Home Airlines The Airlines’ Policies For “Passengers Of Size” (Updated June, 2021)

The Airlines’ Policies For “Passengers Of Size” (Updated June, 2021)

by SharonKurheg

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 has 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 suggests 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 standard Economy Seats are 17.2″ wide and feature 31-32″ on legroom. If you need more space, you can ask to be reseated next to an empty seat or pay to upgrade to First/Business class. If you want to make sure you’re comfortable, you might consider booking an additional seat. No mention is made for any refund for the extra seat.

Delta doesn’t say how long their seatbelts are, but they will be happy to provide you with a seatbelt extender – they don’t mention how long those are either, but in the past they were a whopping 10 inches.

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.

It is Frontier’s goal to ensure a safe, comfortable flight for everyone and to make every customer’s travel experience pleasant from beginning to end.

Nothing is mentioned about refunds for the extra seating.

Frontier mentions nothing about side width or length of seatbelts.

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.

It’s also noted that guests who require a seat belt extension may not occupy any seat equipped with an inflatable seat belt.

Rows with Inflatable Seatbelts
Aircraft Seat Row
319 1, 4, 5, (D,E,F)
320 1, 2, 12, 13
32A/32N 1, 3, 12, 13
32B 1, 3
32W 1

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

15 comments

Kathleen Flynn October 7, 2019 - 10:24 am

I was recently on a flight with a Person of Size. She told me that Southwest had refunded the cost of the second seat. She seemed pleased with the way in which Southwest had handled her request.

Reply
Dublin June 13, 2021 - 10:31 am

Really? That’s what we come to? A person of size is now capitalized??. The world has gone mad

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derek June 13, 2021 - 10:32 am

I was once seated between two big people. I was squished. I did not say anything because the flight was short (about an hour) and the two men were military (but not US).

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SharonKurheg June 13, 2021 - 12:20 pm

It’s nice that you didn’t say anything. Sometimes you have to put others before yourself and depending on what was said, and how it was said and handled, it could have potentially been very embarrassing for them, I’m sure.

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Randy June 13, 2021 - 2:48 pm

I don’t get American’s policy. They are allowed to extend 1″ OUTSIDE of the armrest. If I am sitting next to them, that is 1″ taken away from me on an already narrow seat. That isn’t right.

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RZG June 13, 2021 - 5:59 pm

I was on a flight next to a large woman. Her shoulders were a couple of inches out of the seat on both sides. It was a full flight so there was no where else to go. It was miserable. The comment that “A person of size is now capitalized” must be coming from someone who has never had their already small space compromised even more. If you can’t fit in a seat, the person next to you should not be penalized.

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SharonKurheg June 13, 2021 - 7:49 pm

I don’t think you understand what “capitalized” means in Dublin’s reply. It has nothing to do with penalization of the person sitting next to the person of size.

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John June 13, 2021 - 6:30 pm

I support the United policy that makes the oversized people responsible for their size, rather than penalizing the passengers adjacent tomthem.

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SharonKurheg June 13, 2021 - 7:46 pm

Meh. I care more about being a good person and caring for your fellow man.

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Jeanne Kazley June 14, 2021 - 6:23 am

That goes both ways, Sharon. People of size need to respect the comfort of others. If you cannot fit in the airline seat and need more space, it’s disrespectful to take that space from another passenger. People of size need to be caring of their fellows, to quote you. . It’s wrong to make their problem, someone else’s. It’s not being a bad person to expect your personal space to be respected.

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SharonKurheg June 14, 2021 - 10:58 am

Sorry, I still feel more for the person of size. They’ve already had to be uncomfortable by squeezing into a seat that’s many inches narrower than it was years ago, worried about having to pay for 2 seats (depending on the airline), embarrassed about having to ask for a seatbelt extender and have to deal with the snide looks and comments in person (and the latter online). Those of us next to them just have to give an inch or two – a minor inconvenience in comparison to the lifelong “fat shaming” strangers will give (you should see some of the disgusting replies to this post that we didn’t approve). I’m willing to give a little, and make small sacrifices, in the name of my fellow humans. It’s a shame that others in the same situation just talk about their personal space.

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Joy June 14, 2021 - 1:14 pm

American women are an average size 14. I don’t fly often but can they comfortably fit in an airline seat?

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Rhydonia Duggan June 14, 2021 - 4:02 pm

If you don’t fly often, how would you know if you fit into a seat? Is it hip size or what?

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SharonKurheg June 14, 2021 - 6:03 pm

Each airline lists the width of their seats and some list the size of their seat belt extenders. Beyond that, I guess it would mean calling the airline and asking?

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Kelly Prewitt June 15, 2021 - 1:59 am

I am waiting for the first lawsuit. Really. I think that this would be so embarrassing for anyone that this is going to happen too. I know people that are certain medications and unfortunately they are weight gainers. I am appalled and I hope that we can all agree this is discrimination. Shame on them. Hopefully they won’t get off the ground with such asinine rules.

Reply

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