged offenders.  Whatever the excuses given, Southwest claims it's a safety issue.

Many people support Southwest's policy.  And, although I think Southwest's decision is a poor one, if that's what Southwest passengers want, that's what they should get.  The problem, as I see it, is not Southwest's decision - they are, after all, an American company operating in what is supposed to be a free market in a Democratic society - it's how Southwest is making those decisions.  They allow passengers to buy tickets, then tell them at the last minute that they cannot continue on the flight.  In some cases, they allow the passengers to board the aircraft before kicking them off.

Southwest's goal is to fill up each flight by selling as many tickets as they can, then singling out the passengers who appear to be the heaviest.  This is in Southwest's best interest since it allows them to keep the highest number of passengers.  But wouldn't a first come-first served method be more fair?  In other words, if the total allowable weight of any particular flight is over the limits, shouldn't the last person to buy a ticket be bumped bumped?  LIFO, as computer programmers would say - last in, first out.  If that didn't bring the weight down sufficiently, the airline could go to the next to the last passengers to purchase tickets, and so on until the weight was acceptable.  Of course, this might mean that two or three or even more passengers be bumped, rather than the one overweight passenger.  Not gonna happen.

SOLUTION

If Southwest is going to continue with this policy, here's how they should implement it:

  1. Require that each passenger report their weight when purchasing a ticket.  (Baggage weight can be estimated initially and verified at check in, as they currently do.)
  2. The maximum allowable weight for each aircraft type is already established by the aircraft manufacturers.
  3. When the combined total weight of all passengers meets or exceeds the total allowable weight, all ticket sales cease.  The flight will be considered "sold out" regardless of how many seats are empty or full.

The problem here is that some flights may have empty seats when there are passengers willing to fill them, even knowing the flight is overweight and a potential safety risk.  On the other hand, the passengers who made it onto the flight first would probably not be willing to accept the risk, since they might actually be the ones to suffer.  So with this system, Southwest would have empty seats, which means a decrease in revenue.  But safety first, right?  Or not.

Although that would be a fair procedure for all involved, it may not be the most profitable.  And, of course, Southwest, and any other commercial airline carrier, is not in the business to be fair; they are in the business to make a profit.  And by booting the biggest booties, apparently Southwest believes that's how they're going to remain competitive.  But are they shooting themselves in the foot with the repetitious negative publicity?

Southwest happens to be my favorite airline.  This despite the fact that their director of flight operations, Gregg Crum, believes the missile that flew past my 1998 Southwest flight was a "Boeing MD-80" (McDonnell-Douglas makes the MD-80, not Boeing).  In any case, I like what Southwest has done, that is, provide safe and efficient air transportion at a reasonable price.

On the other hand, I'm a man of principles, and I'm doing my best to treat others with respect and compassion, so when I find a just cause I like to support it.  But do I really want to battle my favorite airline?

It turns out the question is moot.  I can oppose Southwest's policy based on principle, but I don't have to boycott them.  You see, I'd rather not fly at all any more.  On any airline.  It's simply not worth the hassle.  As much as I love to travel, I also love to drive, and there's a lot to see and do in the U.S.  So I'll do my part to support those who are unfairly treated, but if I really, really need to fly again, I'll probably go on Southwest.


"If you can't say something nice, let's hear it!"   — Joan Rivers

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