The Day Southwest Airlines Turned My Old Fears Into A New Nightmare

by Kenlie Tiggeman on April 26, 2011

I fly pretty regularly and, perhaps, a bit more than the average person.  Over the last few years, I would guess that I’ve been on about 50 flights, and never have I experienced the kind of public disrespect, humiliation and blatant discrimination that I experienced last night on my Southwest Airlines flight

A few years ago I weighed over 400 pounds.  I tried to avoid flying, but when I had to do it, I purchased two seats – even after being told that it was unnecessary by customer service representatives from my airline of choice – JetBlue.  I choose JetBlue as often as possible because the jets feel more spacious and the customer service is consistently extraordinary.  But yesterday, I could not fly JetBlue.  They don’t offer service between my location points so I traveled with my family on Southwest Airlines.  It was, by far, the worst experience that I’ve ever had – even before they made it personal.

At the time the first photo was taken, I purchased two seats.  I weigh less now than in the smaller pic here.

My mom and I missed our original connecting flight due to delays  and weren’t sure when our bags would arrive at our destination.  When I asked the man at the gate before the last leg of our flight, he cursed under his breath and called me stupid for not remembering my first flight number.  That was annoying so I responded by asking him why he bothered whispering that I was stupid because I was right there.  He looked away, and that, believe it or not,  was not the worst part of my experience at Southwest Airlines.

At that point, Mom and I asked (as directed by the gate representative in our departure city) to be placed on the next flight out of Dallas which was scheduled to leave approximately 15 minutes from the time we asked.  We were told that it would be no problem.  The flight was not full, and we were given new boarding passes

My mom and I typically board early so we were waiting in line when we noticed the gate representative (who had just printed our new tickets) publicly and loudly discuss the weight of a larger woman and clearly distraught woman who was brought to tears.  The woman, Barbara, was told in front of everyone at the gate (including Mom and me) that she would have to purchase an additional seat to return to her home city.  As a self-proclaimed frequent Southwest flyer, she said that she had never been so embarrassed, nor had she ever been asked to purchase an additional seat.  Then she said “what about those ladies?!”  Enter Mom and me.

At that time, the man who said that we’d have no problem and the flight wasn’t full as he printed our new boarding passes, asked to speak to us.  He asked if we had ever been approached about buying an extra ticket.  Mom said “No, and I’m insulted that you asked since this is our return flight! If it’s an issue now, why wasn’t it an issue on my first flight? And why has your conversation with that woman has been so public?”  After talking down to my mother, Barbara and myself for the next several minutes, Mom was angered and crying which made me angry.

The woman is Barbara, and the man was Dale or Dell, the 2nd gate rep.

At that point, I chimed in. I urged Mom to stay calm and let me sort it out.  I asked what the official weight restrictions were, and his response was that he was unaware of any particular standard and that we were just “too big to fly without an additional ticket.”  So the representative said “Look, let’s make a deal. If you three ladies sit together then we can just forget this ever happened, and I’ll let you board.”  I probably don’t need to tell you what happened next.

I agreed to do it though my mother and the other woman, Barbara, said that it was ridiculous to suggest that we pay for tickets and not sit where we wanted to sit on an open boarding flight.  Barbara prefers to sit at the back of the plane while my mother prefers to sit close to the front.

My mother and Barbara agreed that they should be able to choose their own seats so at that point, Jennifer – a supervisor –  entered the picture.  She said it was “their policy to makeoverweight people pay extra” though she could not provide the actual policy or specifics related to that policy.  At that point, I was livid.  I kept my cool though I did remind the original overweight representative, Mr. D. Bucchanan, that I could complete a half marathon and probably faster than he could. ;)

Jennifer, the supervisor who later admits enjoys shows like The Biggest Loser and offered us $200 vouchers after we mentioned that they might be breaking a law or two. 

Note: There were several other very large people waiting at the gate.  As I looked at them, they looked away, perhaps hoping I wouldn’t drag them into the conversation.  At no point during this half hour ordeal did anyone  from Southwest say anything to the gigantic African American male who plays football for LSU.  For the record, according to his roster stats, that football player is 6’5″ and weighs 315 pounds!   That makes him well over a foot taller than me and almost 50 pounds heavier! Hey Southwest Airlines, are you kidding me?!

I typically pre-board because on some flights, I still require an extension, and it’s far less embarrassing to ask for one in front of 10 people than 110 people.  It helps to ease my anxiety, and makes it easier for the people around me.  I like to be seated with my extension (if applicable) before the plane is filled because when I’m settled in my seat, it’s less awkward than trying to climb over other people.

For the record, I can sit in any seat on the plane with the armrests down.  I can use the seat tray table to place my laptop or water comfortably in front of me.  I can cross my legs, read a book and/or listen to my iPod without encroaching on the seat next to me. 

I couldn’t comfortably sit in one seat when I weighed 400 pounds, but I can now.  I can do many things now that I couldn’t do at 400 pounds.

 Back to the conversation at the gate…

When we mentioned that discussing these things in public was humiliating, unacceptable and potentially against the law due to their public discussion of our medical issues, their tunes completely changed.  The supervisor, asked for our tickets then returned moments later with $200 credits for each of us to use on a later flight.

They began apologizing profusely, offering to bring us cokes.  Look Southwest Airlines…I don’t drink sodas – diet or otherwise.  And by the way, I’ve lost over 114 pounds which helps me fit into your stupid airplane seats so no thanks.  I would not like a coke, but I would love it if you’d give my dignity back.  I’d also appreciate you wiping the tears from my mother’s face that YOU put there - a woman who has battled her weight most of her life – who stays out of the way on flights and fits into her seat.

I am acutely aware, as a result of my personal experience, that it is socially acceptable to mock people who are overweight.  And there was a point in my life when being insulted because of my size was a daily occurrence.  And while it is no longer a daily occurrence, it was infuriating to be publicly humiliated in front of an airport full of strangers as I was asked to share my weight, my clothing size and my reasons for weight gain and weight loss. 

As embarrassed as I was for myself – and I was – I was even more embarrassed for my mother and the 65-year old woman who was visibly larger than myself.  I agree, in that, if you cannot fit into the seat that you should buy another.  I’ve done it before, but not since losing the first 100 pounds.  My mother and I both fit into our seats, and I can’t speak for Barbara because she sat at the back of the plane.  But I don’t have to because regardless of size, number of seats and/or medical issues that allow for pre-boarding, etc.  the utter lack of disrespect and humiliation in lieu of decent customer service is unacceptable. 

I have come a long way, and I weigh less right now than I weighed when I arrived in New York last week.  And I weigh much less than I weighed when I first posted about my flight anxiety due to size.  What happened yesterday was something I feared for years, but I was apparently naive in thinking that I could release those fears at this point.  I am still a moving target, and the people at Southwest struck firmly yesterday – turning what used to be my worst fear into a real-life nightmare.

I realize that, for myself, this will eventually be a memory of my heavier days.  I am changing.  I have changed.  And now I have to figure out how to process this humiliating slap in the face by Southwest Airlines. 

If I had been asked to purchase another ticket in the same manner at 400 pounds, I would have graciously paid the price, understanding that it was only fair while believing that I wasn’t worthy of respect and/or human decency.  I did pay the price.  I used to buy two seats!  But as someone who can fit into her seat and has a shred of confidence in herself, I think it’s deplorable that they publicly embarrassed us rather than speaking to us in a private room or even around the corner in the empty hallway.  Calling me stupid is not okay. Announcing that I’m “too fat to fly” is not okay.  Turning an issue with one passenger into an issue with other passengers that were minding their own business is not okay. 

So here’s my biggest problem with the flight yesterday. If the folks at Southwest in Dallas had such a big problem then why didn’t the folks at Southwest in New York City have a problem first?  And why didn’t Southwest in Denver have any problems with us either?  Both flights were completely full yet no one suggested that I purchase an additional ticket.  What gives, Southwest? Why is it that this was not an issue until the last part of the return flight?  Why didn’t someone say something sooner?  How do you charge an additional ticket for the fourth flight purchased as one trip?  And, again because it bears repeating,  why didn’t they attempt to handle privately as opposed to handling it in front of the other approximately 132 people counted at the gate?  My answer: they didn’t see the need to treat overweight humans with the human decency because they don’t see us as regular people.

So Southwest Airlines, if you don’t want overweight passengers on board then state it in your next commercial.  If you do have a policy that excludes passengers and/or requires the purchase of a second ticket then post it on the front page of your website, tweet about it or make the small print bigger.

As your flight attendant said at the end of each flight, you know that I have choices when I fly so I will not be choosing to fly on Southwest.  And your $200 voucher is laughable at best.  It’s not even enough to cover a round-trip flight.  And can you promise me that I won’t face the same harassment on the next flight if I did fly Southwest again?

The personal attack after what had already been a tumultuous travel day is unforgivable.  And, in truth, I doubt anyone at Southwest Airlines cares that my mother and I suffered through humiliation and discriminatory behavior via Southwest.

It is sad, unacceptable and unforgivable.  They cannot give back the pain that they put us through yesterday.  They wouldn’t be allowed to disrespect me in such a way if I were black or gay or an alcoholic, but because I weigh more than average (for now) I’m an open target.

I plan to fight back.  My mother and I will be filing separate formal complaints against the airline, and that’s the just the beginning for me.  I’ve been fighting for myself for two years, and I’m going to continue doing just that.  But I want Southwest to know that every passenger willing for fork out the dough for a flight on their planes deserves equal respect.

I deserved respect yesterday.  My mother deserved respect and so did Barbara, but we did not get it.  I did receive one video apology, but if you watch, you’ll see Mr. Bucchanan laugh as I ask him why he’s saying he’s sorry.

I’m sorry for one thing.  I’m sorry that I wasted my money for such a horrific travel experience.  In short, I’m sorry that I chose Southwest Airlines.

Monday evening update: 

Shortly after I blogged about my experience, a small outpouring of tweets and comments caught the attention of @southwestair – the official twitter account for Southwest Airlines.

I received a tweet and an email and have learned that I will be contacted by Southwest in the morning.  For now, I will say that I’m glad they’re reaching out, and I’m willing to listen to what they have to say tomorrow.  I will, of course, keep you all posted.

And thank you to each of you, as always, for your opulent and unwavering support. 

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