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Airline Obesity Policies

As airlines continue to cram more and more people into each plane, the flying experience gets less comfortable for all passengers -- especially as the traveling public grows increasingly overweight. Most carriers now have some sort of policy in place to prevent obese travelers from infringing on the personal space of the passengers next to them.

airplane economy cabin

Airline obesity policies differ in degree and detail, but decree essentially that if you don't fit in a seat with an extension seatbelt and the armrest down, you will be charged for two seats or removed from the plane.

Most airlines recommend that if you think you will be too large for your seat, you should purchase a second seat at the time you make your original booking (or, of course, buy a ticket in first or business class). Some airlines will offer a discount on the second seat or refund the cost if the plane isn't full, but in many cases obese passengers simply have to pay twice the price as other fliers.

Are These Policies Fair?

Obesity is a hot-button topic, and many will argue that some big folks simply need to pare back on the super-size fries. But what about passengers who have thyroid disorders that cause them to gain weight -- or some other serious health issue?

On a broader level, is it fair or logical for the airlines to keep shrinking airplane seats even though more than one-third of American adults are now obese? This makes things awkward for everyone -- including the obese passengers themselves. (See the moving essay What it's like to be that fat person sitting next to you on the plane.)

The airlines' policies bring up some rather sensitive issues. Who decides if someone fits in the seat, and when do they decide? Is it to be a flight attendant after the entire plane is boarded? Is it somebody at the gate? At check-in? Will there someday be a BMI (Body Mass Index) field on booking sites? Might we eventually have to sit in a test seat, much like the metal cages that indicate whether or not your carry-on is regulation size?

Over the years, some of these questions have moved out of the realm of the rhetorical -- though there have been very few cases where the airlines' policies have been tested or disputed in public (not surprisingly, due to the very sensitive nature of the issue). Most big folks have simply taken the abuse, or made their case without going too public.

The solution is simple, of course: wider seats on planes. In the same way that airlines offer "economy plus" sections with more legroom, they could have rows that have fewer and wider seats. (I know there is always the option of business class in this case, but you could do the same thing in economy class, just without the free booze, dedicated loo and big upcharges.)

The airlines claim it would be too costly to retrofit planes to include larger seats -- so for now, we're stuck with the status quo. Below is a run-down of obesity policies on several major airlines in the U.S. and abroad.

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Alaska

Alaska Airlines requires the purchase of a second seat for any passenger who can't "comfortably fit within one seat with the armrests in the down position." If you purchase a second seat in advance, and your flights all take off with at least one seat available, you can get a refund for the cost of the second seat. For those who haven't purchased a second seat in advance, you may do so the day of your flight; if two seats aren't available together, you might need to take a later flight.

American

American requires passengers to purchase a second seat if they need a seatbelt extension and their body "extends more than 1 inch beyond the outermost edge of the armrest." The airline recommends that you buy both seats during your original booking (at the same rate). If you don't book two seats in advance, you will be responsible for any fare difference on a second seat purchased the day of your flight. If the airline can't accommodate you on your scheduled flight, the airline will let you purchase two seats on a later flight for the same price as your original seats.

Delta

Delta recommends but does not require that obese passengers 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," 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.

feet on bathroom scale

Southwest

Southwest encourages obese passengers to purchase an extra seat in advance to guarantee that sufficient space will be available on their flight; the airline promises to refund all extra seat purchases, even if the flight is oversold. Passengers can also wait until the day of their flight to speak with a customer service person at the gate, who will give them a complimentary additional seat if it's available.

Spirit

Spirit requires that any passenger who "encroaches on an adjacent seat area and/or is unable to sit in a single seat with the armrests lowered" purchase an additional seat or a "Big Front Seat." If there are no available additional seats on the plane, the passenger will be rebooked on the next flight or get a refund on his or her reservation.

United

If you can't buckle your seatbelt (with an extension if necessary) and fit into a seat with the armrests down -- and without encroaching "significantly" on the adjacent space -- you must purchase an additional seat or pay for an upgrade to a roomier seat on United. The carrier recommends buying two seats at the time of booking, at which time you'll pay the same fare for the second seat; if you wait until the day of travel, you'll pay the fare available that day. If no additional seats or upgrades are available, you'll have to rebook on the next flight with availability. (United will waive change fees.)

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Airline Obesity Policies Outside the U.S.

There are too many airlines around the world to enumerate every single policy, but below is a sampling.

In Canada, obesity is considered equivalent to other disabilities when it comes to extra seats on a plane under the One Person One Fare program. Says the Air Canada website, "For travel within Canada, customers who require extra seating because they are disabled by obesity or because they must accommodate another disability may request the service free of charge" on most aircraft. (A physician's approval is required.) For flights to destinations outside of Canada, you might have to purchase an additional seat.

In Europe, Air France offers a 25 percent discount on your second seat if purchased in advance, with a full refund if there are unoccupied seats on your flight. If your flight is full, you haven't booked an additional seat and you can't fit comfortably into a single seat, you may not be permitted to board. Meanwhile, British Airways requires passengers to be able to be able to buckle their seatbelt and fully lower both armrests; if you can't fit into the seat under these conditions, you must purchase an extra seat.

In the Southern Hemisphere, Qantas, Air New Zealand and LATAM encourage travelers needing extra space to call and book an additional seat.

There's one notable outlier: Samoa Air, which made headlines in 2013 with its policy of weighing passengers and their luggage to determine the fare.


Looking for a carrier not listed above? Airline obesity policies are often difficult to find on carriers' websites. Sometimes you can pull them up by searching "extra seat" or "customer of size," but the best strategy is to call the customer service number -- if you need to purchase an extra seat, you'll likely end up calling the airline anyway.

Do you think the airlines' policies are fair to all passengers?

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--written by Ed Hewitt and Sarah Schlichter

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