XL passengers invade my economy class seat — and airlines let them

When Elisabeth Haas took her window seat on an American Airlines flight from Orlando to Dallas earlier this year, she discovered a problem – a very big problem.

“A morbidly obese seatmate encroached into my personal space,” she says. “He required a seat-belt extender and that the armrest divider be raised to accommodate his girth during the entire flight, including takeoff and landing. He also had to walk down the aisle oriented sideways and moved quite slowly.” (She sent me a photo of the offense, which I’ve published above.)
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“Crushed” by an XL passenger on a Southwest flight

It’s not every day that I republish a complaint letter in its entirety. Then again, it’s not every day that an airline does the right thing without yours truly getting involved.

Maybe it was the letter. Or maybe it was the fact that the airline in question was Southwest, which has the best reputation for customer service among the domestic airlines.

You decide …

I’m a long term Southwest customer who has just had his first problem in decades and I want to let you know about it.

I always fly Southwest, and I always make a point of checking in early at the airport. That way, I receive a low Southwest boarding pass number, am able to board before the plane fills up, and take the aisle seat in the last row. Then, even if the plane is nearly full, I often end up with an empty seat beside me, and I like having the extra room.

The flight in question was #993 from Sacramento, CA (SMF) to Ontario, CA (ONT), departing Sacramento at 1:00 PM on January 30, 2009. Here’s what happened…

As usual, I arrived early for the flight, procured my usual back row aisle seat, then watched and hoped as the plane filled. Eventually, a man took the window seat in my row. He was what Southwest calls (I believe) “a passenger of size”. He was huge. He couldn’t get his seatbelt on, or the armrest between him and the middle seat down, but hey… no skin off my nose. We had an empty seat between us, and I assumed that one of the attendants would deal with his seatbelt problem.

The plane filled, and as luck would have it there ended up being a single empty seat on the flight… the one between me and the window seat passenger in my row. Then, a Southwest employee came on from outside the plane, walked down the center aisle looking for empty seats, noted the open seat in my row, and walked back off the plane. A minute or two later, another passenger came aboard and attempted to shoehorn himself into that center seat. Because the window seat passenger was sprawled into the center seat, there wasn’t enough room for the new passenger. The only way he could fit was by raising the armrest between his center seat and my aisle seat, leaving me crushed against the aisle-side armrest.

The irritating and inexcusable thing is that your attendant stood in the area beside the rear restroom, watched this whole fiasco, and didn’t say or do a thing to help. I felt as if he was waiting for me or the passenger in the center seat to complain about the “passenger of size” in the window seat before taking any action, and that’s not fair to us. It’s not my job as a passenger to challenge and perhaps embarrass another passenger who should never have been allowed on the flight in the first place without buying two seats.

My final concern is that the center seat and window seat passengers made the entire flight with their armrests up and their seatbelts unfastened! Here again, is it my job as a passenger to have to say something about this, or should your attendant have offered seatbelt extenders to these passengers?

Please let me know that you have done something to educate the attendant who failed to help me and my fellow passengers, and also please let me know what I should do if this kind of situation arises in the future.

Thank you,

Grant Ritchie

Why reprint the letter? First, because it follows most of the principles of a successful complaint letter. It’s a little long, but it’s certainly polite. And second, because it worked.

Southwest didn’t follow its own policy, which requires that passengers “of size” buy an extra seat.

Within two weeks of sending the letter, Ritchie got a phone call Southwest.

She was a perfect example of how to respond to a disgruntled passenger, or an unhappy customer of any kind… apologetic, concerned, and patient. She took a considerable amount of time to just listen to me and let me vent. She even laughed when I told her how I had eventually paid the little girl in the next row five dollars to switch seats with me.

By the end of the call I was smiling, and felt as if I had been talking to a friend.

Southwest refunded the $79.50 for her ticket and e-mailed a “LUV” voucher for another $79.50.

Nice work, Southwest.

Update: (3/12) Apparently, Southwest’s management agrees with me. In its weekly employee news line, Southwest’s chief executive, Gary Kelly, acknowledged the customer service representative who helped Ritchie.

Finally this week, I’d like to give a shout out to Customer Relations Rapid Rewards Writing Rep Nancy McKinley. Nancy was just doing her job one day by responding to Customer letters, and I’m sure she didn’t think anything of it too much. But the particular Customer she was helping was very appreciative of her detailed and caring response. He then wrote a blog post about how helpful she was, and he twittered about it too. I don’t know if it’s twittered or tweetered, but in any event, I think this just goes to show that in today’s world we’ve got to remember that every Customer truly does matter. Each little thing that we can do to make a difference has meaning, and with advanced technology, each thing we do could wind up being broadcast to the whole world.

So thanks, Nancy, for taking care of our Customers. And thanks to each of you for calling the Employee News Line, even if it is a little bit late tonight. You guys are doing a great job, keep it up, persevere and have a great week!

Hey Gary, it’s “twittered.” Or, as one of our commenters points out, tweeted. ;-)