Kevin Smith fuels row over "fat" plane passengers

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Film director Kevin Smith has reignited a heated debate about airlines’ treatment of overweight passengers after being thrown off a flight for being too large to fit in one seat.

Director Kevin Smith poses in Los Angeles, October 19, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

An angry tirade posted on his Twitter page about the way he was treated by Southwest Airlines last weekend has fueled a wave of protests from some angry passengers while other travelers have stood by the airline’s decision.

“If you look like me, you may be ejected from Southwest Air,” wrote Smith, posting a photograph of himself on the plane, puffing out his cheeks.

Smith, director of the new Bruce Willis movie “Cop Out” as well as “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy,” said a Southwest Airlines pilot ejected him off a flight from Oakland to Burbank, California because the pilot believed Smith didn’t fit properly into just one seat and was a “safety risk.”

“I’m way fat... But I’m not THERE just yet,” he wrote.

Smith said he had actually booked and paid for two seats on a later flight but moved to an earlier flight as a standby passenger that only had one seat available.

His posting prompted a barrage of angry responses from other disgruntled customers, adding to an ongoing debate over the treatment of overweight customers by airlines and whether they should have to pay for two seats.

Air France found itself at the center of this heated debate last month after it was misreported that the airline was planning an extra charge for passengers unable to fit into a single seat. Air France has, since 2005, offered overweight passengers the option to buy a second seat at a 25 percent discount.

Southwest Airlines says its policy requires travelers to be able to fit safely and comfortably in one seat and be able to lower their armrests or buy a second seat.

United Airlines also has this policy and both airlines have a policy that overweight passengers can claim a refund on the second seat if the plane is not full. These policies were introduced after complaints from neighboring passengers.

But after a barrage of angry comments from Smith and other passengers, Southwest Airlines apologized to Smith by phone, on its own Twitter account and in a statement on its website.

The airline said it was unusual for it to be so public in handling such matters but decided this case was different because so many people were involved.

“We would like to echo our Tweets and again offer our heartfelt apologies to you,” said the airline.

The airline said it put Smith on a later flight and gave him a $100 voucher for his inconvenience.

But not all of the comments supported Smith. Other people sided with the airline.

“Being heavy is not something to be proud about. I wish more companies would not tolerate the lifestyle of fatness!” read one comment on Smith’s Twitter account.

Crisis management consultant David Margulies from the Marguiles Communications Group questioned whether the airline was being too polite by apologizing to Smith when its policy was both fair and reasonable.

He said too many companies backed down from reasonable policies because they are scared of negative publicity, in this case especially after Smith’s online anger.

“Southwest has taken a very reasonable and fair approach to dealing with the issue of overweight customers and should be applauded for their actions,” Margulies said in a statement.

“This is the time that customers and employees should take to the Internet in defense of the company.”

Writing by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Bob Tourtellotte