Home Health News More Airlines Making Overweight Customers Buy Extra Seats?

More Airlines Making Overweight Customers Buy Extra Seats?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Alright, BGG2WL fam, we’ve done this dance before with the salon charging overweight and obese customers extra for “the additional damage they’re doing to the salon’s chairs.” While today’s story might be a different key, it’s definitely the same song:

AirTran is to force fat passengers on its planes to buy a second seat.

The new policy will bring the carrier into line with its parent company Southwest Airlines, which already requires its ‘customers of size’ to shell out two-fold.

The airline’s revised stance comes as obesity levels hit record proportions, with more than a third, 33.8 per cent, of American adults now obese.

Starting from March flight attendants and check-in staff will identify those who can’t sit in a single seat with the armrest lowered and require them to buy a second place.

Equality campaigners have denounced the policy as ‘humiliating’.

Peggy Howell, a spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution some passengers end up ’embarrassed and humiliated’ when they’re asked to buy a second seat at the airport.

‘I’m sorry to hear that they’re now going to be passing on their bad policy to another airline,’ Howell said. ‘We are paying customers.’

Howell also raised concerns that there are few guidelines for the enforcement of the policy, rather it is to be left to the judgement and discretion of staff.

The new policy follows the carrier’s acquisition of Air Tran in May this year.

Economy seats are 18 inches wide in Air Tran’s economy class according to SeatGuru.com, the website which gives details of airline seating plans and sizing.

Previously, the airline did not have a definitive ‘customers of size’ policy, but employees at the airport gate usually offered a second seat or an upgrade for a fee to passengers considered larger than average, Southwest said.

Southwest’s policy had been standing for 30 years but affects ‘less than half on one percent of customers, the airline said.

The policy states: ‘Customers of size,’ are those ‘who encroach upon any part of the neighbouring seat[s]. … The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats.’

If there are remaining seats on the plane, plus-size passengers who have been charged for an extra seat will be entitled apply for a refund.

Southwest introduced the policy following an increase in the number of complaints from passengers whose seat had been infringed upon by a large person, their website said.

‘We could no longer ignore complaints from customers who travelled without full access to their seat due to encroachment by a large seat-mate whose body extended into the neighbouring seat. These customers had uncomfortable [and sometimes painful] travel experiences,’ Southwest said.

Excess baggage fees on AirTran will also increase from $50 to $110 per item from April as part of the merger.

I think it’s interesting – of course, these are paying customers, but I suppose it depends upon whether you view the cost of a ticket as “paying for occupying one seat” or “paying for one person.” Because while a person is a person no matter the size, a seat is a seat. If you require more than one, then is it unfair?

But… at the same token, who is to say that they won’t shrink the seats again, requiring that customers who aren’t even generally overweight would have to pay more?

I will say this – considering the percentage of the population that is overweight, it sounds like lots of people will be taking their dollars to a company that doesn’t single them out for being larger. At least, that’s what I’d do to avoid the cost.

What about you? Have you been bit by this “extra seat” bug, or observed someone being assessed an additional fee for an extra seat?

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Starry October 17, 2011 - 6:12 AM

Hm, this is a tough-ish one. I can sort of see the airlines point when they mention customers who have complained that they have been unable to sit in their own seat because someone next to them has encroached on their space. I have been in this position myself on two occasions and it was a nightmare because of the discomfort (one person’s elbow was almost in the middle of my chest because they were quite large) and also because I am claustrophobic and on the second occasion was ‘hemmed in’ – that incident resulted in a full-blown panic attack for me on the plane which was just awful.

Saying that, you mention a good point – are you paying for a seat or are you paying for yourself as an individual? I always assumed that I was paying for a seat on an aircraft/train and, if I needed more space, that I would pay for it.

I’m curious to see how this will play out….

fatboy kris October 17, 2011 - 8:43 AM

Like the airline said, it’s about the customer who’s personal space is being invaded by the obese person. Folks are already cramped in their seat, now they gotta deal with someone’s body spilling over the armrest? I paid for this?!

As a still big & formally obese dude, I totally support this sort of discrimination …space is a commodity on an airplane, it costs money.

malpha October 17, 2011 - 10:14 AM

I think having to pay for an entire whole seat is ridiculous, a small fee sounds more reasonable. It would also be better if airlines had a row with bigger seats that those who need extra space can sit in.

I actually had the displeasure of flying Southwest Airlines last week for the first time. The ride was weird because the flights had this ‘open-seating’ policy where instead of having an assigned seat, you had an assigned order on which to board the plane and then you chose whatever seat you could find. Since I prefer window seats (I almost always fall asleep on the plane), it was such a PITA! But on one of the flights, it was actually almost full, there was only one extra seat and well, at first I was on the aisle seat next to a larger person and it really is uncomfortable. More so for me cause I hate touching other people and tend to scrunch up against the plane to have as much space as possible. The lady’s arm was pressed up against mind’s and that’s with me not even sitting all the way back in the chair because she was taking up some of the seat. The stewardess found me another seat as discretely as possible and I heard her asking the other lady if she could pull the armrest down. I assume she could because I didn’t hear any arguments afterward.

But even with that experience, I still feel it’s an extortionist policy. I think there has to be a middle ground where bigger people can not be punished and demeaned, while others don’t have to be uncomfortable.

Janice October 17, 2011 - 1:45 PM

“I think having to pay for an entire whole seat is ridiculous, a small fee sounds more reasonable.”
yes, but think about it…the airline could be selling that seat to another person for full price. it’s simply economics.

Tope October 17, 2011 - 10:20 AM

i don’t know but i wouldn’t want to seat next a really fat person especially on a long flight.i pay for a little bit of comfort but we all know its never comfortable on an air plane.so having an obese person taking more of my personal space is not on

Eliza October 17, 2011 - 10:20 AM

I don’t mean to be mean but when I fly, especially on long trips, I like to be comfortable… And if someone’s body or parts of their body are all into my seat, touching me I’ll definitely feel aggravated.

Daphne October 17, 2011 - 10:24 AM

I have not observed this in action, but then, I purchase a second seat when I fly coach/economy. That, or I make sure I travel with family or friends who don’t mind my size. As someone who has been fat most of my life, I actually don’t have a problem with this policy. But then, my mindset is when I purchase airfare, it is for one seat (or two, when applicable) vs a person.

I don’t think that a slim(mer) passenger should be made uncomfortable because a stranger takes up part of their seat. And I don’t mean touching, though I know some people are very sensitive about that. But honestly? Those of us who are really fat are fully aware when we’re taking up additional space (dare I say, measuring these things is a part of the mental makeup), and you can’t really hide this. So I’m not sure I understand what’s humiliating about purchasing a second seat? Is it less so to squeeze into one seat, be visibly uncomfortable, possibly unable to move for the bulk of the flight? Look, I’m all for being treated with respect and dignity, but I don’t think this policy is necessarily in conflict with those values.

Of course, the policy gets squirrelly for customers who may not be slim, but aren’t fat, either. That said, I’m not sure how much of the resistance is from these individuals.

This probably won’t sound nice, but if I purchase a second seat, I don’t share that space. *I* shelled out the money for it, for my comfort as well as the comfort of those who may sit in the same row. But no – the other person(s) cannot put personal items in the seat, share the space, seat their smaller child there, etc. I’m firm about this, and it’s interesting how people get miffed about it. Well, too bad so sad.

charles armendariz August 22, 2012 - 9:00 AM

I agree with that.If you pay for an extra seat,it is yours.It is not my extra space to put my stuff on or stretch out

alicia October 17, 2011 - 11:47 AM

i can sympathize, of course……and it’s unfortunate that people may have to pay for 2 seats. however, it really is not fair to the people who may be cramped in their seats because somebody is taking up more than their fair (paid) share.

MMM October 17, 2011 - 12:31 PM

I agree with Erika, if I were of size I would take my business elsewhere.

However I can not fault the airline for charging extra. I would feel uncomfortable if I couldn’t get my full seat because an overweight person was next to me. You pay per seat on an airline, not person. Why else would babies not get charged?

I honestly don’t see the airline shrinking the seats anytime soon.

Rene October 17, 2011 - 2:23 PM

As an employee of a major airline I have seen this play out in various ways. After 5 yrs on the job I have only seen one person who needed the extra room and didn’t purchase it in advance. He called a few days prior to the flight to see if seats were still available and when he heard they were, he decided to wait till he arrived and see if the gate agent was willing to seat him on an aisle with the middle seat open. Some airline agents will do that as long as the seat is available. I have to say though, most people who need the extra room know it and they generally take care of it up front. Just like the people who need seatbelt extensions know it and ask for it up front. For people who say the airlines should have special seats for larger passengers, that’s not fair. Are they going to pay more for that extra room? And if I want one of those seats but don’t need it can I pay for the extra room? Yes I can, its called the first class cabin. And as for Daphne who doesn’t share that extra space – You have every right not to! You paid for that extra seat and someone who chose not to buy their infant a ticket should not get upset when you say they can’t use your seat! I’ve also seen people who are claustraphobic (sp?) purchase extra seats so they don’t feel as closed in.
Thats my 2 cents!

Gisele October 17, 2011 - 2:52 PM

As someone who has been hemmed in by other passengers too large for their own seat, I can’t say I am sorry to hear about this new policy at all. Like every passenger I pay for a full seat, not to receive just 2/3rds of a seat with the other 1/3 filled by another person.

Tamara October 17, 2011 - 3:10 PM

I travel regularly internationally and domestic, I am also overweight. This is one of my fears, that one day I will be humilated in public. I don’t think there is an easy answer. I don’t want someone to be uncomforable sitting next to me. My husband is 6 feet tall and we always book him an aisle seat; however the person in front of him normally reclines his/her chair having little consideration for the person in back of him. So to me, this is no better. Let’s face it air travel is not the most comfortable, unless you are sitting in first or business class. So will the airline base it on weight? If you are a certain weight you pay more or you just appear to be fatter than the average person you pay more? There has to be some sort of guidelines. That is my issue….tell me my guidelines and I will adhere or choose not to fly.

Tatiana October 17, 2011 - 9:01 PM

This is interesting. As someone who is routinely squished into tiny spaces and is consistently uncomfortable while traveling – I think it’s best to purchase an extra seat. My looming concern is about the price: flights are expensive enough as it is. So, if you’re flying cross-country and it’s $900 for one coach seat, you’re going to have to pay $1800 for your round-trip (hopefully it’s a RT!). Most people complain about paying more than $400+ for airfare, imagine, because of your size, having to pay extra (or being forced to).

But when I started reading this post, I realized that it might just be a marketing ploy to get more money. Just as many people are traveling as ever – so I bet airlines are increasing their prices to reap the benefits; they never used to charge for checked bags and now they do. And the prices for additional bags seems astronomical. It seems quite in line with their current policy to target people – who are most likely to pay or risk not flying – in order to get more money.

The only way to really change things is to complain. People wouldn’t have to buy bigger seats if planes, in and of themselves, were more accommodating of humans in general. I actually traveled Greyhound Express recently and the bus had more legroom than a plane. I wouldn’t be surprised if more airlines took on this policy – if it proves to be lucrative and if people merely comply.

I understand the rationale behind this policy BUT there are better ways to travel. Planes are just faster – and that’s about it!

1beautifullymade October 18, 2011 - 2:21 PM

I think it’s reasonable! I also think you make a point about them shrinking the seats. I do believe the guidelines should be very specific.

CJM October 19, 2011 - 2:20 PM

In the past couple weeks, I’ve been on eight airplanes and Delta has sent me a survey after each flight. One of the survey questions is “was there an empty seat beside you?” I click no because I think they’ve even managed to pack people onto the wing. These flights are packed now and customers have little flexibility related to “spreading out.” You used to see flight attendants discreetly (well as discreetly as possible) make adjustments but there’s no place to move people. My sister is a small framed woman who feels as if she has to explain to people why it’s not okay to share her seat with her. I take up almost my entire seat and I don’t really have room to share. Generally the person that needs extra space is super uncomfortable with the whole seating thing and it’s not like he’s saying to himself “heh heh heh i’m happy to take up someone else’s space.” So it’s a lose lose if you have him packed up against someone. I’m not sure that the airline’s solution is not the best. In the case that the flight is not packed, the person receives a refund. If the flight is packed then the airline has ensured both the larger customer’s comfort and anyone that would have been seated beside that person.

Dee October 19, 2011 - 6:27 PM

This is a thinly veiled strategy to cash in on the growing obesity epidemic by making more money from what, a third of the customers? Like you mentioned, airlines shrunk the seating space from what it was a decade or two ago, in order to make more money by cramming more people on the plane. Airlines are desperate. They are cutting service, having fewer flights, and this is contributing to overstuffed flights. Making 1/3 of travellers pay for two seats would go a long way to improving the “bottom” line for airlines! I do think it’s cruel and although I’ve never been targeted, and despite feeling big during this weight loss journey of mine, I can put the armrests down. However, given the fact that the policy is based on the thinnest women on the planet giving you the once-over to decide if you fit into a seat, I will not be travelling Southwest or AirTran, even AFTER I reach my goal weight.

They could have a private, partioned area where a model airplane seat is, and have a person sit in it and determine if they meet the standard. That would be a *little* less humiliating- especially if they make every passenger do it!

Traci October 21, 2011 - 4:50 PM

My only problem with the policy is the lack of standards. If my butt needs to be less than 17″ let me know it. That way I can PLAN accordingly. I don’t fly often…maybe once every 3-4 years. So I didn’t know that I was going encroach on the person beside me until I did!

We have templates to measure luggage to determine excess baggage fees. Please provide something similar to determine “excess seat” fees. I understand that this is business and not personal.

As stated in some other posts, I can take my business elsewhere, by a first class seat (that I hope accommodates me since I have never been in one and don’t know those measurements either), buy two seats, or reduce the size of my body!

BTW, I’m currently doing the latter in preparation for a trip to Spain next year.

Jasna August 17, 2012 - 3:40 PM

I have no sympathy for greedy companies in this, they ought to make human-friendly seats in the first place instead of constantly decreasing the quality of economy class just so they can bully people into either buying additional tickets or having to switch to more expensive ones.

Lisa August 18, 2012 - 1:00 PM

So should really tall people or people with extra wide shoulders have to pay more as well? I’ve been squished by an overweight person only once on a place. But I’ve had my legs and shoulders completely smothered by LARGE people – not fat but just large, tall, wide shouldered people.

The last time I traveled, we were given a first class upgrade on a fluke – I have no idea why. We certainly only paid for a coach seat, but seriously I think first class is worth it no matter what size you are. More leg room, larger, plushier seats, and CHAMPAGNE! I’m seriously considering trying to budget for first class whenever I fly again. Especially on longer flights.

Aspen's Whisper December 8, 2012 - 6:10 PM

I agree with the general sentiment; there just doesn’t seem to be a perfect solution. Discrimination is bad, yes, but I too have been a smaller person squished on an airplane, and that really stinks. (Sometimes literally too- regardless of size, please shower before getting on an airplane :s)

I’m 17, 5’2″, and about 110 lbs. I don’t take up too much space, and in car rides at full capacity that usually means I get designated to the back middle seat, and I don’t mind being squished in if it’s people I know and am comfortable with, but a stranger on an airplane is a little different… and the stranger usually feels the same way. I hope there will be some resolution that can make everyone happy, and brainwaves like private areas to check sizes should be sent to airlines!

Until everything works itself out I’ll be trying to save up and weasel my way into a first class seat for a trip to France this summer!

Mel February 20, 2013 - 6:56 PM

This almost happened to me before I lost weight. The flight attendant walked up to me, on a crowded plane, and curtly asked me to lift my arms so that she could see if the armrest was down. Humiliating. I’m an accomplished professional and this made me feel worthless. She certainly could have been more subtle. That said, I think the point you make about buying one seat vs. paying for one person is a good one – maybe the airline needs to be very up front about the distinction and needs to set some more objectively measurable standards – to avoid humiliating their customers. I did not have to pay for a second seat, but I would not wish the treatment or the way it made me feel on anyone, ever.

Erika Nicole Kendall February 20, 2013 - 8:08 PM

Wow. 🙁

Sisc08 February 21, 2013 - 11:36 AM

I was on a Southwest flight one time and there were two large brothers sitting on the same row. They were in seats A and C. Of course, seat B was LOST. No one could have sat in that seat. So, when the occupant of seat B came to sit down, the brothers said “Not Today!” The brothers were telling joke and everyone was in tears from laughter because we all knew that no one was getting into seat B. It was what it was. The flight attendant found another seat for the other guy.

So in this case, should both of them split the cost of seat B? What if there was no other seat for the occupant of seat B? As a company, do I ignore the complaints of my customers? Lose revenues?

Those seats are already snug for anyone who is not thin. I do believe if you need more space, you should purchase more space. I just hope the airlines are finding discreet ways to handling these kinds of situations because no one likes to be embarrassed.

Nicki February 22, 2013 - 1:48 PM

As a plus-sized woman who has asked for an extender and who has also (as recently as January) been squished up against the window because of a person who CLEARLY should have bought another seat, I am in COMPLETE agreement with this surcharge. Why should I pay $600 for a ticket when 1/3 of my seat is occupied by someone else? Not cool sir. NOT COOL. AND i bought my dog with me on the flight? Omg, i can’t tell you the level of discomfort…

msmanning February 23, 2013 - 9:00 PM

I have been working as flight attendant in the airline industry for quite some time now and I think the hardest thing to do and to hear, is when a passenger is sitting with another passenger who is obese. It is hard for two reasons, the first is to hear the awkwardness of the passenger who is telling me of their predicament and second is to to talk to the passenger who is taking up two seats . It’s not a good feeling because you know that you are embarrassing that person no matter how gentle you try talk to that person to dissolve the situation. This a very slippery slope..do airlines have a right to charge a person for extra seat in that case…..yes I think do, because when break it down, you are leasing 1 seat per person( unless you are carrying someone under the age of two) to get to a destination and that person that is sitting next to you did the same thing. And each person deserves to be comfortable in the journey.
But my heart goes out to people on both sides and when possible I will try to do everything in my power to see that both passengers end up in comfortable situation.

Savannah Martin March 26, 2013 - 3:00 PM

Thank you Gisele. I am in complete agreement. I am tired of paying for a seat and having a larger person take up 1/3 of it. I paid for the room between one seat’s arm rest and the window/aisle. I did not pay for 2/3’s of my seat with the other 1/3 (or more) taken by someone who cannot fit into an area that size.
It is not my fault that I am a slim person. I should not be punished for good eating habits and exercise. (And please, I am so tired of hearing the “medical problems” explanation for obesity. We all know that those people make up such a small % of obese people as to be silly.)
I find it funny that I have to prove my carry-on luggage will fit into the box they have next to the boarding door; if it will not, I have to pay to check it. Why isn’t there a chair (it can be placed discretely near check-in) to see if someone fits in it? If they don’t, they should pay for another seat. Some say that a small increase in the cost of their seat could be okay. If it is, I want the airline attendant to walk by and give me a voucher for part of the seat that I am losing an/or not using.
This may sound extremely rude to some of you, but I believe some of us who are thin will agree, albeit silently.
I fly 6 – 8 times a year and sit in the waiting area looking at the people I hope I am not sitting next to. Rude? Possibly. Realistic and justified? Definitely.

zeekthegeek April 3, 2013 - 7:43 AM

I am a big guy and that is no secret. The first time I flew Southwest I had forgotten about their seating policy. It was a really messed up situation and a little hectic because I had to purchase another seat right then and there. That is the part that sucked.

FYI: I don’t like to be touched and I don’t like it if I am squeezed into a little space and am touching someone.

I have flown with Southwest now 6 or 8 times and I actually love flying with them. The policy does stink BUT I have gotten my money back every single time for that additional seat. Worried about getting your money back? Try to fly in the morning the earlier the better. Also, I get on the plan first and don’t have to fight anyone for a seat. When all of the crazies board I have people clamoring for a seat with me. Why? Because, there will be a seat between us and we both have EXTRA room. Really enjoyable experience is had by both of us.

korah May 30, 2013 - 7:24 AM

Well I’ll be flying first class before I purchase another on a plane. small customers complain about the crowded feeling. They can kiss my butt. That is discrimination. So if I feel uncomfortable with homosexuals riding the plane are you going to stop them. They need to make flights more comfortable anyway.

Fia May 31, 2013 - 9:34 PM

No, I will not ‘kiss your butt.’

Being both young and small, I am one of the people lucky enough to actually fit comfortably on an airplane seat, but only if I’m sitting alone. It may be discrimination for a larger person to have to pay for a extra seat, but in no way is it discrimination for me to complain about being uncomfortable. If I’m taking the ACT, and the person behind me is tapping their pencil so that I can’t concentrate, I’m going to tell the proctor,even if it’s discrimination because they have ADHD. They should be accommodated, but I should be too.

kiyah June 2, 2013 - 7:21 AM

Why is it fair for someone who is over 300 pounds to have one seat when they are about the size of 2 people? If i pay for a ticket on the plane i expect my have my whole seat not half. I believe this is fair.

Julie February 14, 2014 - 1:17 PM

The last quote clinches my strongest feelings about it: “We could no longer ignore complaints from customers who travelled without full access to their seat due to encroachment by a large seat-mate whose body extended into the neighbouring seat. These customers had uncomfortable [and sometimes painful] travel experiences,’ Southwest said.”

As an overweight person, EVERY TIME I FLY it’s an uncomfortable [and sometimes painful] experience. Who’s looking out for me? When I fly I always get the window seat and am usually with my partner, who doesn’t feel personally victimized that my arm hogs the armrest. He knows I’m struggling to hold it as close to me as possible the entire flight anyways. When I’m traveling alone the experience is even more of a struggle. I don’t wanna be touching any scowly strangers, BELIEVE ME.

Look, I get it: If a person physically cannot fit into one seat it’s a good idea to make seating available to them that is safe and of reasonable comfort. And maybe a small price increase is needed for that (Seat is 20% bigger, cost is 20% more, perhaps?). Fine. But can they try to come up with policy that doesn’t humiliate the oversized passenger?

Linda February 17, 2014 - 2:20 PM

I’m torn over this as well, because I absolutely sympathize with people who are encroached upon, but I am also really frustrated by the idea that as a larger person, if you need two extra inches, you have to buy an entire additional seat. A couple inches can make the difference between just fine and not fine at all, and what creates the sense of unfairness is that you can’t buy a seat that’s just right for you the way a smaller person can; you can only buy two seats that don’t fit you.

I completely get the idea of not wanting to be crowded, but if they only sold houses with one bedroom or four, and you needed two, you’d be frustrated too that you don’t have the option to buy what you need. It’s impossible to buy what most larger people really need, which is a coach seat with a couple extra inches of room, and it really is frustrating that you have to buy an entire second seat or go to first class.

Don’t forget — a lot of people travel for work, too, and the idea of telling your company you need them to buy a second seat when they book your travel is pretty brutal. It’s not as simple as “you can always discreetly take care of it ahead of time.”

It’s just … it’s a situation that benefits from everybody trying to be as humane and gentle as possible. Believe me, that larger person sitting next to you is just as uncomfortable as you are. And for you, it’ll be over in a couple of hours.

Erika Nicole Kendall February 17, 2014 - 5:39 PM

“Don’t forget — a lot of people travel for work, too, and the idea of telling your company you need them to buy a second seat when they book your travel is pretty brutal. It’s not as simple as “you can always discreetly take care of it ahead of time.” ”

Not only is it brutal, but it inadvertently because an excuse for upper management to not put a larger person in certain positions [that they may be qualified for] because they’d be a financial strain. Like, that’s a red flag for me. Interesting point.

Patrice May 15, 2015 - 10:01 PM

I agree. If you are bigger than one seat can hold, you should be required to purchase an additional seat.
That additional seat purchased shouldn’t be occupied, it should be there for the armrest to be lifted for the obese person to have extra room.
A small fee shouldn’t be applied because then the airline loses money if the seat remains vacant. If they do go ahead and put someone in that extra seat that was paid for by the obese person then the person that occupies that seat should have that “small fee” deducted from their ticket price due to the discomfort that they are expected to experience.
I don’t see what the big deal is. If you can sit in one seat without spilling into another than regular fare is expected. But if you are spilling into another seat and unable to fit your entire body into one seat’s space, then you should be required to pay for the additional space that is being taken up. I don’t understand what the controversey is surrounding this. It’s plain and simple. Yes, I am thin so maybe it’s easy for me to say because I won’t suffer from this however, I’ve been uncomfortable in a seat next to someone that was bigger and I shouldn’t have to travel that way especially if I am expected to pay full fare.

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