Woman Sues Southwest to Clarify 'Too Fat to Fly' Rules

Published by Anne McDermott on May 7, 2012

UPDATE 10-31-12: A federal judge has dismissed the suit after the plaintiff "missed a deadline to respond to Southwest's request for the case to be thrown out".

5-7-12: A year ago, a woman named Kenlie Tiggeman, who reportedly once weighed 400 pounds, was about to board a plane in Dallas when a Southwest representative told her she was too fat to fly and needed to buy a second seat. However, as FareCompare reported, Ms. Tiggeman was not required to buy a second seat on her Southwest flight to Dallas.

AirTran Adopts Southwest's Too-Fat-to-Fly Rules

Overweight Flyer Not Seeking Money

Now, she is suing Southwest – but it's not because of the humiliation she said she suffered and she's not even seeking any money. What she wants is a clarification of the rules: exactly how fat is too-fat-to-fly? It's a good question, but at the moment there appears to be no definitive answer. As air travel analyst Rick Seaney said, these policies are "notoriously difficult to interpret."

Just finding information on such policies is an exercise in detective work since no airline publicly refers to passengers as obese or even overweight – the subject is cloaked in euphemisms:

Time for Passengers to Pay by the Pound?

What Airlines Call Overweight Passengers

  • Customers of Size: Alaska, Southwest
  • Customers Requiring Extra Space: American
  • Customers Requiring Extra Seating: United
  • Passengers of Size: Delta

However, several airlines make no mention of larger passengers at all, but that doesn't mean they don't have policies in place. And what are the policies?

Overweight Policies Often Vague

No airline lists a weight limit or allowance on pounds per passenger but they do list restrictions. The problem is the restrictions are open to the interpretation of the airline gate agents and/or flight attendants, as Tiggeman discovered.

For example, Southwest policy says, "The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats and measures 17 inches in width". By the way, a 2004 size survey indicated hip measurements for average U.S. women were well over 40 inches – but how big were the non-average, and how many of them can't fit between 17 inch armrests?

Meanwhile, back on the Southwest site, dig a little deeper and it seems the armrest may not be the sole definitive guide: "Customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who encroach upon any portion of the adjacent seat should proactively book the number of seats needed prior to travel."

Celebrities Kicked Off Planes – For Weight and More

Passenger Complaints about Overweight Flyers

Airlines have been getting complaints from other passengers for years – passengers who say large seatmates are crowding them or worse. This includes the highly publicized incident involving self-described "fat" film director Kevin Smith who tweeted his anger about Southwest. Some industry analysts are even saying it's now time to be fair to all passengers, as well as to airline bottom-lines, by charging airfares on a per-pound basis – with heavier flyers paying a bigger share of the total airfare costs.

Tiggeman does not address such issues. All she wants, she says, is a little consistency – and a lot of clarification – so she can avoid humiliating scenes at the airport in the future.

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