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Southwest Passenger's Lawsuit Demands Clear Definition of Who Is a 'Customer of Size'

Southwest Airlines has a "Customers of Size Policy" that states: 

Customers who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s) should proactively book the needed number of seats prior to travel. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats and measures 17 inches in width. The purchase of additional seats serves as a notification to Southwest of a special seating need. Most importantly, it ensures that all Customers onboard have access to safe and comfortable seating. You may contact us for a refund of the cost of additional seating after travel, provided the flight does not oversell (which means having more confirmed Customers than seats on the aircraft).

Southwest adds in its Q&A about the Customers of Size policy that the armrest is the "definitive gauge" for a Customer of Size. "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," it states.

For travelers like Kenlie Tiggeman who are close to the line of being a Customer of Size, however, Southwest's policy is inadequate because it is adjudicated by a representative at the gate who simply eyeballs travelers and rejects some of them for being "too fat to fly." This first happened to Tiggeman in 2011, at a time when she had lost over 100 pounds (down from 400 pounds) and says she did fit into the airplane seat. Nonetheless, the representative at the gate flagged her as someone whose size required the purchase of two seats.

Tiggeman blogged about the incident, and Southwest eventually apologized. Tiggeman flew on Southwest a couple of times after that without any issues, but a few months later she was again told at the gate “Well, look at you.  Obviously you need two seats.” Tiggeman says she then produced the letter of apology from Southwest’s HQ regarding the last incident, and "their tune changed."

This second incident, however, outraged and embarrassed Tiggeman, who believed that it was wrong that Southwest seemed to arbitrarily apply the COS policy to her based on the whim of the gate representative:

The problem I have with Southwest is not that they may want me to purchase two seats.  It’s that sometimes they want that, and other times they don't. I don’t know about you, but I fly a lot. And paying double because a gate agent may or may not have something against overweight people is not realistic ... nor should it be necessary.  

Tiggeman announced on her blog last week that she has now filed a lawsuit against Southwest seeking an injunction against the implementation of the Customer of Size policy because it provides no clear definition of the rules and allows the gate agent to discriminate against overweight people. As Tiggeman puts it on her blog, "[c]learly, Southwest wants us to be a certain size, but no one (including Southwest) seems to know what that size is. ... as paying consumers we do have the right to fly if we’re willing to follow the rules.  And in order to do that, we need to know the rules."

Posted by Bruce Carton on May 9, 2012 at 04:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

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