Tough President’s Day for Southwest Airlines: The Teflon brand, which has successfully thwarted several PR flare ups, is smack in the middle of the debate about airlines’ treatment of overweight passengers.
As you probably know, a Southwest pilot asked the movie director, Kevin Smith, to leave a flight Saturday night, claiming Smith was too large—or as many media outlets have put it, "too fat to fly"—and insisting that he buy a second seat on the airplane.
Southwest has a well-established policy of asking people deemed too large for their seats to purchase a second seat.
Smith directed cult classics, like Clerks and Mallrats, and stinkers like his last three movies.* For the last 48 hours he’s directed a social media assault against Southwest, with tweets about the incident flowing minute-by-minute. Here are two back-to-back tweets he sent around 5 p.m. ET Monday. I put them together as one sentence.
“Everyone’s so scared to admit to fault/f***up, for fear of getting sued. In front of y'all, I say this: I'll never sue @SouthwesternAir, no matter WHAT facts may emerge. I don't want any @SouthwestAir $$$, I want south western justice! You should get that, as you guys are Texans!”
As you can probably tell, @SouthwesternAir is Southwest’s Twitter feed.
In typical fashion, Southwest jumped all over the problem. By Sunday afternoon, the airline had addressed the issue on its blog, Nuts About Southwest. “First and foremost, to Mr. Smith; we would like to echo our Tweets and again offer our heartfelt apologies to you,” Southwest spokesperson Christi Day blogged. “We are sincerely sorry for your travel experience on Southwest Airlines.”
According to Day, Southwest attempted to call Smith to apologize personally.
Day explained the incident in the blog post; Smith spent Monday insisting that aspects of the blog post are untrue. For instance, the blog post said, “Mr. Smith originally purchased two Southwest seats on a flight from Oakland to Burbank—as he’s been known to do when traveling on Southwest.”
Outraged, Smith said on his Twitter page that he does not regularly purchase two tickets on Southwest and, if even if it were true, slammed the airline for sharing personal information about a customer.
This whole Smith incident is a problem for Southwest that could last longer than the usual whiplash-inducing news cycle. Here’s why:
1. Smith is a movie director. You know the saying about never picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Well, what about a guy who buys celluloid by the metric ton? Southwest could become the butt of jokes in Smith’s future movies.
2. Smith is promoting a movie, Cop Out, right now. That means every reporter he speaks to will ask him about the incident. Judging by Smith’s reaction to the incident, he’ll be all too happy to respond.
3. Smith is social media savvy. The airlines is praised often—by Ragan maybe more than anyone—for its social media chops. And rightly so, the company has tackled many high-profile PR problems with its blog (remember the skirt incident?). However, Smith is an avid Twitter member with more than 1.5 million followers. Southwest has slightly more than 1 million followers.
4. Smith is representative of two-thirds of America. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 67 percent of U.S. adults, older than 20, are overweight or obese. (I can’t say how much Smith weighs, but in 2008, Smith told The Los Angeles Times that he planned to take a break from directing to lose weight before it compromises his health.)
5. Smith received a personal apology from Southwest. This is probably the biggest strike against the airlines. How often does the company personally apologize to all the other people it asks to buy two seats on Southwest flights?
*Zack and Miri Make a Porno was pretty good.