US Airline Customer of Size Policies

air air travel airbus aircraft
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I recently wrote about the many ways that airlines mistreat fat passengers. That resulted in a lot of people asking me about the policies that airlines have around their fat passengers (often called “Customers of Size” or COS policies.) I looked around but couldn’t find a fat positive comprehensive list of United States airline carriers COS policies, so I decided to create one. Here it is:

Southwest Airlines

I’m going to start with Southwest for two reasons. First, they have literally the only fair and appropriate COS policy in the United States, and second because there are a ton of misconceptions floating around about that policy. Third (bonus reason!) because they used to be one of the absolute worst airlines for fat passengers and they have turned it around and I want to reward that.

Here is the official policy:

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 our Flying Southwest page. 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.

Here is my commentary to try to correct some common misconceptions (scroll down for all the other US carrier policies):

Southwest’s Customer of Size policy offers 2 or 3 seats for the price of one. This is because they are in the business of flying people from point A to point B and that requires a seat that accommodates you. Since airplanes are still being built like fat people don’t exist, this is their workaround.

You have the option of purchasing a 2nd or 3rd seat when you book. If you do that, you just need to contact them after the flight and they will reimburse you EVEN IF YOUR FLIGHT WAS FULL OR OVERBOOKED. You get reimbursed no matter what.

You are NOT REQUIRED to purchase a second seat. You can simply go through the full-service check-in line when you get to the airport, tell them that you are using their Customer of Size policy and they will book you the 2 or 3 seats that you need EVEN IF YOUR FLIGHT IS FULL OR OVERBOOKED.

If everyone shows up and the flight ends up being actually overbooked, they will use their overbook policy, which involves offering customers travel vouchers to take a different flight. You will not be treated differently in this situation because your 2 or 3 seats are treated like a single seat (because they are a single seat.)

You will be allowed to preboard to make sure that you can get 2 seats together. You will be given a document that says “Seat Reserved” to put on your extra seat. If people ask, simply say “I’ve reserved both seats, this seat is not available.

My partner and I use this policy all the time and have never had any trouble. Of course we have a lot of privilege, including and especially white privilege, and that can’t be discounted in our experience. If you do run into difficulty, you can ask to speak to a supervisor and refer them to their own policy: https://www.southwest.com/…/help/faqs/extra_seat_policy_faq…

Note: Southwest has a stated preference for people purchasing the 2 or 3 seats that they need in advance and then getting reimbursed. While I can understand that, I also understand that many people do not have the money to loan Southwest Airlines the cost of their ticket (or twice the cost if they need 3 seats) from the time of purchase to sometime after they fly, which is why the policy doesn’t require you to purchase seats in advance.

Southwest always has the option of creating a booking process for Customers of Size that does not require a loan of hundreds of dollars, which would solve all the problems that people paying for multiple tickets and waiting to get reimbursed solves.

Other Airlines

Now let’s go to the other airlines. I want to point out how when they say that they care about the “comfort and safety” of their passengers, they mean their thin passengers. If they cared about the comfort and safety of their fat passengers they would create policies (and insist on planes) that actually accommodated us, rather than asking us to pay twice as much for a solution that leaves us far less comfortable and less safe than the thin people they actually care about.

The links go to the COS policies. Last updated: 4.16.19 If you see any inaccuracies, please feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me at ragen at danceswithfat dot org. Thanks!

American Airlines

“For the safety and comfort of all customers, 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. 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 Airlines

“We want to do all things possible to ensure your comfort. For customers who need extra space outside the standard Economy Seat — which features 31-32” of legroom with a 17.2” width — 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. If you have questions, Delta Reservations can assist at 800-221-1212. We’re happy to provide you with an FAA-approved seatbelt extension, but do not allow personal seatbelt extensions to be used.”

Alaska Airlines

“We strive to best serve our customers’ unique needs by providing a safe and comfortable flight for all passengers.

We require the purchase of an additional seat for any customer who cannot comfortably fit within one seat with the armrests in the down position. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats; width between the armrests typically measures 17 inches for coach and 21 inches for First Class. The purchase of an additional seat(s) serves as a notification to Alaska Airlines of a special seating need, and allows us to adequately plan for the number of seats that will be occupied on the aircraft. Most importantly, it ensures that all customers onboard have access to safe and comfortable seating.

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.

Booking instructions
Please call Alaska Airlines reservations at 1-800-252-7522 to ensure your reservation is booked correctly.

Benefits of booking ahead through Alaska Airlines reservations:

Call center ticketing fees are waived
Adjacent seating is reserved in advance
Both seats are purchased at the same low fare
Refund instructions
You can request a refund by using our online form or contacting Customer Care at 1-800-654-5669. Simply provide the name on the ticket, travel dates, flight information and ticket number. Refunds must be requested within 90 days of travel.

Seatbelt extensions
The seat width on all Alaska Airlines aircraft (armrest to armrest) is approximately 17 inches 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.”

Allegiant Air

“Allegiant’s mission and responsibility per our Contract of Carriage is to provide safe and comfortable air transportation for every customer.

The airline seats measure 17.8″ from inside of armrest to inside of armrest. 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.”

Hawaiian Airlines

“Most of our seats are 18 inches wide. For larger guests, this may create a safety issue. 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 or Preferred 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.”

Frontier Airlines

“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.”

JetBlue

“An extra seat can be purchased for customers needing additional seating room:

Follow the normal booking instructions but make the reservation for one extra person
Book the first seat with the traveler’s name, i.e. SMITH/ROBERT
Book the second seat with your traveler’s last name and ‘EXST’ as the first name, i.e. SMITH/EXST
Include the following SSR message in the record: SSR EXST B6 NN1 JFKMCO0031Y31JUL-1SMITH/ROBERT.OVERSIZED
Select adjoining seat assignments in the GDS or on http://www.jetblue.com/seats
When you purchase an extra seat, both seats must be booked in the same fare option. The fare option selected will determine your baggage allowance. The carry-on baggage allowance remains the same per person.”

Spirit Airlines

“They don’t seem to have an official policy online, but I found this in their Q&A section:

Q: Can I purchase an extra seat for myself or something I’m transporting?

A:  Yes, in fact we require it in the following circumstances:

-To accommodate a guest of size who encroaches on an adjacent seat area and/or is unable to sit in a single seat with the armrests lowered;
To transport a guest who, because of his or her particular disability, would be unable to travel without the purchase of additional space on the aircraft;
-To transport large musical instruments or electronic audio/video, medical, or other sensitive equipment unsuitable for carriage as checked baggage, as specified in the Contract of Carriage
-You can purchase an extra seat by using your name for both tickets and selecting the desired seat assignments.

NOTE: guests who require a seat belt extension may not occupy any seat equipped with an inflatable seat belt. A seat belt extension may be used in a seat equipped with an inflatable seat belt in order to secure seat baggage (e.g., a musical instrument).”

United Airlines

“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.

A customer is required to purchase an additional seat or upgrade if they do not meet one of the following criteria:

The customer must be able to properly attach, buckle and wear the seat belt, with one extension if necessary, whenever the seatbelt sign is illuminated or as instructed by a crew member. Footnote*
The customer must be able to remain seated with the seat armrest(s) down for the entirety of the flight.
The customer must not significantly encroach upon the adjacent seating space. See our seat maps.
United will not board a customer who declines to purchase a ticket for an additional seat or upgrade for each leg of their itinerary when required.

Customers who do not require two seats but require a seat belt extension may request one from a flight attendant on board. Customers are not permitted to bring or supply their own seat belt extensions.

Footnotes
*The average length of the seatbelt extension is approximately 25 inches. As the seat designs on our aircraft vary, it is possible that the seatbelt extension presented on your flight provides less than 25 inches of additional coverage. Regardless of the actual additional length the extension provides, if you do not meet the first criteria listed above when using the extension provided on your flight, it will be necessary for you to purchase an additional seat or an upgrade, where available.

Additional procedures
The additional seat must be available without downgrading or unseating another customer. If an additional seat is not available on the flight for which the customer is confirmed, he or she is required to rebook on the next United flight with seats available for accommodation. United will waive penalties or fees that may otherwise apply to this change.

If the customer is away from his or her home and must rebook for a flight for the following day, amenities including applicable meals and hotel accommodations for one night will be provided as appropriate. When the customer is able to rebook for a later flight on the same day as originally scheduled, amenities will not be provided.

Baggage allowance
Checked baggage allowances are determined by the number of seats purchased. When two seats are purchased for one customer, the allowance for checked baggage is doubled. The number of carry-on items permitted is determined by the individual passenger allowances set by the TSA, rather than United policy. Consequently, the carry-on allowance is not doubled. Learn more about baggage allowances.”

So that’s it. If you know of something I’m missing here, please let me know!

Was this post helpful? If you appreciate the work that I do, you can support my ability to do more of it with a one-time tip or by becoming a member. (Members get special deals on fat-positive stuff, a monthly e-mail keeping them up to date on the work their membership supports, and the ability to ask me questions that I answer in a members-only monthly Q&A Video!)

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The Many Ways Airlines Mistreat Fat Passengers

flying experienceIn the United States, every airline but Southwest forces people who don’t fit into the arbitrarily sized seats (or who require an extension for their arbitrarily sized seatbelts) to pay for a second seat. This is absolutely wrong. The airlines are in the business of transporting people from one place to another, and that requires a seat that accommodates them.  They should not be allowed to be in the business of arbitrating how large a human ass is allowed to be in order to avoid being charged twice as much for the exact same service.

This is not petty. This can drastically affect fat people’s ability to get work, attend weddings, funerals, and other important events, and access the world in the same way that thin people do. I’ve written about this part of the issue before.

Today I want to talk about all the mess around this that someone who is not fat, doesn’t have fat friends, or isn’t trusted enough by their fat acquaintances to share these kinds of things, might not understand.

Let’s just start here: It’s not like you can just buy two seats and then everything is hunky dory. It’s not like that At. All.

Seat Sizes:

Seat sizes are different from plane type to plane type, and even from row to row on the same frickin’ plane.

So, instead of just booking a ticket, fat people have to:

  • Drill down on each ticket option until you can find out what kind of plane you’ll be flying on (how you do this is different on almost every site, and it often requires a significant investment of time)
  • Go to a site like SeatGuru to see which seat will work for you.
  • On many airlines you then have to PAY EXTRA (that will be a theme in this post) in order to select the specific seat that will work for you

Sure that’s a pain, and it costs a little more, but it’s worth it for the peace of mind, right? Wrong! Not just because it’s total crap that fat people should have to do this much work and pay extra, but also because there is no peace of mind because there can always be a last minute “change of equipment” (they end up using a different plane) or they have to change a seat assignment, or the website you used to research got it wrong and you’re back at square one, except you’re at the airport with possibly limited options, dealing with someone who may have so much weight bias that they are disinclined to help you, and risking losing the money you spent on the ticket and/or the trip you are about to take.

Seat Belts

Seat belt lengths are different on different planes. As far as I know, there is no way to research this. It’s significant because some airlines’ policy is that if you require a seatbelt extender, then you must purchase an extra seat (even if you are not overlapping into the seat(s) beside you because you have, say, narrow hips and a large belly.)  Except you may not know if you need an extender until you get on the plane and find out that, unlike the last 10 times you flew this airline, this plane has shorter seatbelts. Hope you have an extra $500 on you, and that there is an empty seat on the plane, and a flight attendant who is willing to help you.

Getting a second seat can be incredibly difficult

Even if someone is willing/forced to purchase a second seat, the process is still incredibly fraught:

With many airlines, even though you have to pay for two seats – including all taxes and fees – you only get a luggage allowance for a single seat. That right there is some petty bullshit. Especially since people whose clothing is larger and heavier are already at a disadvantage when it comes to luggage size and weight limits.

Some airlines require that you pay TWO seat assignment fees, or they won’t guarantee that the two seats that you purchased will be together. They will literally book your seats in two different rows.

Some airlines and many discount sites have no way to purchase two seats for the same person online, meaning that you have to call and book through their reservation desk and pay full price, without access to deals offered through discount websites and with the possibility of dealing with some judgmental fatphobic asshole at the reservation desk.

Paying with a refund

Some airlines offer a refund of the second seat if the plane is not fully booked. Southwest offers the option of paying for your second seat to reserve it, but guarantees a refund even if the flight is fully booked (to be clear, they also offer the option of booking one ticket, and then just going through the full-service line when you arrive at the airport and getting your second – and third if you need it – seats then. From that point forward your seats are treated like one seat, so if there is an overbook situation they simply follow the normal policies of asking people to accept travel vouchers for taking a later flight. This is the option my partner and I use all the time and we’ve never had any problems.)

In the first instance, the problem is that many people aren’t in a position to pay either $500 or $1,000 for a flight, which they’ll find out on the day they fly.

Even in the case of a guaranteed refund, not everyone is in the position to loan the airline 100% of their ticket price. Especially for those of us who fly a lot for work. In the case of speaking gigs, often the travel is reimbursed, so I book my own flights and get reimbursed after the talk. I want to be a good steward of the money of the people who hire me, so I book pretty far in advance to get the best price. If I’m speaking a lot (and I fly enough to maintain “Fly By” status on Southwest, which is their frequent flyer program) I might have 2-4 flights a month booked over a 6 month period. Even if we assume 2 flights a month, and just $200 per flight (though it’s often more) that’s $2,400+ that I would be lending to an airline on a rolling basis. (Though, and I can’t stress this enough, you DO NOT have to pay for your second seat on Southwest, you can simply book one seat and have your second – and third if necessary – seats assigned to you at check-in.)

On The Plane

Despite the fact that they knew fat people existed when they built the planes, they are still building them like fat people don’t exist, which means that after purchasing two seats for full price and paying two seat assignment fees (and only being given the baggage allowance for one seat) you may still be in for an excruciating flight.

On many planes, while the armrest raises up, it doesn’t fully recess between the seats, meaning that you get to fly for however many hours with the armrest painfully poking into your back.

On many planes (some with the same armrest issue as above) the clips that the seatbelts clip into are metal and stick straight up out of the seat, meaning that if you are sitting across two seats, you are sitting on hard pieces of metal.

If you are a tall fat person and you want to sit in the bulkhead to try to avoid becoming a flying yoga pose, you are likely out of luck. Because typically the trays are in the arms in bulkhead seats, meaning that instead of just the armrest there is a full arm that is completely stationary. This becomes a deal breaker for many fat disabled people/people with disabilities who need the extra legroom. The airlines have created a situation where a passenger can be disabled (though not without another set of airline-created difficulties) or fat, but not both.

The Bathroom

Ok, so you paid twice as much as the person next to you to make the same flight. You have spent three hours – so far – with an armrest jabbing into your upper back and seatbelt clips jabbing into your lower back. You received the same baggage allowance, drinks, and snacks as the person beside you – even though you paid twice as much as they did (or more if they were able to book on a discount site) for the trip. Now you have to pee.

More bad news. in an effort to jam in more travelers, with no regard for comfort or safety, the airlines are making their bathrooms smaller. So small that some people who don’t need a second seat still cannot use the bathroom, or cannot use it completely. Things like wiping, changing a pad, tampon or menstrual cup, changing a baby etc. can be rendered completely impossible, so you’ve paid twice the price and you can even use the restroom.

Sometimes They Take Your Seat

Sometimes an airline that has required that you purchase a second seat (often telling you it’s “for your safety”) learns that they could sell your second seat to another passenger at the last minute, and so makes the determination that you don’t need that second seat after all (safety shmafety amirite?) so even if you didn’t want to end up squished up  next to some last-minute traveling fatphobe, here you are.

What About First Class?

Even for those who can afford first class (which is supposed to be about paying for extra amenities, not just a seat that accommodates you, like every single other person on the plane already gets,) those seats generally have full sides – meaning that instead of having armrests that someone could lift or slide their hips/thighs under, they are more like an armchair which means that there is no wiggle room and even if you can smash yourself into them (ensuring a phenomenally painful flight) you may stand up to find that your lower body has been molded into the very likeness of SpongeBob Squarepants.

In Conclusion

The truth is that no matter how much time we are willing to spend, or how much money we are willing to pay, there is literally no way for a fat person to guarantee that we will have the same experience as a thin person when it comes to flying.

If thin people faced this kind of difficulty and expense just to fly, they would riot. And rightly so. (And this is where I’ll note that in my flights I’ve seen plenty of dudes with broad shoulders that FAR exceeded the width of their assigned seats, and I’ve NEVER seen one of them asked to purchase an additional seat.)

The fact that it’s being done to fat people in a fatphobic world does not make it right. People come in lots of shapes and sizes (and dis/abilities) and just like they are forced to follow safety guidelines, airlines should be forced to accommodate all passengers on an equal basis.

Southwest gives people as many seats as they need for the price of a single seat and they’ve been profitable for 46 consecutive years. (that’s not a typo.) Canada has a One Passenger One Fare law and the airlines haven’t gone out of business, so before someone gives a long-winded justification about how “it can’t be done profitably” and “won’t somebody think of the poor airline execs earning 7+ figures a year,” let’s just be perfectly clear that the idea that it can’t be done profitably is pure nonsense. It can, and it should.

Was this post helpful? If you appreciate the work that I do, you can support my ability to do more of it with a one-time tip or by becoming a member. (Members get special deals on fat-positive stuff, a monthly e-mail keeping them up to date on the work their membership supports, and the ability to ask me questions that I answer in a members-only monthly Q&A Video!)

Like this blog?  Here’s more cool stuff:

Wellness for All Bodies ProgramA simple, step-by-step, super efficient guide to setting and reaching your health goals from a weight-neutral perspective.  This program can be used by individuals, or by groups, including as a workplace wellness program!
Price: $25.00 ($10 for DancesWithFat members – register on the member page)

Non-Members click here for all the details and to register!

Book and Dance Class Sale!  I’m on a journey to complete an IRONMAN triathlon, and I’m having a sale on all my books, DVDs, and digital downloads to help pay for it. You get books and dance classes, I get spandex clothes and bike parts. Everybody wins! If you want, you can check it out here!  (Members get an even better deal, make sure to make your purchases from the Members Page!)

Book Me!  I’d love to speak to your organization. You can get more information here or just e-mail me at ragen at danceswithfat dot org!

I’m (still!) training for an IRONMAN! You can follow my journey at www.IronFat.com or on Instagram.

If you are uncomfortable with my offering things for sale on this site, you are invited to check out this post.