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Heavy passenger: Airlines have no right to 'humiliate'

/ Source: TODAY staff

Kenlie Tiggeman has taken the embarrassing and uncomfortable Easter day incident where Southwest Airlines said she was "too fat to fly" and turned the attention on airlines and how they deal with overweight passengers.

"There were people who were snickering, there were people who were desperately not trying to make eye contact with me," recalled Tiggeman, who along with her mother, Joan Charpentier, were questioned about their weight by a Southwest Airlines employee.

Tiggeman recounted the public incident to TODAY anchor Ann Curry on Wednesday.

Tiggeman lost more than 120 pounds in the last two years. The New York-based political strategist weighed 400 pounds just a few years ago, a time when she avoided flying. When plane travel was necessary, Tiggeman purchased an additional seat.

After her dramatic weight loss, Tiggeman thought those days were behind her. But when she and Charpentier tried to board a Southwest flight from Dallas to New Orleans on Easter Sunday, an airline employee said they would need to buy additional seats in order to board the flight.

Charpentier was mortified. "It was the worst time I’ve ever had in my whole life," she told TODAY. "I was embarrassed, humiliated."

Southwest's "Customers of Size" policy requires passengers who "encroach" on a neighboring seat to purchase an additional ticket. The boundary is defined as the armrests, which are 17 inches apart.

Tiggeman typically uses a seatbelt extension, but was not asked by Southwest to purchase an additional seat for two previous flights. After the incident, Tiggeman wrote on her blog, "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."

During the 45-minute conversation with a gate agent, Tiggeman was questioned about her weight, clothing size and patterns of weight gain and loss. When Tiggeman began recording the exchange on her cell phone in order to post on her blog, the agent apologized. TODAY aired a clip of the unnamed agent saying, "I’m very, very sorry for the manner in which I addressed this."

A Southwest supervisor then offered Tiggeman and Charpentier a $200 credit to be used on a later flight. After Tiggeman blogged about her experience, she was contacted by a Southwest executive who apologized, refunded her ticket and offered additional vouchers.

Southwest issued a statement on Wednesday apologizing to Tiggeman and Charpentier. "We apologized to Ms. Tiggeman because the policy was not applied consistently on all legs of her trip," the statement read.

Tiggeman was not satisfied with Southwest's response. "The problem with that statement is that [the people at the counter] didn’t know the policy at the time," she said.

This isn’t the first time Southwest is in the news for its treatment of heavier passengers. In February 2010, the airline booted actor and director Kevin Smith from a flight after they said he didn’t fit comfortably in a seat. Southwest later apologized and gave Smith a $100 voucher.

Tiggeman said airlines need to be more respectful of passengers of different sizes. "I just have to say quickly that I’m not sitting here asserting that I have the right to encroach on someone else’s space," she said, "but I do expect to be treated with the same level of respect as every other passenger."

After blogging about the incident, Tiggeman received hundreds of e-mails from people driving 20-plus hours or staying home rather than risk embarrassment at the airport. Tiggeman said the airlines could make more money by accommodating these passengers with a row or two of larger seats.

Tiggeman was also contacted by fitness guru Richard Simmons, whose videos were instrumental in her weight loss.

In a letter to Simmons, Tiggeman said she wanted to visit his Beverly Hills studio. Simmons responded and asked her to work out with him.

Tiggeman has, in fact, flown Southwest since her incident, and with the help of the inspirational Simmons, managed to "turn something horrible into something good."