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Bellygate: It Sucks to Be Southwest Airlines

And the media played its own nasty role in the Kevin Smith fiasco, too

Now that the dust has settled somewhat on Bellygate, aka the Kevin Smith-Southwest Airlines drama, I wanted to offer perspective as a strategic, senior-level, mature, corporate-type PR executive.

And that is: It sucks to be Southwest this week. As a matter of fact, it sucks to be Southwest for the foreseeable future.

Smith’s furious but funny tweets — chronicling his experience being ejected from his seat on a flight last Saturday evening and its aftermath — are a good read. Much more interesting is the podcast Smith recorded later that night with his wife, Jennifer Schwalbach.

The 90-minute piece can be heard on Smith’s website. It’s worth taking the time to listen. (And easy to find: #106 is titled “Go F—k Yourself, Southwest Airlines.”) It tells a richer, more difficult story, one that involves watching an anonymous young woman treated in much the same way, and that strikes at the core of Southwest’s carefully crafted image as the warm and fuzzy service-oriented airline.

In the podcast, Smith spins a bigger real-life black comedy.

The cast of characters are flight and ground crews with seemingly no regard for people’s feelings. These people robotically extend cash vouchers and promotional gifts to shut customers up rather than acknowledge they have a more complex problem. They’re so afraid of creating legal problems that euphemisms are offered instead of facts. And they come off as deer in the headlights when holes are poked in their statements.

This isn’t the image Southwest has carefully cultivated. But it’s also not the first time Southwest underlings have run amuck.

In 2007, a flight attendant ejected a young woman, also already seated, claiming her “lewd” attire wasn’t suitable for a “family airline.” As we all saw through her subsequent TV appearances in the clothing, the woman was wearing that standard L.A. uniform that wouldn’t draw a second glance on Melrose: mini-skirt, tank top, tight sweater and giant fake boobs. If airlines kicked off everyone who dressed like that, I’d have room to stretch out.

Of course, about 18 months later, Southwest plastered a jumbo image of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition cover model in a miniscule white bikini, snaked out along the side of one of its 737s. That time apparently it wasn’t lewd, it was just a promotional deal with probably some cash attached.

Southwest’s crisis management of the situation was as expected. Over the weekend, it tweeted its own first comments along with replies to Smith; Monday morning, it posted a somewhat smug statement — with the obligatory Silent Bob pun — citing vague security concerns as the reason behind the staff actions. You half-expected them to hint that Smith had explosives in his Jockeys.

Monday afternoon, after its further digging apparently turned up facts that didn’t fit the scenario originally painted, the airline released a follow-up statement. More contrite, it acknowledged staff might not have acted in the best way– and it would look into how its “delicate policy” was implemented by staff.

And that’s probably the last we’ll ever hear from them about that.

Bellygate also featured two now-standard media tactics that make me, as well as anyone with a brain, want to shriek.

First: Countless media outlets took the easy way out by not doing any research for the story, taking just what others had reported and dumbing it down even further.

Consequently, they got it wrong. Do a Google search and virtually every piece of coverage states that Smith got removed because he was, in his podcast words, TFTF — Too Fat to Fly.

That’s not necessarily true. Smith passed Southwest’s own highly scientific onboard seat-fitting test by … well … fitting in the seat as required. If you piece together the two stories, three alternate scenarios emerge.

First, ejecting Smith might’ve been the easiest way for a stressed-out flight crew to resolve another onboard problem before an imminent take-off. Alternatively, an over-zealous employee at the gate might’ve made the independent determination that Smith wouldn’t fit well enough in the seat and pushed it to action.

But the theory I believe is that a third staffer saw dollar signs. Southwest’s policy is to require those they label “Customers of Size” to purchase two seats. Smith, as it turned out, had a single stand-by ticket on the original flight.

I don’t side with this theory because of any relationship with Smith (don’t know him). Or any feud with Southwest (haven’t flown them in 20 years). I believe it because the Smodcast includes the sidebar story of a young, large woman who boarded Smith’s later flight, sat next to him and was also pulled out of her seat and into the walkway by a crew member attempting to strong-arm her into paying for a second ticket.

Go listen.

The other annoying media tactic? Picking the story’s winner and the loser. Every bit of news, from health-care reform to Prius owners’ problems, is treated like post-Super Bowl analysis.

In this story, no one won or lost. As a giant bloated corporation coping with a tough economy, it’s impossible for Southwest to make any change significant enough to carry any weight, so to speak, with the frustrated public.

For his part, Smith has shown no interest in becoming the Joan of Arc for airline reform. He tweeted last night that he’s done with the Southwest discussion. He’s planning on flying Jet Blue.

Scratch that. Smith’s the winner. He’s got a new film, "Cop Out," a Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan buddy comedy being released Feb. 26.

Even people who’ve confused Smith with Jack Black will be paying attention this time around. And I guarantee, they’ll find the seats fit just fine.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.