The small-minded airline

July 02, 2002|By Christopher Elliott

KEY LARGO, Fla. - Oversize airline passengers, meet your dietitian. Its name is Southwest Airlines.

The no-frills carrier recently began enforcing a rule that compels overweight customers to buy a second ticket if they can't fit in the standard 18 3/4 -inch-wide seats.

As you might expect, every advocacy group from the International Size Acceptance Association to the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance is piling on the criticism. They say Southwest is discriminating against portly passengers, and they are threatening to take the carrier to court.

Is Southwest guilty as charged? Yes, but in ways the defenders of the obese never imagined.

Southwest has always been obsessed with size, since the beginning. Persecuting the plump is a favorite corporate pastime - and not just travelers. The airline also puts bloated competitors on its hit list, the kind that fail to make money under the crushing weight of high operating expenses.

Southwest flies only one kind of aircraft, the diminutive Boeing 737. It's a small plane, with a capacity of about 140 passengers. Its seats are small, offering only 32 inches of legroom. So is the plane's price - about $40 million, or half the cost of a Boeing 757.

While Southwest's rivals amassed a fleet of planes from multiple manufacturers, the Dallas-based airline stuck with just one plane made by one company. Cheaper to maintain, cheaper to fix, it figured. The all-737 fleet is widely credited with increasing Southwest's efficiency, which helped it make money.

Then there are the meals. Southwest doesn't serve real food on its planes. Its flight attendants hand out packages of peanuts to starving passengers before offering them a beverage. Is the airline sending us a message? Maybe it already knew that travelers would be better off eating a McDonald's Big Mac and french fries and washing it all down with a strawberry shake, since it's healthier than the average airline meal (a study by the Web site eFit.com came to that conclusion). We should thank Southwest for sparing us from such excess. Of course, its lack of in-flight cuisine directly affects the airline's bottom line, which is good for business, too.

But the outraged travelers who must now pay extra for their tickets should be grateful they're not one of Southwest's competitors. The airline wastes no opportunity to pummel its pudgy rivals that are overburdened by the weight of an inefficient route system, an impractical fare structure or irrational labor costs.

"When they zig," quips Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart, "we zag." That's a nice way of saying it. After Herb Kelleher took over as permanent CEO in 1982, Southwest's corporate brass delighted in insulting its enormous competitors, hurtling epithets at the airlines that were, for the most part, unprintable.

It's worth wondering whether Southwest's fixation on size is a good thing. Certainly the airline was taken aback by the public reaction to its decision to begin enforcing its longstanding rule on large passengers. In a message on its Web site, Southwest President Colleen Barrett said she was "truly disheartened" by the reports and added, "We value, want, and need your business."

Two years ago, Continental Airlines contemplated a similar move. A manager leaked the proposed decision to me and I published a story that said the airline was thinking of charging big travelers more money to fly. After the article was published, Continental not only backed down, but it also denied it had even considered such a policy change. Seems obese travelers carry a lot of weight.

But when it comes to operating a smaller, more nimble, competent airline, Southwest might be on to something. The proof is in the profits - the airline has made money for three consecutive decades, including last year, when the industry lost an astounding $7 billion.

It might not be the politically correct thing to say, but apparently size does matter.

Christopher Elliott is a travel writer based in Key Largo, Fla. He can be reached at chris@elliott.org.

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