Team Southwest vs. Team Silent Bob

So I don’t have time to write two blogs.  From Marketing Conversation:

Which side are you on in this Twitterrific customer service debate between Southwest Airlines and director Kevin Smith aka “Silent Bob“?  I can understand both sides of the story, but personally, I’m with Team Southwest.  But Team Southwest but only because I think their communications team handled the situation well, not because of their customer service. Let me explain.

Last Saturday, Kevin Smith purchased two seats on a plane from Oakland to Burbank, which SWA claims is common practice for the not-so-small man.  However, Smith decided to switch to an earlier flight and fly stand-by which did not guarantee him a seat, let alone two.  After all the passengers with tickets were boarded, stand-by passengers like Smith were allowed to board.  Smith found a single seat, buckled up, and prepared for take-off.

Shortly after being seated, Smith was approached by a flight attendant who said she was told by the captain that Smith violated the airline’s “Customer of Size” policy that requires passengers that can not fit safely and comfortably in one seat to purchase an additional seat while traveling.  According to Southwest:

The spirit of this policy is based solely on Customer comfort and Safety. As a Company committed to serving our Customers in Safety and comfort, we feel the definitive boundary between seats is the armrest. 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.

Smith was asked to leave the plane, placed on a later flight on which two seats were available and given a $100 travel voucher.

Enter PR nightmare for Southwest as Smith proceeded to inflame the Twittersphere with a barrage of angry rants about his experience.  Smith is a popular celebrity director/actor and has over 1 million followers on Twitter, so you can imagine Southwest was quick to respond.  Christi Day, Emerging Media Specialist, posted this blog in defense of the employees’ enforcement of the “Customer of Size” policy.  In my opinion, her response was to the point, addressed what happened and explained why the employees did what they did.

But, the rantings continued, even after Southwest personally apologized (well, so they say).  So, Linda Rutherford, VP of Strategic Communications, wrote another blog post apologizing again and noting that the airline employees could have handled the situation better.  She adds that Southwest will be reviewing the policy and trying to figure out a way to implement it better.

Good work Communications department.  I think your responses were timely and said everything that needed to be said.  One, you apologized.  Two, you said you’d address the problem and said you’d try to be better in the future.  That’s all I need to feel good about flying Southwest again.

However, giant fail for the employees on the flight.  It is incredibly obvious to me that this policy should not be “zero tolerance.”  The captain should have made a more calculated judgment about the safety and comfort of passengers on the plane.  The flight from Oakland to Burbank is a little over an hour.  I’ll give up half my seat to a “Customer of Size” next to me for an hour if it means not having to delay take-off because of this BS.

As a former frequent flyer, I’ve had my fair share of  inconveniences from passengers of size, passengers of snoring and even passengers of smelly feet, so I’m a fan of policies that help make the flying experience more bearable for those of us who usually just sit quietly and endure 10 hours of uncomfort so that no one is embarrassed.  But on a 1 hour flight?  Use some judgment Southwest.  And maybe just give the passengers on either side of Smith a $100 voucher.  We like those too.

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