Monday, February 15, 2010

on the Kevin Smith situation

About two months ago I posted a blog entry here about my experiences with Southwest Airlines. I boycotted Southwest for years after it became the first airline to actually enforce the written all-airlines' policy of making customers of size buy an extra seat, but I've come to appreciate SW and the no-fuss way I can handle travel with them as a person who buys two seats. (The point of that piece being that my experience with them exists in contrast to other airlines, which have less practice enforcing these rules.)

A person who buys two seats: this situation requires a fundamental compromise on the passenger's part. After one last humiliating experience on United, when a customer held up the plane to complain about me to a cadre of clucking gate agents, I decided to never put myself through that again, and I now buy two seats whenever I travel on a plane, which I do not think I should have to do. When you buy transportation, you are buying passage, not real estate for the duration, and the implications in the idea that we should pay based on space are alarming for everyone. But I have reached d├ętente with the situation. Budgeting for the second seat (and hoping for a refund on its cost) is part of how I plan for travel.

Kevin Smith, however, exists in the extremely well-populated segment of the American traveling public who are big but not big enough to be forced to engage with the second-seat policy--usually. Smith obviously bumped into it this weekend.

You can hear his version of the events here on the relevant Smodcast ("Go Fuck Yourself, Southwest Airlines"), but the gist is: Smith switched to standby for an earlier flight than the one(s) he had purchased tickets for. In doing so, he let go of the additional SW tickets he had bought (he usually buys two or three), and had just one seat for himself. He sat down in a middle seat between two people and was just buckling his seat belt when he was asked to disembark by a flight attendant. (On his next flight he had two seats and the woman next to his empty seat was also large, and was taken aside to be told that she should have two seats and needed to ask Smith if it was okay if she sat there).

It's confusing that Smith was thrown off the plane at all: he could buckle the seat belt and put down the armrests completely, the latter of which keeps him out of SW's "definitive gauge" for being a "customer of size." That makes no sense. Something left him vulnerable to that decision by the flight attendants, who cited pro forma and vague safety concerns of "the pilot," standard issue stuff for SW's size policies. Why he was subject to them at all is not clear, except that maybe he just fit the profile (with fat, as ever, it is actually a greater sin to look fat than be fat).

Smith says once if he says it thirty times in his podcast that "he's fat but not that fat." "I'm not fat enough to have this conversation," he told a SW agent. "I'm not fat enough to eject off a fucking plane yet. I'll tell you when I am." He talks a lot about "the bar," the point at which you're so fat you can't fake it--can't squeeze into a seat. He says that if he were too big to fit in the seat, he "wouldn't come out in public."

He doesn't say this in a mean way. He's not making fun of anybody. He's eloquent about the way in which fat people have to think "ten steps in advance" about how we fit in to spaces.

And he's right, in the literal sense: he is fat-but-not-fat-enough to have run into this problem. The armrests could go down. He's one of the many many people who fly worrying about the two-seat policy and hoping they don't need it, or--much more likely--are ignorant or confused about it, but still worried about fitting, period. And to date Smith had been protected from the policy by virtue of money. He was able to routinely buy more seats because he could, not because he had to--he actually had the tool in hand (the discarded extra seats) that passengers need to avoid this situation.

But the line that he--that the airlines--draw. What if he couldn't put down the arm seats? What if he were "that fat"? What if he were technically a customer of size? What if he didn't have the money to do it? Should he have been tossed off the plane? Who does deserve that? When do airlines get to start charging more and pulling people aside? When is that okay? I think Smith's sense of chivalry was roused by seeing it happen to a woman after it happened to him, but that's how this works. What about fat children?

Maybe this isn't working. Maybe it's never okay and that's why this is such a mess. Maybe it's only a slippery slope with no solid ground. Maybe this is all about money. Smith's experience was able to light a match (most passengers don't have immediate access to a Twittering audience of millions) to show us how this is not working. The distinctions we draw are challenged and fall apart over and over. People get only bigger (and taller). Southwest has the most experience implementing policies about size, so what does that say, including about what's actually happening out there on other airlines? We're dividing people up based on a word we can't even say, to ourselves or others ("fat"). And fucking nobody's comfortable in a plane seat except maybe a six-year-old.

There are acres of things to address about this situation, but my feeling at the moment is that it's a good thing that it is getting the attention that it is, looming pitfalls in the arguments notwithstanding. I'm not sure the world cares much when this happens to a fat unfamous person, but it's a good thing when people have to resolve it with the power we accord fame. And Smith is speaking up.

I don't mind using the word fat, I don't mind knowing how much extra room I need, I don't mind asking for a seat belt extender. I don't like paying for a second airline seat, but I will do it--because I want to travel. I want to be out there. How many people, though, cram themselves in their seat, still as they can be and full of shame at every part of their body that bumps against the edges of the world around them? How many people don't even leave the house because of all this? How many people hide?