Saturday, December 19, 2009

two seats

I was at the NAAFA convention (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) in Atlanta in 2002, the year that Southwest Airlines began enforcing their policy of making large--I think specifically "obese"--passengers pay for an extra seat if deemed necessary by their staff. It was the first time an airline had done this, although (as I understand it) most airlines had/have such policies in place, just not overtly enforced at that point. The clueless way the Southwest rep handled the press conference, as well as my perception of the general attitude of the company, made me determined to never fly their airline again, and I didn't for almost five years.

Now, though, things have changed, the main point being that I have accepted the idea of paying for two seats. I'm not thrilled, but I am willing to do it, for the comfort and safety of me and others and for my peace of mind. The last time I flew with just one seat (it was on Ted/United) a man pitched a fit and held up the plane--take-off was delayed for 15 minutes--as five flight attendants and customer service reps clustered around him and he complained about sitting next to me. Never again, and I hope that meathead continues to dodge bad karma.

The funniest part is that Southwest has become my airline of choice and I am extremely loyal to them. It turns out that having taken the step early on, the airline is much better accustomed to dealing with passengers of size. They have practice at dealing with the situation, and do so in a quiet, efficient fashion. They don't pretend the situation doesn't exist, they just manage it--no big deal. Their flight attendants hand out seat extenders, no fuss, and you are given a ticket to put in the tray table latch of your second seat to eliminate confusion about the "empty" spot. The airline makes every effort to refund you the cost of the second ticket if there is any empty room or non-working airline staff on the plane, and do so quickly, usually in less than four days. I appreciate that particular gesture on their part enormously--it really changes the flavor of this transaction in which I cough up twice the normal fare.

Most importantly, you are allowed to pre-board, so that you can get your two seats together.

Together. You wouldn't think that'd be necessary, but some airlines make large passengers buy two seats these days, then fight them about the second seat. I'm not going to name names, since the experiences aren't my own, but I have heard more stories these days from people I know flying on other airlines who buy two tickets only to have to defend the second spot. Flight attendants--caught in a fight with gate staff, sometimes--try to give it away, ask to give it away, challenge the passenger, sometimes don't even let them board at a time when they can find two seats next to each other. I've even heard of people who bought seats giving up their extra seat with no compensation, at the urging of flight attendants.

This shit makes me insane with fury. Not to mention it's slightly insane, period (would you like your two seats together, or many rows apart, sir?). If you make passengers of size buy two tickets, you actually can not give away the second seat to somebody else, nor make it impossible to use. What is the point? These policies have to be clear right up front, and the customer shouldn't be caught in the mess as airline staff tries to be "tactful" and tramples all over customer rights in the meantime. Not to mention if the airlines are so concerned about other passengers' comfort, why aren't they ensuring the second seat is used as bought? Aren't they trying to obviate situations where people are squished together uncomfortably? More than usual, I mean.

There is a really nasty flavor to this kind of terrible customer service. Bullying and shaming and dishonest. Unfair. Grinding up people in corporate waffling. Decide what you are trying to do, airlines.

I feel have reached a state of pretty happy d├ętente with Southwest. I make my good faith gesture of coughing up for an extra seat, they reciprocate by refunding me for the gamble if they can. It's not perfect--I had to concede something significant to do it, and, note, there are no frequent flyer miles attached to the second seat if you pay for it--but I'm just fine with it so far. Goddang.