Suing for Airline Fatty Policy

Last year Kenlie Tiggeman was told by a gate agent of Southwest Airlines that she was “too fat to fly”.  She is now suing Southwest Airlines.  She’s not trying to get money, what she wants is an industry standard for flyers who have to buy another seat, in her words “If you’re telling me I have to buy two seats, you should tell me at the point of purchase, not the day I’m flying when I check in at the terminal.”

I have tremendous respect for her taking action on this and putting herself out there.  I understand her frustration, nobody should be humiliated at any time, but especially by a company that they have paid for a service. However, I disagree with what she’s asking for.  I’m very concerned that this suit will lead to an arbitrary policy that won’t help anyone and will hurt a lot of people.

It’s all but impossible to tell if you are going to fit into an airline seat before you get on the plane.  For my speaking gigs I often fly twice a week taking 4-6 different planes.  I can tell you that planes are very different – seats are different sizes, seat belts are different lengths, depending on the size, type and age of the plane.

Also, it’s difficult to choose a standard by which to judge if you’re going to fit. Weight, for example, is not an indicator of body size.  I weigh almost 300 pounds but because my fat goes forward and back, and because a lot of my mass is muscle, I happen to fit into a seat.  There are people who weigh one hundred pounds less than I do who cannot fit comfortably in a seat because they carry their weight differently. Some people’s bodies will squish to fit between the armrests, some won’t.  Hip measurements have the same challenges – some people squish, some don’t.  My hip measurement is large but you have to take into account how the weight is carried.

The general argument about this goes that the airline is selling space and therefore if you don’t fit in a seat you should pay extra. I do understand this argument and why there is controversy about this. I disagree, stick with me to the end of the blog and if you disagree I’m open to that.   The primary reason I disagree is that the airlines are selling transportation to people.  This isn’t Priority Mail “if it fits it ships”, the airline industry is in the business of transporting actual people, and people come in different sizes and shapes, and therefore I think that the airlines are responsible for accommodating their actual passengers and not just those who are a specific size. We are all paying to get our bodies from one place to another.

I’ve seen flight attendants bend over backwards to accommodate a tall thin passenger, and if someone wants to use the ” tall isn’t their fault but being fat is” argument (thought I don’t agree with the premise),  then I’ve seen flight attendants bend over backwards for someone wearing a cast and using crutches and, having watched the show Jackass, I know that could very well be the result of doing something incredibly foolish.  At the end of the day, it’s about getting bodies from one place to another.  People come in different sizes, this is the size I come in, and I need to get from here to there just like everybody else who is getting on this plane.

Also, I would argue that this is thinly-veiled fat discrimination because nobody ever says anything about men (and sometimes women) whose shoulders don’t fit within their prescribed area – next time you get on a plane look at how many people’s shoulders are in someone else’s seat. We’re also not talking about people with body odor or people who have marinated in cheap cologne and make the flight unpleasant for a couple of rows of passengers – should they be required to purchase all the seats within smelling distance?

We keep hearing about how airlines are struggling financially.  You would think that if more than 67% of Americans are fat then it might make financial sense to court us for our business, not treat us like we are an unbelievable pain in the ass because we have the audacity to exist, and their refusal to actually accommodate us results in us bothering some tiny percentage of the 33% of people with whom the airlines actually seem to want to do business.

This is a problem, but the solution is definitely not to set some arbitrary weight at which people should have to pay extra, or to have people entering their hip measurements along with their credit card numbers.

Accommodating fat people is not rocket science.  Canada has a one-passenger one-ticket rule so clearly it’s not impossible.  Put us in the aisle – a lot of people don’t know that the aisle armrest actually raises.  You have to keep it down during take-off and landing, but for the vast majority of the flight you can gain a lot of space.  Choose which standby passengers get to fly based on who is willing to sit next to a person of size. Insist that your staff stop being bigots and jerks and work to accommodate people of size.

Quit bowing to passengers who are weight bigots.  If the person sitting next to you has their body in your seat but isn’t touching you, then you may have 99 problems but a fatty ain’t one, enjoy your flight. If the person sitting next to you is touching you, then welcome to the experience of millions of people taking public transportation every day, this may not be your favorite flight ever-it happens.  I’ve been seated next to a shrieking baby, in front of a kicking toddler, near people with some serious body odor, near other people wearing half a bottle of the world’s most noxious perfume. I’m allergic to cats and I spent 4 hours sitting (and sneezing) next to a woman with a sick cat in a carrier in her lap beside me.  None of these were fun flights, but in each case I can empathize.  Also, get a grip -  it’s a few hours out of your life, you don’t have to spend a month on this plane. If you don’t want to deal with other people in close proximity public transportation is not for you.

Fat people are in fact people.  We’re just like you, only bigger.  We deserve the same ability as everyone else to buy one ticket for our one body, get on a plane, and get safely to our destination without being the subject of bullying, harassment, or bigotry because of how we look.

Pre-order my book and  get an autographed copy and free shipping! (Give a copy to the unpleasant passenger next to you on the plane!)

Fat: The Owner’s Manual – Navigating a Thin-Obsessed World with Your Health, Happiness, and Sense of Humor Intact, with foreword by Marilyn Wann is now available for pre-order.   This is a book about living life in the body that you have now, making decisions about what you want in the future, and how to get there.  Whether you want to change your body, fight for size acceptance, just live your life, or understand and support your fat friends and family, this book was written to provide the insights, aha moments, humor, and hard facts to help.

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I do HAES and SA activism, speaking and writing full time, and I don’t believe in putting corporate ads on my blog and making my readers a commodity. So if you find value in my work, want to support it, and you can afford it, you can  become a member (you get extra stuff, discounts, and you’re always the first to know about things) or a you can support my work with a  one-time contribution.  The regular e-mail blog subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is still completely free. If you’re curious about this policy, you might want to check out this post.  Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

Published in: on May 31, 2012 at 6:54 am  Comments (47)  

47 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have nothing to say to the fat portion of this post, but I live in Australia and I was amazed to hear that pets can be taken as “carry on” on flights in the USA!

  2. Just want to say that I strongly disagree with what this woman is requesting in her lawsuit. She might as well say, “Okay, you’re right…I do deserve to be punished for being fat, but can you just not punish me in public?”

    I’m also mighty aggro with airlines boasting “more leg room!” How about more ass room??? A larger percent of the population could use that more than leg roo, I’m guessing.

    Lastly – I am allergic to dogs and a woman once purchased an extra seat for her doberman so it wouldn’t have to fly cargo. I was miserable the whole way because they were catty-corner to me and the flight was full so I couldn’t move. People with pets NEVER consider another person’s allergies. I’ve been seated next to other fatties and while that’s no fun for either of us, I’d do that before flying with a dog any day.

    • Not never. You’re just a whole lot less likely to notice pet owners who DO consider others’ allergies. I have a large and very hairy dog. I fly with him cross country about once a year. I would never consider bringing him with me in the cabin, because people have allergies and phobias, and he’s a big, enthusiastic dog who wants to meet everyone.

      • Awww. I’d fly next to him any day! :D

      • Heh. Given how hard it is to keep him from crawling into other people’s laps (or indeed my lap), I don’t especially want to fly with him myself. It wouldn’t be so bad on short flights, but most of the time when I fly, it’s from Seattle to Florida. Six hours on a place, trying to control a rambunctious dog, not so much fun.

        Thanks, though.

      • How does your pooch handle flying? I live in California and have family in New York and I’d love to bring our new puppy – well 11 months – back east for a visit. I just don’t know if she would be OK for the flight. She is crate trained but she also cries sometime – like a banshee monkey, it’s heart-breaking.

      • Andrew: He does ok now, just curls up and goes to sleep, but the first time he flew when he was a puppy, he cried for an hour — I could hear him in the cabin — and was just a wreck afterwards, and the next trip he got terrible diarrhea on the flight home. I strongly recommend talking to your vet about it, especially about the possibility of sedation, if your dog has separation anxiety or a fear of loud noises. Whether or not a dog travels well is as dependent on personality as it is for people, and dogs don’t have the understanding that lets people cope a little better.

        • fatcarriesflavor, thank you for being so considerate. I flew once with a lady who had a couple of dogs, cute as they were, they cried and moaned the whole time. It was awful. And I am deathly alergic to cats. I couldnt be near a cat when flying. But I like peanuts, LOL not alergic to those.

    • High pitched noises trigger extreme migraines for me. As in curled up on the floor vomiting.

      I would never even entertain the thought that a toddler or infant should be thrown in the cargo hold just to spare me from having to suffer a migraine attack when they start screaming. Nor would I imply that all parents are inconsiderate for not considering my “noise allergy” before bringing their children into a confined space.

    • Plenty of people with pets consider others’ allergies, but that doesn’t mean that they always win out. I have a cat with several health issues, putting him in cargo would stress him to the point of making him sick. I would far rather make the person sitting next to me sniffle throughout a flight, than let my cat get seriously ill in cargo. If it’s an issue of your temporary inconvenience versus the longer term health of my pet, my pet is probably going to win out every time. Them’s the facts.

    • As much as people’s bags get lost, there’s no way I could fly with a pet as “cargo.” But I would be more than happy to move if I ended up sitting next to someone allergic. (Fortunately, I’ve never had to fly with a pet.)

      • This is what I’ve done when I’ve flown. (I have a small, non-shedding dog who fits under the seat.) I’m quite upfront to the people I’m sitting near (next to, in front of, behind). “This is my dog. She does not shed. I expect that she will sleep for most of this flight, but you may see this bag sort of move a little. If any of this isn’t okay with you, I’m happy to tell the flight attendant now so that we can work something out for all of us.”

        As far as I know — unless people thought different than they told me — it’s never been an issue.

  3. While I like the idea of suing Southwest in principle, she’s gone about this really unwisely. She has filed suit herself, and has no lawyer, for one thing. She’s not only unlikely to win the injunction, she’s pretty likely to be ordered to pay Southwest’s legal fees, which will probably be substantial. She could ruin herself financially doing this.

    Also, I do agree with Darci that she’s seeking the wrong injunction. The policy needs to be that a seat is a seat is a seat, and anyone who buys a ticket flies, and no one should have to pay more unless they’re getting a class upgrade.

    This is just really poorly-thought-out, and I hope that it doesn’t bite Ms Tiggeman in the ass. And that it doesn’t hurt future lawsuits against airlines for discriminatory practices.

  4. Can I/we mail this to Southwest airlines? I think your eloquent argument is fantastic!

    • Absolutely, feel free. I’m glad that you like it!

      ~Ragen

      ________________________________

  5. I think a little bit of context is necessary: I certainly don’t mean to speak for Kenlie, but I do read her blog from time to time and I think it’s important to realize that she’s coming at this issue from a different perspective than Ragen and her readers.

    Kenlie is a dedicated dieter who has lost about 100 pounds but is still quite far from her goal. Kenlie is a lovely, honest, hard-working woman, but you can’t call her a fat activist or a proponent of fat acceptance. Her ultimate goal is to become slim.

    • Ah. So she believes that some time soon she won’t be subject to the restriction she’s arguing for, and that once she is under a certain size/weight, she’ll never have to worry about this again. Makes sense that she would argue for a size-based standard then.

  6. I just want to say that I love your blog. Rational thoughts and ideas are so refreshing! I was beginning to think everyone is crazy. I’m short and muscular. BMI is bullshit. BMI says I’m obese. When I step on the scale at the doctor, they always always say, wow! I had no idea you were that heavy! I’m mad that I have to pay a higher life insurance premium based on my “build”. Not high blood pressure, not diabetes, not any medical issue, just my “build” (BMI). My daughter is 9 and of normal weight. She is terrified to eat a cupcake lately. The war on obesity has got to stop. She’s afraid to eat junk food because she’ll get fat and die (Thanks Michelle Obama!) I’d prefer if she were terrified of drinking or smoking or having unprotected sex…

  7. I cannot tell you how much this makes me crazy – I fly a lot and always feel like a horrible person for having to “squeeze.” Ragen, I completely agree with your argument and you have written it well. I think submitting it to Southwest – or all airlines – as a request for equal treatment is a great idea.

  8. “If you don’t want to deal with other people in close proximity public transportation is not for you.”

    It just clicked with me why it’s always *airplanes* that this fuss is made over. These must be people who never *do* take any other kinds of public transportation, like buses or subways. They want plane travel to be like riding alone in their comfy automobiles!

    • My friend’s mom has to fly a lot for her job and every time she flys, she buys two tickets just so she doesn’t have to sit next to anyone.

    • Bingo! Considering that air travel is the priciest form of mass transportation and the difference between cattle car ticket prices and first class ticket prices are significant, you do get a large number of fliers who are accustomed to riding around in bucket-seat comfort in their daily lives, so the subway-like crowding of airplanes is an uncomfortable shock to them, so they probably overreact to the sharing of space.

  9. I just loved the “99 problems but a fatty aint one” line, roflmao! I needed that laugh this morning. But no, I totally agree. I have never flown, a) I am TERRIFIED of heights and figure if God had intended for me to do so I would have been born with wings, and b) I tend to avoid all places where I many have seating issues (planes, sports stadiums, ect.) just b/c I don’t want there to be drama but if you can’t stand being uncomfortable for a couple of hours then u have some issues

  10. I posted a comment on Kenlie’s blog asking her to rethink the outcome she’s seeking. Maybe if enough of us do this, we can get the better outcome. :)

  11. I was just educating thinner people the other day about this policy. I fly often, and how I fit all depends on the plane. Those tiny 2 seat by 1? Worlds most uncomfortable thing for me. A Jet Blue Even More Speed seat? Not only can I luxuriously stretch out my legs, but the seatbelt fits. So yeah. Thanks,

  12. I was concerned about what she was doing with the lawsuit for the same reasons. What, are the airlines going to ask for your BMI when you pay for your ticket? In which case I know I’m going to be automatically forced to buy two seats, but I fit just fine with plenty of room in an airplane seat thank-you-very-much. And like you said–not all seats and belts are created equal on airplanes, so they’d have to standardize them all or something ($$$). I don’t see this lawsuit going anywhere. It’s not trying to solve this problem in the right way!

  13. “…a lot of people don’t know that the aisle armrest actually raises.”

    THANK YOU. Also? Why the hell did the airlines lock down all of the window-side armrests? When I could raise that, I never ever not once had a problem, never had to crowd the passenger next to me.

    How on earth can it be a safety issue to raise the window-side armrest and *not* be a safety issue to raise the aisle-side armrest? What in the actual fsck?

  14. I have a problem with my top not fitting in the seat. I have large boobs and stomach and no butt. But a funny sideline and I mention this in my book, when my husband and I fly, he takes an isle seat and I take the window seat. We “spread out” to the middle seat and everyone just walks on by. We love it because it gives us more room with no one sitting in the middle. Of course, we move over if the plane is full. We are able to do that when we are able to choose our seats upon boarding. Sometimes it works on other airlines but, Like everything in life, “it just depends” on the flight.

  15. Really well-written post.
    Coming from the UK, I tend to view flying as a “special occasions only” thing, rather than the normal form of transportation you guys seem to view it as. So I’d never thought to compare it to, say, getting on a bus where people of all sizes and odours and whatnot get on.
    Last time I flew I had to get an extender belt on the way out and didn’t remotely need it on the way back, so I assume it was a different kind of plane on the way back. Also I thought the seats were quite roomy, and as I am quite large perhaps UK planes are bigger?
    I think if I had to buy a second seat I would probably stop flying. I was embarrassed enough getting an extender the first time I did it.

    • In general, European planes are a little more spacious. I can almost always fit without an extender in a European plane, whereas I almost always need one in an American plane.

      BTW, you can buy an extender that works in most planes here:

      I bought one, and it’s a real sanity-saver. Makes me feel more in control of the situation, too. :)

    • We have much too large of a country here. I fly because it would take me more than a week of driving to go to see my family, and the same amount back.

      I’m built so that I fit into the seats on the airlines I usually fly (although some of them are definitely snugger than others), but it can be awfully uncomfortable for those six-hour flights. I’ve taken to buying first class seats at least one direction, just to have a little relief.

  16. I wrote a protest letter today to ask@gpb.org Georgia Public Broadcasting. They were playing “The Amen Solution: Thinner, Smarter, Happier” It’s the usual pbs guru, but offensive.

  17. As a tall person, person of height, vertical fatty, I think the solution is to find whoever designed the airline seat and send them to Gitmo. Seriously, is there any body type that’s comfortable in those torture contraptions?

    I wouldn’t expect things to change anytime soon – the airlines are racing to the bottom on ticket price right now – but you could always try to take the train. I know it’s not always convenient but the high-speed train from NYC to DC is great and you go from city center to city center so you don’t have to take a ridiculous cab ride when you get there. Someone once said, “every time you buy something, your voting for how you want to world to be.” So, spend your money shaping a world that works for you.

    • … but you could always try to take the train.

      One can sometimes try to take the train. But they’re not the best at navigating large bodies of water and/or 3,000 mile stretches. (You know, assuming a job without unlimited personal leave.) :)

    • Yeah, I loved taking the train in Ireland, but back home it doesn’t really work trying to go from Seattle area down to Florida to visit the folks.

  18. Thank you for this article, Regan! You are truly brilliant. And brave :-)

  19. This is something that really gets under my skin. I’m 6’2″ and 250 lbs, and my husband is 6’6″ and 350, and both of our families live on the opposite side of the country. Last year we flew to see my parents at Thanksgiving and it was such an uncomfortable and painful experience, we ended up not going to see his family at Christmas because we just couldn’t do it again.
    We are able to fit technically, but not comfortably, and certainly not comfortably for the people next to us. It’s so hard, because I’ve been told before,”well if you just bought a first class ticket you’d have room”, and I just think why should I have to pay $1000 just to be able to see my family? I know you said you’ve seen them bend over backward for tall people, but in my experience they’ve only ever done that for thin tall people. I’ve been told that I’m just “too big” by airlines, and for my husband it’s even worse. It’s discouraging and hurtful to be discriminated against because we’re just big people.

    • Hi Mel,

      You are absolutely right and I’ve changed the blog to say “tall thin person” because that’s exactly what I meant. I’m so sorry that you’ve had such a horrible time with the airlines and if I was the evil airline emperor your experience would be very different.

      ~Ragen

  20. Whenever I’ve investigated buying first class vs. two coach seats, the one first class/business class seat is more expensive than two coach seats. This I do not understand. Also, I make a point to never fly airlines that don’t allow you to chose your seat at purchase, because I find that if I chose the last row, I’m either alone, or next to people who waited to the very last minute to pick their seat, so they’re less likely to pitch a fit if they’re sitting next to me.

    • You have some good ideas. I will try them the next time I fly. Thanks

  21. I am so glad I found your blog. You are able to say things I have been thinking, but didn’t know how to verbalize. Considering how much I talk, that is some feat! I really appreciate your outlook. I wanted to add that the last time my husband and I flew, it was after the Kevin Smith incident with Southwest and buying two seats on their airline was so much cheaper than one for any other, so we did. We also bought two seats for our children. The funny thing is that knowing we had a whole row to ourselves we immediately headed to the back of the plane and put out our sign saying that we had bought the extra seat. People were irritated when they came to the back of the plane and saw that the empty seat next to us was taken. So, people are just irritated no matter what you do.

  22. So, I agree with you that airlines should accommodate all their passengers, not discriminate against larger people.

    But I’d like to discuss the stereotype of the whiny person who complains about someone else occupying part of their seat.

    I am autistic and severely claustrophobic. Being touched by strangers at all makes me extremely uncomfortable, and feeling trapped in a small space gives me panic attacks. If I have to share my itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny airline seat with another human being for a multi-hour flight, I will hyperventilate and possibly pass out due to my disability.

    But then, airline seats are so tiny that I will panic in a non-aisle seat even if noone else is protruding into it.

    So please please don’t demonize me as being anti-fat-people.

    IMO, airlines need to provide enough space for everyone’s ass and for people like me. Those tiny things they call seats are completely unreasonable.


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