Southwest tells another person they are ‘too fat to fly.’

I recently traveled to Panama for a much needed vacation and on my way back, my friend and I were sitting next to each other in seats neither one of us could comfortably fit in. I was hanging off my seat into the aisle (which of course led to the stewardess constantly going ‘EXCUSE me’) and my friend actually had sore arms from having to hold them up so as not to infringe on her neighbors space. We were too big for our seats and it made the ride mildly humiliating, uncomfortable and frankly, annoying.

And we got off relatively unscathed. No one made a direct fuss about our size, probably because we can pass as “average” and if asked people would look at us and say, “oh but you are not that fat” and all the other sizist gems people drop in an attempt to make you feel better about your size when you are bigger than what you see in magazines, but not considered a direct threat to society–you are not that hated someone who is that size.

So I can only imagine the humiliation and stress of getting to the airport and being told that you are ‘too fat to fly.’ Apparently, Southwest is not as concerned with its passengers feelings of comfort, safety or respecting people’s basic dignity. And you would think after the last time this happened, to someone famous and to much media attention, they would have had some training or a change in policy–but you would be wrong. Kenlie Tiggeman and her mother were singled out over Easter weekend of this year as being Too Fat To Fly (TFTF).

“I know that I have a lot of weight to lose but I am definitely not too fat to fly. I do it all the time, domestically and internationally, and I have never had anyone approach me and particularly in the way that they did,” said Tiggeman.

Issues with Southwest’s “Customers of Size” policy are not new. A spokeswoman said employees are told to speak with customers in a private area and if necessary, check if they fit in the seats prior to boarding and always use the utmost discretion. However, Tiggeman and her mom, Joan Charpentier, said the 45 minute conversation, which included questions about their weight and what size clothing they wear, in front of more than 100 people, was anything but discreet.

“It was the worst time I’ve ever had in my whole life. I was embarrassed, humiliated,” said Charpentier.

The worker then tried to strike a deal. Tiggeman, Charpentier and a third overweight woman could fly, if they would sit together.

The fat shame (she’s actually trying to lose weight unlike the rest of you fatties) framing of this article notwithstanding, I think it is telling that Southwest’s “deal” with the three ladies they targeted as TFTF were told they could sit separately. You know, segregated from the rest of the normal, paying, deserving of comfort and respite from your fat ass, customers.

Kate Harding said it best the first time Southwest’s fat hate hit the news,

I think of the non-famous people who have been thrown off flights for making thin people uncomfortable — the brother and sister on their way home from their mom’s memorial service, the man who didn’t make it to a family funeral at all, the man living on disability who couldn’t afford a second seat to meet with doctors about a liver transplant — and all of the commenters at my blog who say, every time we talk about this, “I’m terrified to fly” or “I just don’t fly.” Not because they have anxiety disorders, or they were traumatized by “Lost,” or because airplane terrorism has done its job on them — because they’re fat. And they can’t afford two seats. And even if they’re just small or lucky enough that they can probably avoid being escorted off the plane like a criminal, the risk of smaller-scale humiliations — sitting next to someone who complains about their size; absorbing flight attendants’ naked disdain; overhearing someone say “I hope I don’t have to sit next to her“; being told, as Smith’s seatmate on his later flight was, that they should really purchase two seats in the future to avoid making other people uncomfortable; plus the aforementioned dirty looks and heavy sighs — is often enough to keep them at home. It’s enough to make people say things like, “Maybe I don’t really need to see my family this year” and “I won’t bother applying for a job that requires travel” and “It’s just easier to vacation close to home” and “If I start driving now, I think I’ll get there in time to say goodbye.”

Go read the entire piece if you didn’t the first time. Fat hate is straight up discrimination and it is time that it is treated as such. Shame on Southwest for their policy. And flying is uncomfortable for people of all sizes and shapes, so targeting one group based on an arbitrary judgment determined by physical appearance is not about customer satisfaction–in this case it is about fat hate. And lest we forget, Southwest has a history of discriminatory practices, not just based on size but appearance as well, so I suppose this is all but surprising.

Join the Conversation

  • nazza

    I would boycott Southwest for things like this if I wasn’t so poor. I usually save $100 to $125 a flight specifically by using Southwest.

  • Kate

    Before I lost weight, I was on the cusp of needing to ask for a seat belt extender when I flew. In fact, I am sure I should have asked for one the last time I flew fat, but my pride wouldn’t let me, so I strapped myself in by sucking it in and holding my breath. That experience was one of the deciding factors in deciding it was time to do something about my weight. Since then I have gone down to a reasonable and healthy size (120 pounds lighter than my highest weight) and it has been the best thing I have ever done for myself.

    I have mixed feelings about fat people and airplanes. On one hand, I agree it is terribly humiliating to have your weight focused upon in public. On the other hand, airplane seats ARE small and are not designed for the very obese. What is the answer here? Clearly it is not to humiliate people at the boarding gate. But we can’t just pretend that all people fit into airplane seats either. And it is incredibly uncomfortable, for people like me who are protective of our personal space, to be wedged between an obese person and an airplane wall for several hours. Not meaning any disrespect, it’s a simple fact. And I’m sure it is just as uncomfortable for the obese person- because I have been that person.

    Redesigning airplane seats seems out of the question, but you have to wonder if an airline that would undertake to have a section of larger seats may find a very lucrative market awaiting those tickets. Or would people be too vain and in denial to admit they needed the larger seat to begin with?

    It’s too bad we can’t talk about these issue of weight rationally. But our emotions and feelings of self worth are so tied-up in our appearances that it’s virtually impossible.

  • Nonsequiteuse

    I would, just once, like to see an airline kick a person off a plan for being too tall to fly. I’ve sat next to tall people whose knees and elbows and shoulders were in my space and the aisle, obstructing all kinds of people and progress. When tall people start getting kicked off, then we’ll know the whole extra seat rule it is for safety reasons, and not for fat-shaming reasons.

    I’m not holding my breath.

  • Cat

    I have a hard time with these articles.

    In my case, I am thin because of my chronic pain and connective tissue disorder. I am nauseated about 95% of the time and I’m allergic to the only anti nausea drug that works for me. One of the most frustrating parts about my health problems is that they are invisible. If I had a nickle for every time someone said to my face “you don’t look sick” or even “but you look so good” I would be able to pay off my medical debt. I don’t see this as a privilege and I don’t like it when it’s insinuated that a side effect of my health problems gives me some sort of privilege because I would not wish my health problems on my worst enemy – I can’t work, can’t finish college, can’t keep up with social obligations like all the other early 20 somethings so I’m frequently alienated.

    I do everything I can to make sure my flights are comfortable. I can’t drive 3000 miles, just driving 30 minutes is hell on my back. I can’t take the train because that’s days of traveling. My best option is flying if I want to see him (and also visit my favorite city in all the world.)

    One day I was flying back and I had got on my connecting flight and saw that the guy I had to sit next to was taking up his seat and half of mine – this wasn’t the thought of “he will be touching me” it was “I’m not sure there is room here for me to safely sit down.” I was able to wedge myself between him and the end of the seat but I couldn’t sit up straight. I need to sit up straight or it throws my back out of alignment because I have hypermobilities and issues in my spine and hip.

    This was such a difficult situation. I knew if I said something, they might kick him off the plane and I seriously didn’t want to cause that. He could have health problems like me for all I know (for all any of us know) and I know what it’s like to be alienated for that. It was a tiny plane with all the seats full so I knew I couldn’t say anything without making it a big deal and I didn’t want to do that to him. The other thing is that I knew that I may not be believed – I knew people would look at me and think “she is BSing us all” because my disabilities aren’t clearly visible. The man apologized for taking up half my seat and I said it was okay but it really wasn’t – I had such bad neck and back pain and I couldn’t get rid of it until I saw my physical therapist days later. So I don’t know what the right thing would have been to do. I would say silently suffering was playing it safe except I couldn’t live my life for a few days as a result. I wasn’t mad at him per se but I was frustrated with the situation – I think he was a nice guy, to the point that if I had said something he would have probably tried to find a solution but I really didn’t want to alienate someone, especially for their appearance.

    It’s hard when I read things like “making thin people uncomfortable” because for me, my experiences like that had nothing to do with appearance. In this particular scenario was very practical – this person was taking up half my seat, therefore I could not sit properly. I suffered in excruciating pain because I couldn’t sit up straight. If I had spoken up and this guy had been kicked off the flight, people would be accusing me of discrimination when I think I have some sort of right to not have to suffer, but maybe I’m wrong. I also can’t just take pain meds and be done with it, especially when pain meds don’t fix an alignment issue (also because I don’t ever look sick, doctors tend to skimp on the pain management, which is a separate issue.)

    So what are we supposed to do? I do my best to make sure me and my accommodations are not imposing on anyone else but even this gets tricky sometimes. I feel like people are judgmental on both sides and this makes it difficult for me to have open and honest conversations about things like this. Someone always says “but you are the an exception” but the problem with exceptions are, they don’t always get recognized as valid points and a lot of times, I get screwed. As a sick person, I can’t afford two plane tickets to keep this from happening and I’m fortunate that my boyfriend has been able to fly me out a few times to make the distance in our relationship easier while he’s in grad school.

    Maybe I’m totally wrong and maybe I’m missing something. I am posting this because I would seriously like to know what to do if I’m ever in a similar situation – I do not want to alienate anyone or make them suffer any sort of humiliation but I think my health concerns are valid. Even though I read and try to understand everyone’s experiences, I have a hard time when different types of discrimination collide so I’m hoping maybe someone can point me in the right direction?

  • Alicia

    Have you considered that this is not about “fat hate” but that airplanes have set limitations on how much they can carry? It is why baggage is weighed and why there are a particular number of seats. Everything which is built to be used by humans has weight limits – elevators, chairs, desks, tables, etc. Airplanes are not exempt. Commercial airlines use various models of aircraft, each which possesses unique limitations. Aircraft limitations not only depend on the structure of the plane itself, but on how many passengers the plane is carrying and how much luggage the plane is carrying. This might explain why some overweight people have flown with no problems and then, at some point, find that they are asked to purchase two seats or are told they cannot fly until a plane which can accomodate them arrives. I do not think this is evidence that Southwestern Airlines hates fat people, but merely that they have weight and space limitations which depend on the model of aircraft, interior structure, the amount of luggage on board, and the number of passengers. Were these weight limitations not maintained, it might put pressures on the structure of the plane or increase the risk of flight problems.

    Now, none of this is to say that I agree with how the situation was handled, but I’m simply trying to add another perspective -a technical perspective- which seems to have been overlooked. The first link provided is very detailed.


    • Angel H.

      If this was actually about weight limits then the policies wouldn’t be based on sight only. Every customer get screened with their luggage, and when the maximum amount was reached, no one else – no matter their body type – would be allowed to board.

      This is all about capitalism wrapped up in fat hatred. Southwest crams as many seats as possible into their planes by installing the smallest seats possible. In order to get any breathing room, they make you pay extra.

  • LP

    I haven’t flown in years. The train is really the way to go.

    That aside, if fuel consumption is the real reason (it’s not), why not charge someone based upon the real fuel consumption value of a person? The weight of his luggage plus his own weight. Going by seating footprint just makes it especially obvious that this isn’t about the cost of fuel.

  • Heidi

    I highly doubt that the executives at SW sat around the boardroom table thinking up ways to shame fat people. “Let’s make the seats so small that they won’t fit in them! muhahaha!” In reality, it’s a matter of ecomonics. They shove as many seats as they can into a row to get as many paying customers as possible into the plane. Even average size persons find them uncomfortable. Offering bigger seats, in exit rows or first class, is a great way to squeeze more money out of people.

    As another poster said, the weight of both passengers and luggage also has to be considered, along with safety. There’s no doubt in my mind that if there were an emergency, it would be dangerous for someone’s body parts, wether they were a tall person or a large person, sticking out into the aisle.

    The airlines need to be MUCH more sensitive however. It’s obvious that the employee in this particular incident was rude and insulting, and SW needs to do something about this problem with it’s employees and it’s policy.

  • Natalie

    I am someone that flies southwest frequently, and I am small in size. Where I am coming from is that when I spend $150+ dollars on a flight, I am renting out my seat for that flight. I have bought my entire seat for that flight, I don’t want to be uncomfortable because someone else is taking up part of the seat that I spent a lot of money on. Southwest has cheap flights because they pack tons of people on to the same plane in small seats. If Southwest made larger seats, less people would be able to fit on the plane and tickets would be more expensive for everyone. Unfortunately not everyone fits into the small seats, but that is just part of Southwest’s business plan. If you don’t fit into the seat, book a flight on an airline with larger seats or follow the Southwest policy and book two seats. I know this sounds harsh, but I’m not saying this because I hate fat people, I don’t. I realize that some people are larger than others, but I shouldn’t be forced to give up some of what I paid for because someone else is larger than me. No one would expect me to give up part of a meal at a restaurant to a stranger sitting at a table near me because they need more food to be full. I paid for my meal so therefore I should be allowed to enjoy it even if I eat less than someone else. I paid for my entire seat therefore I should be able to use all of it.

    • Meredith

      Very well said, and I could not agree more. It has nothing to do with “fat hate” or “shame” or whatever other pejorative you choose. I purchased this space for this flight, and if you cannot fit into the seat you purchased, and are literally spilling into my personal space that I have purchased, you need to buy another seat or choose another airline to fly with.

      Could Southwest deal with these situations more delicately? Of course.