GALLIANO, La. — A Galliano woman who made national headlines last year when she was told she was “too fat to fly” and was asked to buy a second seat on a Southwest Airlines flight is suing the airline after a second similar incident.
Kenlie Tiggeman, 31, who had worked to lose 100 pounds before the first incident, was asked in November to buy a second seat again, and she said it's time for Southwest to establish a straight-forward policy.
“I want them to make their policy clear,” she said. “While I may not have the right to get on the plane, I have a right to take some of the guesswork out of it. Sometimes they think I'm too big to fly in one seat, and sometimes they don't. As someone who flies fairly frequently, I just want to know what the rules are when I purchase a ticket. I want some consistency.”
Tiggeman is not requesting money from the lawsuit, besides reimbursement for her legal fees, according to court records. If she succeeds with her suit filed April 20, Southwest Airlines Co. is only required to create policies that lay out rules and opportunities “without humiliation, discrimination or embarrassment” for obese people's seating.
The suit, filed in Lafourche Parish civil court, describes Tiggeman's first run-in at the gate of her Southwest flight in April 2011. At the time, she weighed between 240 and 300 pounds, and a Southwest employee said Tiggeman was “too fat to fly.”
Tiggeman said she pulled out her iPhone and started to record her conversation with the employee, and the employee dropped it and apologized, Tiggeman said.
Tiggeman blogged about the encounter on her website, “All The Weigh,” which she started three years ago to track her weight loss goals, and talk shows and news outlets all over the nation picked up the story. A Southwest representative called her to apologize.
Tiggeman said she flies twice a month on average and now weighs about 280 pounds.
When she was between 325 and 400 pounds, she would always buy a second seat, but after she lost the weight she fit comfortably in a seat, she said.
“I'm not advocating obesity,” she said. “That's why my blog exists, to keep myself accountable. I'm not asking for special treatment of obese passengers, just equal treatment. I just want to know what the rules are.”
The second time, another Southwest employee requested Tiggeman purchase a second seat at the airport check-in.
The employee said, “Well, look at you, obviously you need two seats,” according to Tiggeman.
Tiggeman's mother, who was with her, happened to have a letter of apology from Southwest with her, and when they pulled it out the employee backed down, Tiggeman said.
“I can't afford to purchase two seats because someone may or may not say I'm too fat,” she said.
Southwest Airlines does outline a “Customer of Size” policy: If a passenger does not fit between the 17-inch space between armrests, he or she must purchase an additional seat. Passengers who are unable to lower both armrests or who encroach on the adjacent seat are considered to not fit.
However, Tiggeman said after losing weight, she did fit between the armrests. At the gate last year, she offered to prove that to the Southwest employee, but the employee refused.
A Southwest spokeswoman said if a passenger is asked to buy a second seat for this reason, Southwest later reimburses the person if the flight is not full, “which happens more than 90 percent of the time.”
“We realize that it's a sensitive conversation, and we train our employees to approach the situation as discreetly as possible,” said spokeswoman Brandy King. “The policy is designed for the safety and comfort of all passengers onboard the aircraft, and the best case scenario is for the customer to notify us of any special needs ahead of time.”
After Tiggeman's story wascirculated, she said she received thousands of emails from people who had similar confrontations with the airline about their size.
“There is complaint after complaint about Southwest,” she said.
Filing a lawsuit seemed like a good way to address this problem, she said.
“I'm a capitalist. I believe in free enterprise,” she said. “If Southwest will revisit this issue, it becomes a win-win for everyone.”
The reason she flew with Southwest again was because they apologized, and she felt the airline deserved a second chance, she said.
“I won't be giving them a third chance,” she said.
Tiggeman, who commutes to New Orleans and often visits New York City, said weight loss can be difficult in the South.
“I tell myself ‘no' all the time, but the food here, the culture here, it very much surrounds food,” she said. “There are a lot of people here who look like me.”
But Tiggeman's blog details her desire to work through the obstacles and focus on weight loss, health and fitness.
“When I started my journey, I exercised because I had to; now I do it because I love it,” she said in her most recent blog post Monday. “I love how working out makes me feel. My body craves it, and my heart loves it.”