Customer service slams airlines in overweight passenger policy enforcement

Airline rules for passengers who take up more than one seat are neither new nor surprising. Forget about passenger comfort (the airlines already have, of course), it’s a financial issue. A passenger who takes up more than one seat is consuming a scarce resource (in the economic sense): seat 42A on Flight ABC123 on July 29, 2010 can only be sold once. If it doesn’t bring in any revenue, it never will. So, charging bigger passengers extra is a prudent financial move. Yet, this is only part of the problem.

Goodwill on the planes, in an effort to make overweight passengers more comfortable and avoid embarrassing situations, is resulting in uneven policy enforcement, which costs the airlines cash and makes instances of seemingly unfair treatment even worse.

And, the prevailing attitude in the marketplace seems to support this thinking. Even passengers affected by this policy are on board with it, so to speak, as one passenger noted in a letter to USA Today’s “Traveler’s Aide”. The problem is enforcement, which tends to be a tad uneven. The passenger noted in his letter:

The flight attendant had moved another large man to the outside seat in that row so there was a space between us. The agent told me I could either pay for a second seat or get off and wait for the next flight to New Orleans. I opted to pay and go home. The gate person embarrassed me and asked for my credit card, but didn’t require the same from the other large passenger.

The passenger was upset with how the Southwest flight attendant handled the situation. Of course, this airline is no stranger to high-profile gaffes with big passengers. Some passengers are able to get away with spilling into a second seat, while others are stuck shelling out for an extra ticket. And some simply don’t bother, and they invariably are seated right next to you. For the airlines, the challenge is in figuring out who should have to buy an extra seat. According to USA Today, “That means Southwest agents end up eyeballing those arriving passengers and guessing whether they comfortably fit into seats-without actually seeing them seated.” An overweight passenger may slip through the cracks on one flight but could have to pry open his wallet on another.

And, there is a bit of awkwardness involved:

“Without question, approaching a customer with unique seating needs who is unaware of (or has ignored) the policy is incredibly difficult,” says Southwest representative Christi Day. “However, with the use of discretion, tact, and genuine concern for customer comfort, approaching those with a clear need for additional seating is critical for ensuring that another customer is not subjected to an uncomfortable flight.”

Perhaps the greatest problem for the airlines – and I can’t believe I’m actually writing this – is that they’ve been too eager to accommodate. Customer service … good customer service … leads the airlines to give away an extra seat instead of charging when possible, or at least trying to misjudge in favor of the passenger. Or, maybe they just don’t want horror stories winding up in the hands of travel bloggers. Whatever the motivation, trying to help passengers is what leads to uneven enforcement. The inequity, of course, makes the slip-ups look worse than they are.

The solution is simple: stop the goodwill. When in doubt, charge for a second seat. It’s really that simple.

[photo by Willie Lunchmeat via Flickr]