Twitter is changing the customer service game -- big time. This weekend, film director Kevin Smith proved that 140 characters can pack a powerful punch when you're dealing with a customer service complaint. Smith was flying Southwest from Oakland, CA to Burbank when he was apparently asked to leave the plane because of his large size. According to Smith, a captain and flight attendant decided he was a "safety risk," so crew members asked him to disembark and booked him on a different flight.
What those Southwest employees might not have guessed was that in his hands, Smith had the power to start a full-on social media war against the airline. With more than a million Twitter followers, Smith has a loud voice in the social media stratosphere, and he made it heard this weekend. Within minutes of being removed from the plane, Smith started Tweeting: "Dear @SouthwestAir I know I'm fat, but was Captain Laysath really justified in throwing me off a flight for which I was already seated?" It got nastier as Smith got angrier. To their credit, Southwest started responding immediately. They have more than a million Twitter followers themselves, and likely understand the power of Smith's anti-Southwest Tweets. Here's what they started with: "@ThatKevinSmith hey Kevin! I'm so sorry for your experience tonight! Hopefully we can make things right, please follow so we may DM!"
It seems that apologetic Tweet (and several others like it that followed) wasn't enough to calm Smith's anger. @SouthwestAir Tweeted that they left Smith voicemails to apologize -- Smith Tweeted back that he never got a call. Some of Smith's followers said they didn't think Southwest would be apologizing at all if Smith didn't have such a strong Twitter following. "They're only apologizing because Smith has a platform to express his displeasure," Tweeted @3rdVentureBro.
Smith and several of his followers allege that the only reason Southwest was apologizing was because Smith had a platform to express his anger. It went on for two days and the battle eventually led the airline to blog about it, in a message to Smith and all their customers. It generated so much traffic that the blog was shut down for a time.
Smith wasn't impressed, and continued his Twitter tirade, turning it into a discrimination issue, with messages like "fair warning, folks: IF YOU LOOK LIKE ME, YOU MAY BE EJECTED FROM @SOUTHWESTAIR." That caught the attention of The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), and they're now trying to organize a boycott of Southwest airlines, saying the companies policies are "discriminatory."
In the end, Southwest representatives did end up speaking with Smith, and they posted about it on the company blog on Monday. Southwest's Linda Rutherford announced she had refunded Smith's airfare and also acknowledged that the situation could have been handled differently.
The story garnered national attention, with ABC News, People magazine and Larry King Live all clamoring for interviews with Smith. There's no doubt that without the immediacy of Twitter, the incident wouldn't have gotten as big (no pun intended) as it did.
So here's the question: what will other airlines (and businesses in general) take from this "too fat to fly" episode? It opens up a whole new can of worms. While it's great that Twitter gives the customer a louder voice for sharing his/her experiences, be they positive or negative, you also have to wonder whether it could go too far. Will flight crews now be hesitant to take safety measures (such as removing someone to stabilize the plane's weight) for fear of a customer retaliating with an all-out social media hate campaign? Who knows? I, for one, would have loved to be a fly on the wall when Southwest execs decided how they'd handle the Twitter-battle with Smith and his followers. It's an interesting new frontier and I'm eager to hear what others think about how the airline handled itself in the midst of the chaos.
-Contributed by Amy Erickson. Follow her @amyerickson