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Monday, August 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Passenger says Southwest Airlines humiliated her

By The Associated Press

Trina Blake says she no longer travels by air.
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SPOKANE — An Eastern Washington woman has sued Southwest Airlines, saying company employees humiliated her in front of other airplane passengers by suggesting she was too fat to fit in a single seat.

Trina Blake, 26, said a gate agent questioned her extensively about her weight while she was boarding a plane from Orlando, Fla., to Seattle in May 2003, then told flight attendants to make sure Blake did not take up more than one seat.

"I was told that if I even lifted the armrest, I'd be charged for a second ticket at the next airport," Blake told The Spokesman-Review newspaper.

A lawyer for Southwest says the airline denies it discriminated against Blake or harassed her.

Linda Rutherford, a spokeswoman for the Dallas-based airline, said Southwest's policy requiring second tickets for large people is meant to ensure passenger safety and comfort, both for the heavy passengers and those nearby.

Blake, who lives in the north Spokane suburb of Chattaroy, said she's flown on Southwest and other airlines numerous times and never had been asked to consider buying an extra seat.

"I'm a bigger girl, but I'm not that big," she told The Associated Press. At 5-foot-7, she wears size 22 pants and considers herself overweight but not obese, she said.

She said she would not have considered the suggestion discrimination if Southwest had been more discreet and polite. In her view, the treatment she received was abusive and insulting.

Her lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Spokane in June. Her attorney, Russell Van Camp, said he plans to seek unspecified monetary damages for reckless infliction of emotional distress and harassment.

Blake said she'd like to receive a formal apology from the airline. She wrote a letter after the incident and received two $50 Southwest vouchers she has not yet used. She said a letter the airline sent did not include an apology.

"Even if they offered me free tickets for the rest of my life, it would do me no good," she said. "I'm not able to fly anymore. The idea of flying again gives me too much anxiety."
Rutherford said the airline does not track the frequency of its requests for second seats but said it happens "very rarely."

And in cases where passengers are asked to buy second tickets, the fares are refunded if the plane leaves with any unfilled seats, she said.

Southwest is working to make sure employees are consistent in asking passengers to consider two seats, so that passengers like Blake don't go across the country and then encounter a request on a return trip, Rutherford said.

"This is a very sensitive issue and we handle it with the utmost discretion," she added.

In 2000, a California court ruled that Southwest had not violated a passenger's civil rights by requesting a second fare when deemed necessary.

A brother and sister from New Mexico sued Southwest Airlines in June over the same policy.

Andrea Kysar of White Rock and Martin McLaughlin of Espanola, who are described in the lawsuit as "morbidly obese," said they were told in front of other passengers that they had to buy extra tickets because their weight would cause "comfort and safety" problems for others.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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