When I heard that Southwest had done something appalling, my first thought was, “Again?” It wasn’t long ago that the airlines made headlines by demanding that Kyla Ebbert change for the privilege of using the ticket she’d bought. Their apparent objection to female legs set off a douchestorm, with “serious news” articles introducing Ebbert as a “shapely coed” and modesty advocates saying Ebbert should “pay [Southwest] out of gratitude.” More recently, Southwest employees have booted Muslim women wearing headscarves off their planes, on multiple occasions, for seeming “suspicious.” At least one of these passengers, Samantha Carrington, actually spent a night in jail as a result of the flight staff’s claims that she could be a terrorist.
Then there was the time they kicked a man off their plane for his size, despite his clearly not fitting their own “Customer of Size” criteria. (Yeah, we’ll get back to that fine-print charmer in a moment.) Of course, that man turned out to be über-famous filmmaker Kevin Smith, and he blasted them publicly. Wouldn’t a company start to treat people better after that, if only for its own sake?
Apparently, no. Southwest Airlines’ bigotry knows no bounds, and they showed their fatphobic colors again last week at the expense of vlogger AthiaC. When you hear about this doozy, I hope you’ll agree that the company needs a brand new name …
On her way home to Florida, Athia and her aunt and uncle arrived well in advance for their flight, which was fortunate since Southwest had overbooked the plane. When the three were about to board, an employee took Athia aside, and, without looking directly at her, told her to buy a second seat for her “safety and comfort.” Athia realized why she was being targeted, despite having no previous trouble on Southwest flights, including at that same airport:
It clicks with me that they’re attempting to push me off of the flight […] They’d rather have me pay $100 for another seat than have to reimburse [a stranded person] for her ticket which she paid $300+ for which is more than I paid for mine. I tell this to the supervisor and she becomes visibly upset with me and says that that it is not the case at all and that it is for my safety and comfort—once again repeating that phrase. Then she says, “You all better make a decision right now because you’re going to delay the plane.”
In other words, the Southwest employees tried to shame her into staying off of the plane for fear of losing money. (If you harbor any doubt about this, just keep reading.) The “You all better make a decision” bit, besides being inappropriate—the three of them had done nothing wrong, after all—alluded to a threat of public humiliation, because who wants to be blamed for holding up a flight?
Since Athia had to get home, she paid the bogus extra $100, but Southwest’s shady motives only got clearer. After finally being allowed to get onto the now-boarded flight, Athia and her family members suffered, yes, public humiliation after all, since the staff had not been discreet about the fact that they were harassing Athia due to her size. Walking to the back of the plane, Athia was accosted by sexist and racist, as well as sizeist, remarks from fellow passengers, then she was singled out due to the overbook once again:
There’s a man and his wife and kid and they don’t have a seat for him. His wife and son have a seat, but he doesn’t. And so the flight attendant walks up and down the aisle and sees the empty space between my aunt and I and says very loudly, “Did you purchase that?” I could only nod my head, yes.
She said “Oh, okay” and continued walking up and down the aisle. […] The most shady thing that happened was when another employee came up to my aunt, handed her back the money and told my uncle to sit next to us.
Yes, they took back the seat they had bullied Athia into buying rather than giving another customer a refund, and, likely, dealing with the anger of a family of people deemed more important than Athia and her relatives. Considering Athia’s lack of trouble with Southwest in the past, and the clear situation of a chaotic overbooking, I think it’s clear that the situation was not sparked by employees’ concern for her welfare. But even giving them the greatest benefit of the doubt, if Southwest really thought an extra seat was necessary for Athia’s “safety and comfort,” what would it mean that they were then willing (without even asking her!) to take it back as soon as they could think of another use for it? Simply put, it would mean that Athia’s safety and comfort were not important to them. Given that “comfortable” is just about the last word I’d use to describe repeated fat-shaming in a crowded, enclosed space, is that a surprise?
In any case, Southwest viewed her as an acceptable target during a stressful time, and they did so because of the pervasive notion that bigger people are less-than. (NOTE: If you are new to size-positivity, Kate Harding’s “Don’t You Realize Fat Is Unhealthy?” is a must-read.)
And I feel it necessary to draw attention to the fact that Southwest, as a company, adheres to this shameful belief well beyond this one incident (or the one with Kevin Smith).
Check out Athia’s full story, in her own words:
A Douchefest Airlines defender might (at best) say, “Sure, this was nasty, but maybe the problem’s with a few specific staff members rather than the company as a whole.” Yeah, no. Even putting aside the other prejudiced actions that Southwest’s been called on, a closer look at their website confirms an alarming—and alarmingly common—anti-fat rhetoric. Their “Customer of Size” FAQ emphasizes, again and again, that they will give refunds to passengers who experience “encroachment by a large seatment” or are “infringed upon” by “a large Customer.” The aggressive language makes it clear that they consider size-privileged people to be victims of others’ fatness.
Then there’s the demonstrably inaccurate ass-covering on SA’s part: “The inconsistency of charging for the extra seat on one occasion and not others leaves the Customer not knowing what to expect and not having a full understanding of our policy. Thus, we require the additional purchase despite booking levels.” (The referenced policy dictates that “Customers of Size” are customers who cannot, when sitting, lower both of their armrests, and that this is the only reason Southwest will charge a customer for an extra seat.) In other words, said customers will be charged for extra seats even if the flight is otherwise empty for their own good, because otherwise they might get confused. To which I say, you know, they might get confused at the fact that Southwest says that people such as Athia aren’t official “Customers of Size” on most flights but then magically become them on overbooked flights.
There’s also a repeated sentiment that customers who are required to take two seats are on their own:
[…] we encourage Customers with unique seating needs to proactively purchase additional seating (again, this is to notify us of the unique need). We ask this to accommodate our Customers in comfort and avoid embarrassing conversations. Ultimately, it is the Customer’s responsibility to communicate with us upfront (at the time of booking) about his/her seating needs so that we may best serve him/her and all others onboard.
Did you get that? “It is the Customer’s responsibility,” and they supposedly care about avoiding “embarrassing conversations.” The conversations Southwest seeks to eliminate, though, are the ones between fat customers and flight attendents, not the ones between customers, because guess what else is “the Customer’s responsibility”?
Can you ensure no one takes the seat beside me if I’ve purchased a second seat?
The Customer who has purchased two seats must be an active participant in preserving his/her additional seat. We encourage Customers of size to preboard to locate adequate seating, placing the Reserved Seat Document in the adjacent seat.
Uh-huh. Because making sure everyone boarding the flight knows that a customer has been made to purchase two seats cannot be embarrassing at all.
Still, perhaps worst of all is their answer to the question of why they charge some people extra: “These Customers had uncomfortable (and sometimes painful) travel experiences, and it is our responsibility to seek resolution to prevent this problem.” Yes, fat people do have uncomfortable and painful travel experiences … but the capital-C Customers they’re talking about aren’t fat people; they’re the people who formally complained to Southwest about being near a fat person.
We’ve all heard that bullshit, haven’t we? “Ugghh I was next to a FAT PERSON it was SO GROSS worst flight EVAR!” Sometimes, the person saying that assumes that if the people nearby aren’t fat, no one will mind this language; usually, he or she ignores that the “fat person” is likely uncomfortable for every flight; always, this ties into the same kyriarchy-lovin’ argument that some people are worth more than others.
Safety and comfort—and I don’t mean the euphemistic, quote-necessitating kind—are concepts we all deserve.