Home Airlines The Airlines With The Best/Worst Policies/Equipment For People Of Size

The Airlines With The Best/Worst Policies/Equipment For People Of Size

by SharonKurheg

A while back we wrote a post that highlighted the overall layout of U.S. airlines’ policies and procedures for people of size. It seemed fine at the time, but we sometimes look back at older posts to see if they need to be updated or can somehow be made better. This one definitely needed an overhaul.

Here’s the post. This is our update.

I (Sharon) was the one who wrote that original post in 2019, as well as the original update to it in 2021. In reading it now, I see that (A) at least 1 policy has changed (B) I missed an airline entirely (sorry, Hawaiian!) and (C) it’s a little confusing to figure out which airline(s) have the most and least fair policy/policies for passengers of size.

I intend to fix that now.

Obviously, even when it comes to passengers of size, needs for being comfortably seated in an airline seat is not a “one size fits all” situation:

  • Some people need to know which airlines offer wider seats
  • Others may want to know how long each airline’s seat belt is
  • Still others would be interested in the length of each airline’s seat belt extenders, and how to obtain one
  • And some passengers will be interested in each airline’s policy for reserving more than one seat

Note about knowing what kind of accommodations you may need: Unfortunately, there’s no way to answer, “I wear a women’s size 20; can I fit into Uniteds’ seat?,” or “I wear an XXXL T-shirt; what would be the best seat for me?” It’s all about body shape. Someone who carries their weight in an evenly distributed way may fit into an economy seat better than someone who’s the same weight but is pear-shaped. Measuring your hip-to-hip width will give you some idea of how you’ll fit into a specific airline seat, and measuring hip-to-hip girth will give you an idea if a seatbelt with/without an extender will work for you.

Note about raising the armrests: Armrests (when fully lowered) are viewed as providing a measure of safety by restricting the seat occupant’s lateral (side-to-side) movement. Most airlines specify that passengers of size who are sitting in one seat are expected to do so with the armrest in the “down” position.

Also consider that while some airlines require passengers’ bodies to remain 100% within their armrests, others give a little leeway (i.e. for at least 1 airline, you’re good as long as you don’t extend more than 1″ beyond the armrest). Each airline’s respective website should offer specifics.

Using the 10 most popular airlines in the country, I’ll list each airline’s documentation for all, and will mention the one(s) that appear to be the best for passengers of size.

Seat Widths

  • Alaska: “Width between the armrests typically measures 17 inches for coach and 21 inches for First Class.”
  • Allegiant: “The airline seats measure 17.8″ from inside of armrest to inside of armrest.”
  • American: Their seat widths vary from plane to plane (they have 18 different types of plane layouts) and, of course, from class to class – click here for the entire list.
    For both Main Cabin and Main Cabin Extra, their seat widths can vary anywhere from 16.5″ to 19.3″.
    Premium Economy width range from 18.5″ to 19″
    Flagship Business seats vary from 18.5″ to 21.9″
    First Class seats range from 19.5″ to 21.5″ wide
    Flagship First are either 21″ or 21.5″ wide
    Not all planes have all classes.
  • Delta: Their seat widths vary from plane to plane (they have over 2 dozen different types of plane layouts) and, of course, from class to class – they’re all listed on different pages of Delta’s website but honestly, it’s easier to look at this Seat Guru chart, where it’s all on one page.
    Economy class varies from 17.2″ to 19″.
    Premium Economy seat widths are anywhere between 18.5″ and 19″.
    Business Class seats vary from 19.6″ to 24″.
    Not all planes have all classes.
  • Frontier: Frontier’s seat widths depend upon what kind of plane you’re on and which seat you’re sitting in:
    319 Aircraft: Aisle seat = 17.4″-18″, Middle Seat = 17.8″-19.1″, Window Seat = 17.1″-18″
    320 Aircraft: Aisle seat = 17.4″-18″, Middle Seat = 17.8″-19.1″, Window Seat = 17.1″-18″
    321 Aircraft: Aisle seat =  16.7″-18″, Middle Seat = 16.5″-19.1″, Window Seat = 16.5″-18″
  • Hawaiian: Hawaiian’s seat widths depend upon what kind of plane you’re on:
    Boeing 717 = 18″. First Class seats are 19″ wide. Exit row seats are 17.5″ wide.
    Airbus A321neo = 18″. First Class seats are 21″ wide. Some seats in the rear of the plane are 16.8″ wide.
    Airbus A330 =18″s. First/Business class seats are 20″ wide. Some seats in the rear of the plane are 16.5″ wide.
  • jetBlue: jetBlue STILL doesn’t list seat widths on its website. Seat Guru suggests their seat widths vary from 17.8″ to 18.4″ in Economy, and their Business Class seats are either 20.5″ or 22″ wide.
  • Southwest: “Width between the armrests measures 17 inches.”
  • Spirit: Spirit doesn’t list seat widths on its website. Seat Guru suggests their seat widths are 17.75″ for Economy (read: “Deluxe Leather”) seats and 20″ for Big Front seats.
  • United: Their seat widths vary from plane to plane (they have dozens of different types of plane layouts) and, of course, from class to class – they’re all listed on different pages of United’s website but honestly, it’s easier to look at this Seat Guru chart, where it’s all on one page.
    Economy class varies from 16″ to 18.2″.
    Premium Economy seat widths are anywhere between 17.1″ and 19″.
    Business Class seats vary from 19″ to 24″.
    First Class seats are either 19″ or 22″.
    Not all planes have all classes.

So, for Economy Class, Hawaiian (18″), Allegiant (17.8″) and Spirit (17.75″) are the widest.
For airlines that offer Premium Economy, American & United offer the widest seats, (both 18.5″ minimum)
Of airlines that offer Business Class, Delta wins, with a minimum 19.6″.
Some airlines offer First Class seats. Of those that do, American offers the widest option, at 19.5″

Seatbelt Length

  • Alaska: Approximately 46″
  • Allegiant: Allegiant doesn’t list their seatbelt length anywhere on their website. Some websites cite them as being 40″
  • American: 45″
  • Delta: Delta doesn’t list their seatbelt lengths anywhere on their website. Some websites cite them as varying between 35 and 38″, depending on the plane.
  • Frontier: Frontier doesn’t list their seatbelt length anywhere, nor can I find it anecdotally.
  • Hawaiian: Hawaiian doesn’t list their seatbelt length anywhere on their website. Some websites cite them as being 51″
  • jetBlue: 45″
  • Southwest: Southwest doesn’t list their seatbelt length anywhere on their website. Some websites cite them as being 39″.
  • Spirit: Spirit doesn’t list their seatbelt length anywhere on their website, nor can I find it anecdotally.
  • United: United doesn’t list their seatbelt length anywhere on their website. Some websites cite them as being 31″.

Of the airlines that actually list the length of their seatbelts, Alaska’s are the longest, at approximately 46″
Of the airlines that don’t list their seatbelt lengths, but there is anecdotal information that suggests how long they are, Hawaiian’s would supposedly be the longest (51″), followed by Allegiant (40″) and Southwest (39″).

Seatbelt Extenders

Note: FAA regulations forbid passengers to bring their own personal seatbelt extenders – they must use the ones provided by the airline. You can also only use no more than one seatbelt extender, and can’t be in an exit row if you’re using a seatbelt extender. Some airlines allow you to reserve a seatbelt extender (so it can be discreetly handed to you). Others require you to ask for one once you go onboard (and hello, awkward). We’ve also included the total length of the seatbelt + extender)

    • Alaska: 25″. (46″ + 25″ = 71″)
    • Allegiant: Allegiant’s website doesn’t say if they have seatbelt extenders, but some websites cite them as available and 21″ to 25″ long. (40″ + [21″ to 25″] = 61″ to 65″)
    • American: American’s website doesn’t say if they have seatbelt extenders, but some websites cite them as available and 25″ long. (45″ + 25″ = 70″)
    • Delta: Delta will be, “happy to provide you with an FAA-approved seatbelt extension,” but doesn’t tell you how long they are. Some websites cite them as available and 25″ long. ([35″ to 38″] + 25″ = 60″ to 63″)
    • Frontier: Frontier’s website mentions nothing about seatbelt extenders, nor can I find anything anecdotally.
    • Hawaiian: Hawaiian’s website doesn’t say if they have seatbelt extenders, but some websites cite them as available and 20″ long. (51″ + 20″ = 71″)
    • jetBlue: 25″ (45″ + 25″ = 70″)
    • Southwest: Southwest’s website does say they have seatbelt extenders, but they don’t mention how long they are. Some websites cite them as  24″ long. (39″ + 24″ = 63″)
    • Spirit: Spirit’s website suggests that they have seatbelt extenders, but they don’t tell the length, nor can I find it anecdotally. Spirit also says that passengers who use a seatbelt extender can’t sit in any seat equipped with an inflatable seatbelt.
      Rows with inflatable seat belts
      Aircraft Seat Row
      A319 1, 4, 5 (D,E,F)
      A320 (32A, 32N) 1, 3, 12, 13
      A321 (32B) 1, 3
    • United: United has seatbelt extenders – they’re 25″ long and you have to pre-reserve them. (31″ + 25″ = 56″)

Of those airlines that confirm they have seatbelt extenders, Alaska’s overall seatbelt length is the longest (71″), followed by jetBlue (70″).

Of the airlines that don’t list their seatbelt extender lengths, but there is anecdotal information that suggests how long they are, Hawaiian’s is the longest (71″), and American comes in second (70″).

Policy For Reserving More Than One Seat

Note: Some airlines spell out that if you buy more than one seat for yourself and someone else sits in that seat, it’s up to you to, essentially, “stand your ground” (“…must be an active participant in preserving your additional seat”). Some airlines specify that you can’t sit in an exit row if you’ve reserved more than one seat for yourself. The good news is if you’ve purchased more than 1 seat for yourself, your checked bag allowance is doubled (however the number of carry-on bags you can bring remains the same since it’s determined by the individual passenger allowance set by the TSA)

  • Alaska: requires, “…the purchase of an additional seat for any customer who cannot comfortably fit within one seat with the armrests in the down position. After you have completed travel, if all Alaska Airlines flights in each direction departed with an open seat available, you will be eligible for a refund of the second seat.”
  • Allegiant: 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.
  • American: “If a customer needs extra space outside a single seat to travel safely, another seat is required. We encourage 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.”
  • Delta: For customers who need extra space outside the standard Economy Seat…you can ask to be reseated next to an empty seat or pay to upgrade to First/Business class. To ensure your comfort, you might consider booking an additional seat. 
  • 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. 
  • Hawaiian: If you are unable to sit comfortably in your seat with the armrests lowered, we will try to find a suitable alternative. However, if no safe alternative seating can be found, we may not be able to transport you on your ticketed flight.
    If you may need extra room, we highly recommend booking an extra seat in advance. Please reserve your extra seat by calling our Web Support Center at 1-866-586-9419. Our agents can assist you with booking two adjacent Coach or Extra Comfort seats. Each seat will be charged at the lowest available fare.
    Note: Extra seats booked online are not guaranteed to be adjacent. To book an extra seat, please call our Web Support Center at 1-866-586-9419.
  • jetBlue: Unfortunately, JetBlue doesn’t specify any policy for people of size on its website. They do give directions for how to book an empty seat next to yours, which can be found on this page of jetBlue’s website. It’s important to note that extra seats would cost the same as the seat you are sitting in, based on the fare option you select. So, if you have one seat for you and one next to you, it would be your fare times two.
  • Southwest: Southwest has an entire page devoted to passengers of size. “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 purchase of additional seats serves as a notification to Southwest of a special seating need, and allows us to adequately plan for the number of seats that will be occupied on the aircraft.  In turn, this helps to ensure we can accommodate all Customers on the flight/aircraft for which they purchased a ticket and avoid asking Customers to relinquish their seats for an unplanned accommodation. Most importantly, it ensures that all Customers onboard have access to safe and comfortable seating. You may contact us 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 is determined that a second (or third) seat is needed, they will be accommodated with a complimentary additional seat.”
  • Spirit: “You can purchase an extra seat by using your name for both tickets and selecting the desired seat assignments.”
  • United: “If you’re unable to sit safely and comfortably in a single seat in United Economy®, you’ll have to purchase an additional seat for each leg of your itinerary. You can buy the second seat for the same fare as your original seat if both seats are purchased at the same time. If you don’t buy an extra seat in advance, you may have to do so on the day of departure for the fare level available on the day of departure. You may instead choose to buy a ticket for United First®, United Business® or United Polaris℠ business class, or pay for an upgrade to a premium cabin if those seats are available. United Airlines isn’t required to provide additional seats or upgrades free of charge.”

Only Southwest and Alaska offer refunds if passengers of size reserve two (or, as specifically mentioned on Southwest’s site, three) seats next to each other. However Alaska will only consider a refund if the plane isn’t 100% full. Southwest promises to give a refund for the extra seat(s), provided they’re reserved ahead of time.

Every other airline will charge passengers of size for purchasing additional seating.

Recap (TL/DR)

These are the airlines with the best policies and equipment for passengers of size:

Widest Seats Per Class:
Economy: Hawaiian (18″), Allegiant (17.8″) & Spirit (17.75″).
Premium Economy: American & United (both 18.5″ minimum)
Business Class: Delta (minimum 19.6″)
First Class: American (19.5″)

Longest Seatbelts:
Listed on their website: Alaska (46″)
Not listed on their website, but anecdotally: Hawaiian(51″), Allegiant (40″) & Southwest (39″)

Longest Seatbelt + Seatbelt Extenders:
Listed on their website:
Alaska (71″)
Not listed on their website, but anecdotally: Hawaiian (71″), & American (70″)

Fairness of policies for passengers of size:
Southwest will give a refund for 2nd/3rd seat purchased online
Alaska will give a refund for the 2nd seat, but only if the plane isn’t 100% full

These are the airlines with the worst policies and equipment for passengers of size:

Narrowest Seats Per Class:
Economy: United (starts at 16″) & American (starts at 16.5″)
Premium Economy: United (starts at 17.1″)
Business Class: American (starts at 18.5″)
First Class: United (starts at 19″)

Shortest Seatbelts:
Listed on their website: American & jetBlue (45″ each)
Not listed on their website, but anecdotally: United (31″) & Delta (starts at 35″)

Shortest Sealtbelt + Seatbelt Extenders:
Listed on their website
: jetBlue (70″)
Not listed on their website, but anecdotally: Delta (starts at 60″)

Least accommodating policies for passengers of size:

Note: The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has confirmed that airlines are not required by law to provide additional seating or an upgrade if additional space is required for a passenger.

Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, jetBlue, Spirit and United will all be happy to sell you a second seat (or even a larger seat in a better class) but won’t refund you for the second seat. Because they want all customers onboard to have access to safe and comfortable seating…but not at the expense of their profits.

Feature Photo: Marco Verch / flickr / license: Creative Commons 2.0

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