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Originally published March 2, 2009 at 12:15 PM | Page modified March 2, 2009 at 12:30 PM

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Southwest paint job: soft porn or promotion?

Some Southwest Airlines customers are fuming that a new airplane paint job has turned the family vacation into an adults-only affair.

McClatchy Newspapers

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Southwest Airlines customers are fuming that a new airplane paint job has turned the family vacation into an adults-only affair.

The Dallas-based airline unveiled the latest addition to its fleet this month, a Boeing 737 with a bikini-clad model painted on the fuselage. The temporary paint job is part of a promotional deal with Sports Illustrated to tout the magazine's annual swimsuit issue.

Some passengers complain that they're being forced to board an aircraft plastered with soft porn.

"Many women do not enjoy having their husbands exposed to explicit pictures or explaining to young children why the lady on the plane is 'showing her boobies,"' wrote Chris and Sharon Kraemer of Midlothian, Texas, in a letter to the airline. "I would cancel my tickets if there was time to get a competitive rate."

Numerous customers have chimed in with opinions on the aircraft's paint job, which features a giant image of Sports Illustrated cover model Bar Refaeli. The airline has received e-mails, letters and comments on its corporate blog about the promotion, spokeswoman Brandy King said.

"Does anyone else find this kind of trashy for Southwest?" asked one customer on the carrier's blog. "Having a woman in a bikini on the side of the plane hardly seems like the epitome of the friendly, down-home airline I've grown accustomed to."

King said about 25 percent of the feedback has been negative, while nearly three-fourths of the comments have been supportive.

"As with anything that's different and unique, you do hear from some people who disagree," King said. She added that airline executives spent a lot of time making sure the paint job was appropriate.

"We wanted to make sure it was in good taste before we put it up on the aircraft," she said.

The plane is deployed as needed like other aircraft in the fleet, King said. The paint job will be removed within a few months, she said, when the promotion ends.

The complaints come after some religious groups expressed concern about adult content being streamed into aircraft cabins via in-flight Internet services.

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The group Focus on the Family recently demanded that American Airlines install filters on its in-flight wireless Internet service to prevent adult sites from being viewed. The group said it was worried that underage passengers could be exposed to online porn.

Although American initially resisted calls to filter its service, executives with the Fort Worth-based airline later reversed course and installed software to block adult sites.

Refaeli isn't the first attractive woman to be featured in a Southwest promotion. The airline aired television commercials in the 1970s starring flight attendants clad in hot pants and go-go boots, a uniform said to be favored by co-founder Herb Kelleher.

The pendulum swung in the opposite direction in 2007, when Southwest was portrayed as prudish after a flight attendant scolded passenger Kyla Ebbert for wearing an outfit deemed too skimpy.

Ebbert went on a whirlwind tour of talk shows and interviews, complaining about her treatment on the flight. She later posed nude for Playboy's Internet site and was photographed frolicking with Richard Branson, the flashy British industrialist who heads the Virgin Group.

Southwest later apologized to Ebbert and launched a fare sale that included "mini-skirt prices."

The bikini jet has some customers calling for a boycott of the airline. But others defend the promotion.

"This is Southwest being Southwest ... having fun, not taking themselves too seriously, willing to take risks," wrote one customer on the airline's blog. "A true sign of marketing genius."

Some questioned whether it would really do anything to increase revenue at a time when demand for travel is deteriorating.

"How many teenage boys are paying customers?" one passenger asked.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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