US Airline Customer of Size Policies

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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!

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11 thoughts on “US Airline Customer of Size Policies

  1. I ride the bus because planes embody everything I fear and loathe in this world. Heights? Check! Pushy crowds of exhausted and irritated people? Check! Government-sanctioned gropers high on a petty power trip? Cheee-yek!

    It’s Megabus for me, all the way. $15 from Dallas to Chicago, and you don’t even have to hide heroin in your luggage or anything!

  2. Honestly, I don’t think any airline is interested in the comfort of any of its passengers.They are just harder on the fat passengers.They are only interested in profit and not being sued.

    1. That about sums it up. I haven’t been comfortable on any flight I’ve ever taken, no matter what size I was at the time.

  3. I do want to mention an experience I had while on Southwest that was fairly alarming to me. I have severe Crohn’s and many of my digestive organs were removed about a decade ago. I have an internal pouch, called a J-pouch, which is different than an ostomy bag as it’s an internal “organ” made up of my small intestine and stapled to what is left of my rectum. Anyways, it is constantly infected, but anyone who has one needs to use the bathroom quite frequently. You need a large amount of legroom in order to get the J-pouch to empty, as I almost have to put my head between my knees due to the positioning of this pouch. But the bathroom was so small that I was unable to empty my J-pouch. The bathroom was so small that my partner, who is about 6 feet and 320 lbs couldn’t even stand sideways to use the bathroom. Obviously not everyone is as concerned with bathroom fear as I am, but it was alarming how small the restroom was to the point where I saw many flyers return from trying to use the bathroom, having failed as there wasn’t enough space for people to fit into the restrooms. I am wary of flying due to the inappropriate ways I’ve been handled by TSA. But I’m now terrified about the lack of bathroom space. To pay to fly on an airplane and not being able to fit into the bathroom due to its ridiculously small size is unacceptable. Most people who fly are going somewhere that’s a few hours from where they are, and most flights are over an hour. People need to use the bathroom and deserve at the very least to be able to fit into it! I know this is a different issue than seats, but it’s still important and being sized-out from using the restroom is not ok.

  4. I have traveled on Southwest and Alaska airlines a lot in past 5 years and both airlines were gracious to me. I should note that I am older, white and use a mobility scooter. I am pretty sure I have grandma privilege. They have also taken good care of my scooter.

    Having said that, I have had bad experiences with other airlines before being able to afford 2 seats and even when I had two seats paid for. The personnel have been disrespectful and I even got bumped off a full plane once. This also includes seat design on other airlines. If the arm doesn’t recede having two seats is painful. Frontier use to have cushy seats where the arms receded back and made it very comfortable. I have read they now have hard plastic seats that are contoured.

    One final note. On every airline I have ever travelled, the bathroom is too small. I basically dehydrate myself and wear an adult diaper when I fly. So progress but not there yet by any means.

  5. Thank you for doing all this research. Having all the policies laid out in a matter-of-fact manner makes it easier to both compare policies and understand the difficulties customers of size go through to simply get a seat.

  6. I think about how lucky I am that I’m not required to fly anywhere unless I make the choice to go somewhere on vacation, and then I think about how fucked up it is that someone smaller than me would never have to even consider this as well as all the fat people who don’t have any option but to fly. There’s so much to unpack.

  7. I’m Canadian, so I was curious about our airlines… So far, WestJet has me scratching their head with this nugget:
    (from their website)
    “We do not provide seating approvals if you:

    – **are not disabled as a result of obesity/medical condition**
    – want a travel companion for reasons other than a disability
    – only require a personal attendant at your destination, but not in-flight
    – are travelling on a WestJet Vacations package
    – have needs that can be met with the assistance services we provide”

    Sounds to me like they don’t approve extra seats for healthy fat people. Wtf.. Anyways, I just posted on their facebook to ask them about it.

  8. Air Canada, at least, offers a free additional seat, but WOW their language needs some work:

    “Extra seating is available free of charge, for travel within Canada, to customers who require extra seating because they are disabled by obesity or because they must accommodate another disability.

    Extra seating may be requested when travelling on:

    Any Air Canada flight or Air Canada Express flight operated by Jazz or Sky Regional”

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