Southwest taking heat for policy on large passengers

DALLAS: Southwest Airlines blames inaccurate TV reporting for the media headache it experienced last week over its policy regarding passengers requiring more than one seat. An internal memo sparked the controversy.

DALLAS: Southwest Airlines blames inaccurate TV reporting for the media headache it experienced last week over its policy regarding passengers requiring more than one seat. An internal memo sparked the controversy.

Director of PR Linda Rutherford said Southwest's policy of requiring large passengers who need an extra seat to pay more, has been in place since 1980.

The problem erupted when the company issued a memo to ground crews about its new computerized boarding-card system, instead of its traditional plastic boarding passes. The new system was launched on June 26.

As part of the training, Rutherford said the company reminded staff to enforce policies like the one related to larger passengers. "We were asking our service agents to be more consistent, Rutherford said.

The Sacramento Bee was tipped off by a passenger who was told by a Southwest staffer that as of June 26, the policy would be enforced. The story was picked up by the local NBC affiliate, which reported it was a new policy.

When the story was picked up throughout the network, the error was repeated.

Southwest fielded about 400 media calls on the issue.

"The inaccuracies were multiplying every time, Rutherford said. "We were frustrated that TV news wasn't more responsible about reporting the facts, and TV was driving the story."

Southwest eventually posted a message on its website to explain the policy in full. "In the past 48 hours, Southwest Airlines has heard from many people regarding ongoing 'news' stories about our policy that requires customers who occupy two seats to purchase both seats, it read. "We have been truly disheartened by the inaccurate reports and the hurt and disappointment this issue has caused so many of you."

Southwest is facing continued pressure from groups like the American Obesity Association to change the policy.

Rutherford said the incident has been instructive. "The lesson is to remain responsive. The first instinct was perhaps to turn it off and not respond. But that might have done greater damage."

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