CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – Because of a security equipment breakdown at the airport, Nadine Thompson missed her Southwest Airlines flight to a Chicago business conference. A customer service worker found another way for her to get there, but she needed to board quickly.

She noticed another employee at the desk was looking at her, it seemed to her with contempt, but that person didn’t address her. She hurried to her gate at Manchester Airport, Thompson testified in federal court Wednesday.

When she got on the plane, Thompson noticed that most of the seats were taken. She took an aisle seat in the back, buckling her seatbelt and putting down the armrest. That employee, a man, came on the plane and asked her to meet him on the jetway. She did so, thinking that either Southwest had a better flight for her or there was some emergency involving her family. Instead, she testified, she was told she needed to buy a second seat for her comfort and safety.

That’s when Thompson, a successful cosmetics company CEO from Exeter who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Southwest, started to feel uncomfortable. She said she asked the man several times to explain why she needed to buy the second seat; he kept saying it was for her comfort and safety. She told the worker she was going to return to her seat and do nothing unless he could give her a reason to buy a second one.

As she headed back in, she recalled hearing about a Southwest policy applying to obese passengers. “I thought, There’s no way they could be talking about me,”‘ Thompson testified about the June 2003 incident. A frequent flier on Southwest, she had never been approached about a buying second seat.

Thompson, who, according to court records is 5-foot-8 and weighed between 300 and 330 pounds at the time, was approached by the worker again. He said, “‘If you get off the flight right now, I’ll refund you your ticket,’ ” she testified.

“I was kind of startled,” she said. “‘Why are you harassing me like this?’ ” The man didn’t say anything and walked off the plane.

By now, Thompson said, she was feeling agitated and scared. “It was clear to me that this wasn’t over. Something else was going to happen.”

She felt that she shouldn’t stay on the plane, and that Southwest didn’t want her there. “God’s telling me to go home. Something’s wrong here,” she recalled. When she walked off, she saw the man and several other Southwest workers, along with two armed sheriff’s deputies, right outside the plane. They were talking about her.

“What have I done?” she asked. One of the workers said she had been told to buy the extra ticket. A deputy said that the sheriff’s department, which handles security for the airport, is called by airlines to assist with removing passengers from planes.

When Thompson kept demanding an explanation, asking if she was being targeted because she’s black, a woman, or fat, another worker started telling her to keep her voice down, she testified. This worker behaved like a bully, very confrontational and aggressive, Thompson said, and she decided to stand up to him, admitting that she used profanity.

She asked the workers for their names; the one she had been arguing with said they didn’t have to give names. “I said, Only racist cowards don’t give me their names,”‘ Thompson testified. “‘You might as well have a sheet over your head.”‘

Eventually, she went back to the Southwest counter and was given a refund. The deputies were with her; she eventually started to weep and one assisted her, helping her get on a United Airlines flight. She was charged for one seat.

Thompson said she later called Southwest’s corporate office in Texas. A customer service representative apologized for what happened, said the employees didn’t follow procedures and offered her $350 in gift certificates.

The incident left her humiliated, Thompson said, and she has been seeing a psychologist to deal with her feelings.

On cross-examination, Garry Lane, a lawyer representing Southwest, recalled a deposition from Thompson saying she didn’t pay much attention to the male co-worker as she was getting her new flight arrangements. When asked why she didn’t describe his look of contempt at the time, Thompson said she wasn’t asked about it.

Southwest’s policy states that a “customer of size” is someone who can’t sit in a seat without having the armrest raised and is sitting on part of the adjacent seat. In his opening statement, Lane said Southwest employees will testify that they saw the armrest up most of the time and that Thompson was sitting on part of the vacant seat next to her.

Thompson, who said she doesn’t consider herself a customer of size, isn’t challenging the policy in court; rather, she claims, it allows any random employee to operate “in a discriminatory way about that policy,” she testified.

Lane asked her if it’s possible that the employees made an honest misjudgment of her size that day. Thompson said no.

“So, it had to be racism?” Lane asked.

“Yes,” Thompson said.



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