In December 1999 Luther, 48, was stopped from boarding a flight from Reno to Burbank by a Southwest gate agent who insisted that the divorced telephone-company rep-who stands 5'5" and weighs about 300 lbs.—buy a second ticket because of her size. Although she had flown Southwest several times before—including earlier that weekend—and always fit into a single seat, that day Luther was denied entry in front of dozens of holiday travelers. "I was so upset. I felt embarrassed and furious," she says. "They didn't treat me with dignity."
After a friend paid $73.50 for the extra ticket, a tearful Luther finally boarded—and took up only one seat. (She eventually received a refund.) Luther sued Southwest, arguing they should have taken her on the plane to see if she needed two seats before charging her double. A judge dismissed her lawsuit in 2000, finding no discrimination (an appeal was also dismissed last year). "The interest of the policy is not to humiliate anyone," maintains company spokeswoman Linda Rutherford. "We sell our service in the form of 18¾-in. seats."
But, wonder advocates for the overweight, who decides who fits, and how? "It's ultimately going to be no different than putting African-Americans in the back of the bus," says attorney Walter Lindstrom, an obesity-law specialist. "It's a visual call."
Luther, who never got a formal apology from Southwest, has since switched airlines and not had any problems with other carriers. Still, her experience with Southwest has made her warier of flying. "If I treated my customers the way they treated me," she says, "I'd be fired."
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