Thursday, August 25

Letter to Southwest Airlines

First, I would like to thank everyone for the support! It means so very much to me-- so much so that I've lost my words, as ridiculous as that sounds.

For those of you who are curious, this is a copy of the letter I mailed into Southwest headquarters. Feel free to send a little note of your own. :)

I wonder to myself what will come of this. Legacies like Southwest are never apt to adjust their policies no matter how many people they crush in their wake. I'm not expecting to change the world--hell, I'm not expecting to change most people in my town. But I want to be a part of the conversation and the doing that's been happening all along. Progress is not easy. It is slow and painful and I'm afraid there's much more hurt to be had before we can rejoice in any kind of victory.

It has taken me some time to understand the passengers on the plane. They didn't see me--despite my mass. They didn't see any real part of me; that I like jasmine blossoms and poetry, nerd jokes and old books. They didn't see me as Athia, as a person who was once a child that held all the magic in the universe in her palms. They didn't see me as having belonged to a family, as having felt joy and loss, finite and invincible. They reduced me to one long look of disapproval before blocking me off into their imagination as something hideous and unkind. Well, I guess that's their fucking loss because this fattie is fabulous. ;)

Be well, always,


Southwest Airlines
P.O. Box 36647-1CR
Dallas, Texas 75235

RE: Flight 740 Philadelphia to Orlando MCO; August 18th, 2011, 6:55 am

To Whom It May Concern:

It is with great pain that I write this letter today. I experienced one of the most insulting, humiliating, and distressing events of my adult life last Thursday. Due to the incompetence and insensitivity of your staff, coupled with the inconsistent and subjective enforcement of a policy requiring passengers who appear “too large” to purchase a second seat, I was publicly humiliated

On August 18, 2011, I flew Southwest Airlines for the second time this summer. I was making my way home to Orlando from a trip to visit potential graduate schools in the Northeast and was traveling back with my aunt and uncle. We left their New Jersey home at 3:55 AM and reached the Philadelphia airport at 4:50 AM. By 5:30 a.m., we had gone through security, received our boarding passes (group C, numbers 18, 19, and 20), and settled into the waiting area.

After more than a week of travel, I was ready to go home--to see my family and friends, to prepare for my final fall semester as an undergraduate, and to feel the sunshine and humidity on my skin once more.

I heard the employee at the boarding gate announce twice that they had overbooked the flight and if anyone had a flexible schedule, that they should consider boarding a later flight. Although my aunt and uncle were interested in the offer, I told them that I had appointments and errands in the afternoon on campus that I could not miss.

At about 6:30 AM, there was a call for group A passengers and parents with small children to begin boarding the plane. I gathered my things and while we were waiting for the agent to call our group, an employee came up to me and asked if she could speak to me at the desk. The man beside her (who had previously made the announcement about overbooking the flight) was handling another passenger who did not have a seat on the plane despite booking a ticket. At the desk, I asked the employee if anything was the matter.

Her eyes were barely lifted from her computer screen as she said, “It's for your safety and comfort that I'm going to recommend you buy a second seat. You will have two seats on the plane saved for you.”

“May I ask why it is that I need to purchase a second seat?”

“It is for your safety and comfort that I have to recommend a second seat.”

“But I flew Southwest here and there weren't any problems with having to purchase a second seat.”

“It's our policy, ma'am.”

At this point, I begin to panic. I'm a university student on scholarship and I come from a working class family barely making it on the income from the small restaurant we own and operate. The only reason I was able to travel this summer was due to the generosity of my cousin who had spent her summer bonus so that I could visit prospective schools. I didn't have money on me to buy another ticket, but I needed to go home.

“I can't afford another ticket.”

“What I can do for you is honor your original ticket price and charge you $100.”

By now, my aunt was circling the front desk and beginning to fume--she was not to be the typical quiet, subdued Asian-woman. She told the agent that it was unfair of them to force me to purchase a second seat when I didn't have to on the very same airline on my way here, and that they shouldn't have come to us four minutes before boarding. She also noted that there were passengers on the plane boarding who were just as large as I but who happened to be in group A boarding. We had offered that either my aunt or uncle would sit next to me as to not cause discomfort to any other passenger, but they said that would not be possible. As the conversation got heated, the agent stated that he would not speak with my aunt and pointed at me saying “We're talking to her only.” Upset and speaking barely above a whisper, my aunt stated that she did not want to speak with them either, and requested that we speak to the supervisor.

We waited for the supervisor and my aunt was livid. She could not understand why we were singled out and at such short notice. I, however, understood that I was being targeted based on my weight. I also saw that the agents were attempting to force me off the flight to make room for another, more valued customer. The plane was overbooked and they had a passenger without a seat.

When the supervisor arrived, she repeated the same rhetoric that her employees did. I said, “From my understanding, you're attempting to push me off this flight because you're overbooked.” She became visibly upset by this and said that wasn't the case, that what they wanted was to ensure my safety and comfort. My aunt then asked her if her daughter was in this situation, how she would feel. She would not answer. After a few more minutes of arguing, the supervisor asked us what we wanted to do because we were beginning to hold up the plane. I didn't want to hold up the plane--there were families with small children who had gotten up so very early, ready to embark on their vacations. I resigned myself to purchasing a second ticket. My uncle gave me the money and we handed the supervisor five twenty-dollar bills.

The walk down the aisle of the plane is a moment I will never forget. Every single passenger on board was looking at me--some were shaking their heads, others were sneering. As I got halfway down the aisle, I passed one passenger--a middle-aged white man-- and saw him make rude hand gestures signaling a 'big ass.' I heard him say, “People like them are like those people who cry race discrimination.” I could not hold back my tears.

They saved four seats in the back of the plane and I quickly took my seat by the window, hoping that the murmurs would stop. My aunt took the outer seat and my uncle went to the last available seat on the plane on the other side of us. This was not the end of our ordeal, or even the most problematic aspect of it. There was a man with his wife and child who did not have a seat. The flight attendant went up and down the aisles looking for a seat. She saw the empty one beside me and spoke loudly as she pointed to the empty space asking, “Did you purchase that?” I nodded, yes.

As the flight attendant went up and down the aisle again, telling all parents to make sure that 'lap babies' were seated on their laps, I heard the passenger sitting behind me explain to her neighbor that “she took that gentlemen's seat.” After a few more minutes of this, the airline realized that they had miscalculated the number of people and seats on the plane. An employee walked to the back of the plane, handed my aunt folded $20 bills and told my uncle to sit next to us.

I had a long while to think over how power relations in this space had defined the series of events that followed. In an attempt to make the maximum profit, Southwest Airlines trampled over my safety, comfort and emotional well-being, all under the guise of being for my safety and comfort. I am not only demanding a formal apology from your company, but also 'recommend' (read: the same way your employees recommended I buy a second seat) that you reform your current policies. I want recognition that you did not do what was in the best interest of your passengers and that you caused me unnecessary emotional distress.

I didn't have to accept the money. I could have made a scene and delayed the flight even further. I could have disregarded the man without a seat and his family. But I didn't. Despite the hurt that I felt in that moment, I was still sensitive enough to show the kind of compassion that your airlines failed to offer me--as human being to human being.

This may make little difference to your company, but I will never fly Southwest again and neither will my family.

I await a response and can only hope that the proper action is taken. But you must be aware that although I was powerless in that moment, I will not rest until my recommendations are taken seriously.


Athia Choudhury


Mystery Reader said...

Athia- I was so gratified to see the kinds of responses you have gotten to your initial post - that support you totally deserve. But I was filled with admiration at the maturity and wisdom you bring to your analysis of the passengers' random cruelty. I am far older than you but do not think I could have handled this as well. I think your letter is well written and pointed and hope it will influence SWA to change their policies. I didn't realize your bad experience happened in Philadelphia, my home town, and some how that really makes it so much more real and shocking to me. Ilene

Anise said...

You are fabulous! And brave. And Southwest are jerks. I'm sorry they treated you horribly! love, random internet stranger who is on your side. (I mean I just randomly found your blog surfing, I promise I'm not weird or creepy!)

Lisa Strano said...

Dear FABULOUS Athia,
I don't have much faith that SWA will do what they need to do, what they should do, what is ONLY right for them to do. However, I do feel that your words, your bravery, your wisdom CAN and WILL move mountains.

I had my own HORRIBLE experience with SWA 10 years ago (on the way to make arrangements for my mother's funeral). Despite tears of humiliation, the staff on that plane taunted and harrassed me (because I DARED to ask for a selt belt extnesion). I felt ALL eyes on me, and the grief of my mother's death did not compare as the stinging tears of humiliation and SHAME ran down my face. I only flew one other time (forced for work)in these 10 years. I have AVOIDED flying (because of that HORRIBLE experience). I too wrote a letter to the President of SWA, although mine was not as AMAZINGLY written as yous. The response I got was also a slap in the face. My humanity was NOT recognized, just further compromised as they used their "policy" to stand behind their hate-mongering tactics.

Your video, your words, your brilliant way of conneting the deep crevices of incredibly inspiring. So much so, that I am ready to drop my self-induced travel recluse state (and when given the chance I will fly once again). I also feel fired up, ready to KICK SOME ASS, because I am SICK and TIRED of bullying. The kind that has esssentially halted our President from doing ANYTHING, the kind that makes gay kids kill themselves, the kind that ALLOWS fat people to be the butt of every joke and SUPPOSEDLY the MAIN cause for our health care system on the verge of collapse. It is NOT okay. And I am sick and tired of people using SHAME and bullying as a way to knock down others.

While I don't "KNOW" you, I feel very connected to you. The younger me in college, the activist, the person who KICKED ASS on a regular basis. That part of me has not been as active, I felt overwhelmed and disgusted. I have been quieted somehow...well, watch out - NO MORE!

Thank you for your inspiration to do so. YOU ROCK Athia! Keep up the good work <3

IMJohn said...

If you're too fat it's not fair for the people sitting next to them while you sweat all over them! Lose weight then fly fatass!