The Airlines’ Updated Policies For “Passengers Of Size”

In their quest to squash more and more bodies into planes, airlines have made seats narrower and narrower. Whereas seat width 30 years ago averaged around 19 or 20 inches, nowadays it’s closer to 16-18 inches (depending upon airline and plane). Meanwhile, while the width of airline seats have been inching down, the weight of the average American has been inching up, which causes, of course, an issue for people of size – the inability to fit into some standard airline seats.

Safety regulations from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandate that passengers must be able to lower their armrests and sufficiently buckle and fasten their seat belts (but not all people can do that on all planes). And there’s no law from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regarding what airlines are required to do in the case of a passenger who can’t fit in a single seat due to his/her size. So each airline has made its own rules, some of which are better and fairer than others. As a reference, here are the rules for the major U.S. carriers:

Alaska Air

The seat width on all Alaska Airlines aircraft (armrest to armrest) is approximately 17 inches (21 inches in First Class) and the seatbelt length is approximately 46 inches. Passengers needing extra coverage may ask the flight attendant for a seatbelt extension, which adds 25 inches to the seatbelt length. Only seatbelt extensions provided by the specific aircraft operator may be used onboard. Seatbelt extensions are prohibited in Exit Rows.

The purchase of an additional seat(s) serves as a notification to Alaska Airlines of a special seating need and allows them to adequately plan for the number of seats that will be occupied on the aircraft.

After you’ve completed travel, if all Alaska Airlines flights in each direction departed with an open seat available, you’ll be eligible for a refund of the second seat.

Allegiant

The airline seats measure 17.8″ from inside of armrest to inside of armrest, their seatbelts are 40″ long and one of their seatbelt extenders will add another 21″. Passengers who are unable to lower the armrest and/or compromise any portion of adjacent seat(s) should purchase an additional ticket during the initial reservation. Two seats will be pre-assigned (at no additional charge) in order to ensure the passenger of size has two seats side-by-side. If on the date of travel, a passenger of size requests a second ticket, the agent will be unable to sell a second ticket unless two seats are available side-by-side. In the event the flight is sold out and an extra seat is unavailable, the passenger of size shall be denied travel in the interest of safety.

Allegiant’s website does not mention the possibility of a refund for the second seat.

American

American’s seatbelts are 45″ long. If a customer’s body extends more than 1 inch beyond the outermost edge of the armrest and a seat belt extension is needed, another seat is required. American encourages customers to address all seating needs when booking.

  • When you call to book, Reservations will make sure you get 2 adjacent seats at the same rate.
  • If you didn’t book an extra seat in advance, ask an airport agent to find out if 2 adjacent seats are available.
  • You may be offered a seat in a higher class of service that may provide more space; in this case, you’ll be responsible for the fare difference.
  • If accommodations can’t be made on your original flight, you can buy seats on a different flight at the same price as your original seats.

Nothing on American’s website suggest a refund for the extra seating, although asking an airport agent to see if 2 adjacent seats that are together might suggest they’ll give you a second seat for free (if available) at the gate. Or not. It’s very open-ended.

Delta

Delta’s seatbelts vary from 35″ to 38″ and their seatbelt extenders are 12″ (that’s not a typo. Twelve inches. Pretty skimpy, huh?). Delta recommends (but doesn’t require) that passengers of size book an additional seat. “If you are unable to sit in your seat without encroaching into the seat next to you while the armrest is down, please ask the agent if they can reseat you next to an empty seat,” is what the airline says on its website. You can also pay to upgrade to first or business class. If no empty seats are available, you may need to wait for a later flight.

Same as America, nothing on Delta’s websites suggests a refund for the second seat, but, “…please ask the agent if they can reseat you next to an empty seat,” suggests that may or may not be a possibility.

Frontier

Customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who compromise any portion of adjacent seat or aisle should book two seats prior to travel. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats. Additionally, armrests (when fully lowered) are viewed as providing a measure of safety by restricting the seat occupant’s lateral (side-to-side) movement.

If, in Frontier’s sole judgment, a passenger is unable to sit in an aircraft seat without lifting either or both armrests and occupying all or a portion of the adjacent seat(s), or encroaching into the aisle or adjacent seat(s), the passenger will be required to purchase a ticket for an additional seat (or more, if required to accommodate the passenger) at the price then applicable. If sufficient, contiguous seats are not available, the passenger will be given the option to switch to flights on which such seats are available (for which applicable fees will apply) or be given a refund.

Nothing is mentioned about refunds for the extra seating.

JetBlue

Unfortunately, JetBlue doesn’t specify any policy for people of size on its website. It does note that its seatbelts are 45 inches long, and it makes 25-inch extensions available onboard their aircraft.

Southwest

Southwest’s seatbelts are 39″ long and their extenders are 24″. Customers who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s) may proactively purchase the needed number of seats prior to travel in order to ensure the additional seat(s) is available. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats; the width of the narrowest and widest passenger seats (in inches) is available on their Flying Southwest page. The purchase of additional seats serves as a notification to Southwest of a special seating need, and allows them to adequately plan for the number of seats that will be occupied on the aircraft.

Passengers who were required to purchase extra seating may contact Southwest for a refund of the cost of additional seating after travel.  Customers of size who prefer not to purchase an additional seat in advance have the option of purchasing just one seat and then discussing their seating needs with the Customer Service Agent at their departure gate. If it’s determined that a second (or third) seat is needed, they will be accommodated with a complimentary additional seat, if such a seat is available.

Spirit

Spirit requires that a passenger who “encroaches on an adjacent seat area and/or is unable to sit in a single seat with the armrests lowered” must purchase an additional seat (or a “Big Front Seat”). If there aren’t any available additional seats on the plane, the passenger will be rebooked on the next flight or get a refund on his or her reservation.

Spirit makes no mention about the possibility of refunds for the second seat(s).

United

United’s seatbelts are 31″ long and you have to pre-reserve an extender, which is 25″ long. A customer flying in the economy cabin who is not able to safely and comfortably fit in a single seat is required to purchase an additional seat for each leg of their itinerary. The second seat may be purchased for the same fare as the original seat, provided it is purchased at the same time. A customer who does not purchase an extra seat in advance may be required to do so on the day of departure for the fare level available on the day of departure. The customer may instead choose to purchase a ticket for United First®, United Business® or United Polaris℠ business class, or elect to pay for an upgrade to a premium cabin if there is availability to do so.

United Airlines is not required to provide additional seats or upgrades free of charge (we’ll add this sentence to the long list of reasons why we won’t fly on United anymore).

Which airlines are the most/least fair to passengers of size?

United is the only airline that says, straight out, that they won’t give any sort of refund to someone who needs to buy more than one seat in order to safely sit on a plane. But a bunch of airlines – Allegiant, Frontier, JetBlue and Spirit just don’t mention it either way. Meanwhile, the policies for Delta and American make you question what side of the “fairness” fence their respective policies are on, because they don’t specify – they’re open to interpretation.

Southwest seems to be the best – they explain how to get 2 seats together and they’ll give a refund for the second seat (granted, for the asking – it doesn’t happen automatically) whenever possible. Alaska’s policy is almost as fair – as long as there’s at least 1 empty seat anywhere on the plane (which means the flight didn’t sell out), they’ll refund the cost of the extra seating.

It’s a sticky situation. Airlines have a point – as businesses, they want to make money. People of size also make a point – each one of them is just one person. Is there any easy answer? No. Is the way the situation is being handled now fair? No. Hopefully in the future things can be better.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

 

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