Overweight Passenger Denied Seat on Southwest Flight

Southwest says it was Emery Orto's behavior, not size, that got him booted.

September 9, 2009, 11:50 AM

Sept. 9, 2009— -- In decades of air travel, Emery Orto's size has not been a problem.

Yet the suburban Chicago man said it was his girth that got him booted from a Southwest Airlines flight at the end of a vacation to Las Vegas to celebrate his wife's birthday.

But Southwest says it was Orto's behavior, not his waistline that caused employees to deny boarding on the Sept. 1 flight.

At more than six feet tall and 350 pounds, Orto is not a small guy. But he told ABCNews.com that he was surprised when he was stopped in the jetway by an employee who wanted to know if he'd be able to fit comfortably in one economy class seat with the armrests down.

"I said, 'Yes, I am,'" Orto said. "I've flown many times -- it's not a problem."

What happened next is up for debate.

Orto, 62, said he wanted to board the plane to show the employees that he could fit into his seat without causing himself or the people next to him any discomfort.

But he told ABCNews.com that he was never given the chance and instead denied his seat based on appearance only.

"She said, 'We are not flying you this airplane today,'' he said.

It's discrimination Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said never happened. Referencing notes in a report filed by employees who witnesses the confrontation, King said Orto "began acting irrationally" upon questioning.

"We couldn't get him to calm down long enough to have the conversation," King told ABCNews.com.

Like most airlines, Southwest has what the company calls a "customer of size" policy to accommodate not only obese passengers, but those seated around them.

According to the policy, listed on the company Web site, employees are within their rights to ask passengers whether they fit into one seat without forcing the armrest or spilling over into the seats next to them.

Obese passengers are also encouraged to purchase a second ticket at a discounted rate, which will be refunded if the plane is not overbooked. King noted that more than 97 percent of such tickets are ultimately refunded.

But Orto said he has flown some 50 times with his wife in their 43 years of marriage without ever being too big for his seat. The fact that he flew out to Las Vegas from Chicago's Midway Airport should have proven that, he said.

King agreed that the best solution would have been for Orto to board the plane to make sure his size wouldn't be an issue, but employees were never given the chance.

Ultimately, she said, Orto made a scene outside the airplane, causing other customers to complain that they felt unsafe flying with him.

"The reason the passenger was denied boarding was because of his behavior, not his size," King said, adding that Southwest offered to put his wife Carla, also 62, on the plane without Orto.

Orto admitted that he became angry and, tired after a four-day trip in the sweltering Nevada heat, raised his voice at the Southwest employees, but only after they had already decided to deny him boarding.

Missed Luggage, Raised Voices Flare Already Tense Situation

Orto called the experience "embarrassing and humiliating."

"No one wants to be singled out in a whole group of people because they have a flaw," he said.

When Southwest employees threatened to call police, "I immediately shut up," he said, "because that's homeland security."

To add to the already tense situation, Orto, an insulin-dependent diabetic, said he had left his medication in his checked luggage, which had already been stowed on the plane.

When airline officials told him the bags would not be pulled off the plane, Orto said he became further enraged.

Orto said he and his wife sat down to discuss how they could get home, coming up with the idea to take either a bus or rent a car. He said he stopped a maintenance worker on the way out for help locating ground transportation and it was that airport employee who told them to try another airline.

"He said, 'They can't do that,'" Orto said.

In the end, it was United Airlines who got the Ortos home, though they had to spend $800 in extra airfare and $17 each for transportation from O'Hare International Airport, where their flight landed, to Midway, where their bags were taken.

Orto said he now wants an apology from Southwest and "to be made good on the tickets I had to buy."

"We do not want this to happen to a senior citizen or any other passenger," he said.

King said Orto would be entitled to a refund on the portion of the tickets he did not use, meaning the fare from Las Vegas back to Chicago.

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