Monday, July 8, 2013

So, I'm not sure if Southwest or the world wants you to know this, but...


Southwest Airlines is now obligated to accommodate customers of size. Per their own policy. Whether or not you pay for a second seat. Did you know this? I flew using this new policy in March and am reporting back.

I do not know why this change in Southwest's policy isn't better advertised. I can't tell if they don't want to discourage passengers of size from paying (or thinking they had to pay) for a second seat -- which you can still do, and which guarantees that second seat without any potential confusion or inconvenience to other passengers. (Southwest now automatically refunds the money for that second seat afterward, rather than conditionally refunding based on the fullness of the flight -- another change.) Or if Southwest doesn't want to draw attention to the fact that they could be seen as potentially prioritizing customers of size over other passengers if the latter got bumped as a result. Or if it would be too disturbing to have suddenly said out of the blue: we're seating everyone.

It's a tectonic shift in policy, though. And (as I would understand it) puts the airline somewhere different compared to other airlines by making the promise of enough room an overt one, to be honored on the flight purchased. The change went into place on November 7, 2012, but there were no company press releases about it that I could find, nothing via company email. I heard about it through the fatty grapevine on Facebook (more here). Here is Southwest's new policy [emphasis mine]:
Customers who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s) may proactively purchase the needed number of seats prior to travel in order to ensure the additional seat(s) is available. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats; width between the armrests measures 17 inches. The purchase of additional seats serves as a notification to Southwest of a special seating need, and allows us to adequately plan for the number of seats that will be occupied on the aircraft.  In turn, this helps to ensure we can accommodate all Customers on the flight/aircraft for which they purchased a ticket and avoid asking Customers to relinquish their seats for an unplanned accommodation. Most importantly, it ensures that all Customers onboard have access to safe and comfortable seating. You may contact us for a refund of the cost of additional seating after travel.  Customers of size who prefer not to purchase an additional seat in advance have the option of purchasing just one seat and then discussing their seating needs with the Customer Service Agent at their departure gate. If it is determined that a second (or third) seat is needed, they will be accommodated with a complimentary additional seat.
Basically: please buy a second seat if you need one. But if you don't, we'll give you one anyhow. No being forced to buy a second seat, no being bumped.

I have been buying a second seat for years (and blogging about it), doing it on Southwest because it's the only place I can afford to do so, trading money I usually (but not always) got back for guaranteed space/safety/peace of mind. So this new policy is a huge change, and hardly seemed real when I heard about it. There was a lot of skepticism and worry about it among my friends who are quite used to fencing with the vagaries of flying while fat and its financial/psychological demands. It hardly seemed possible.

I flew to Los Angeles and back from Chicago under the new Southwest Airlines policy in March. The crew handled it differently each leg of the journey:

When I went up to the gate in Chicago after a normal check-in at Southwest departures and told the agent I'd need a second seat, she just handed me a blue pre-boarding sleeve and did not enter anything in the computer. When I boarded the plane and asked the flight attendant for a seat belt extender, she mentioned that it was her first time implementing the new policy and asked if I had a "seat reserved" slip for the second seat, which you get when you buy/are assigned two seats (I didn't).

When I checked in at the gate in LA, the process looked much more like it does when I buy two seats. The agent made it official, checking me into the system. She gave me the magic blue pre-boarding envelope, and in addition the "seat reserved" slip and a second boarding pass. (Pre-boarding: undeniably fabulous, but very necessary; if you board late it's quite possible to end up "with" two seats that aren't anywhere near each other, defeating the whole purpose of this stuff.)

I had no problems at all, although I did not know what to expect and did worry a lot about whether or not someone would be bumped because of me; I got to the airport very early both times. I think they asked for volunteers to be bumped on the first leg of my trip, but not on the second. It seems likely that not being checked in as having two seats on the first leg of the journey was the result of policy not being completely clear yet (it seems likely Southwest would need to check in the two seats for security reasons and general airline policy/head-counting). I was definitely more at ease in my mind when I was "official" and had my "seat reserved" slip as a defense. Without that, I would have been relying only on the flight attendant's memory and willingness to intervene should a conflict have arisen.

The reason this all worked, by the way, is because I told everyone up-front what I needed. I know I don't fit in just one Southwest seat. I know I need an extender. I put it all up-front. I can't tell you how the airline would have handled it if conflict emerged during the seating process without checking in about all this ahead of time. Or if it had been an insanely packed holiday flight. Or if everyone who needed a second seat suddenly...showed up.

What would that look like? What would flying look like? I do not know. With all the teeth-gnashing about this topic (omg-obesity-flying-blah), I still wonder all the time: what would it really look like if people showed up asking for what they need?

The truth is that even if they can afford it, many, many people do not fly because of worry about fitting into airplane seats. So many people do not even risk the discomfort and hostility, even if they can afford two seats. (So many people don't even try to find out. The lack of information out there is astonishing.) Many people fly with one seat, but worry terribly about it as they do it. Many people have terrible experiences, fat and thin -- the only people comfortable and free from the worry of deep vein thrombosis on commercial flights are 10-year-olds -- but there is a special misery reserved for fat people. Like the flight from Vegas when a man held up the plane to complain about sitting next to me, needing no less than four flight attendants to calm him down as I cried alone in my seat (what can I say, it was the end of a shitty trip and my emotional reserves were low). Or people who end up with hematomas and permanent scars from armrests digging into them.

Anyhow, Southwest's new policy: so far, so good. To me the difference between having to buy two seats -- even if I get my money back -- and only having to buy one makes the difference between not flying and flying. So I'm taking it. That's the bottom line.

Southwest has to be looking at their bottom line too: there's no other way. Complaints about fat passengers only grow, and this new policy must be part of wanting to hang onto customers, fat or not. But why not tell more people about it? What are they holding onto by not making it better known? Do they know things could look different -- or are they trying to avoid that? What are they waiting for? I'm not assuming the worst about their motives (quite), but I am curious. So much of this process of jamming people into airplanes is murky and shameful and full of conflict, as people's worst feelings about themselves and other people are suddenly brought to the surface. Is Southwest hoping to sell seats without having to remind us of that? Without ever bringing it up at all? Are they building a business for the way things really are but hoping we don't notice?

I also wonder: will this policy last? Be challenged? Be adopted by other airlines? What am I missing, thinking about this? Have other fat folk written about it? Feedback welcome.

(Illustration is Toil Girl Karla.  See more of Les Toil's work here.)

FLYING TIP: See a fat person in a window or aisle seat with a white "seat reserved" slip on the middle seat next to them while you're boarding? GRAB THE THIRD SEAT IN THAT ROW. The empty aisle/window seat, next to the emptyish middle seat. There will be nobody sitting next to you. Embrace the fatness!