Southwest “Too Fat To Fly” Apology Too Little, Too Late?

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Turning to other “airline brands under fire”, Southwest is losing its mojo and needs to work on restoring its reputation.

As Kenlie Tiggeman told NBC News, the airline, once revered as a trendy alternative brand in a highly competitive industry, needs sensitivity training. Tiggeman and her mother, Joan Charpentier, were on a layover in Dallas on Easter Sunday, when a Southwest employee singled them out (along with another passenger) for their weight. 

After a very public 45 minute conversation about their weight and clothing size, they were told by an agent they were — in words Southwest is still living down — “Too fat to fly,” said Tiggeman. “I asked him what the weight restrictions were and he said that he didn’t know, just that we were too heavy to fly.” 

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Eventually the airline employee offered this proposal: Tiggeman, Charpentier and a third overweight woman could fly if they agreed to sit together. 

“Of course my daughter was okay with that. But I wasn’t because the deal I made with Southwest when I left, I bought a ticket and it’s open seating, and you can sit wherever you want,” said Charpentier. 

Southwest’s “Customers of Size” policy states that passengers who can’t fit between the armrests, 17 inches apart, must buy a second seat.

Finally, a supervisor intervened and the women were allowed to fly without purchasing additional seats, and were given flight vouchers and an apology.

Too little too late? Is Southwest planning to publically humiliate more customers for their weight? Presumably not, but the damage has been done, as other customers — including those not likely to catch the eye of Southwest’s bouncers — are outraged by the discriminatory treatment of their fellow passengers.

Tiggeman used her blog, the wonderfully titled All the Weigh, to tell her story, noting: “For the record, I can sit in any seat on the plane with the armrests down. I can use the seat tray table to place my laptop or water comfortably in front of me. I can cross my legs, read a book and/or listen to my iPod without encroaching on the seat next to me.”

Adding insult to injury: Tiggeman, a New York-based political strategist, was proud to have lost 120 pounds in the last two years. “It doesn’t matter how far I have come. I have a long way to go, but no one sees that. All they see is my exterior — someone who is fat,” she says.

The incident followed another Southwest black eye, of groundings due to the discovery of airplane cracks — news which plummeted the brand’s buzz score from 26 in early April to 19 just ten days later.

The airline’s peak score of 42 at the end of January dropped to 24.8, according to YouGov’s Brand Index, after posing two questions about Southwest:  1. “If you’ve heard anything about the brand in the last two weeks, was it positive or negative?”  and 2.  “Is it high quality or low quality?” 

Beyond the Smith and Tiggeman weight-related incidents, Southwest is no newcomer to reputation ‘crashes’ and its 2008 crisis over inspection lapses of Boeing 737s took six months to adjust in consumer perception, cost the airline a $10 million F.A.A. fine, and forced  8% of its fleet to be grounded. Southwest’s buzz score went from 20 to -20 in three weeks. 

Safety is obviously one of the key influencers in consumer perception of airlines and has long-term implications for brand reputation. But compassion to paying customer’s ranks high as well — and Southwest is lagging in both.

“Their sensitivity level needs to change, period. It needs to be different,” says Tiggeman.

This time, are they listening?

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