Airline Policies for Overweight Passengers Traveling this Summer

When Samoa Air announced it would begin charging passengers by weight, the airline industry buzzed with reports that overweight passengers should pay more for air travel. While the debate on passenger weight certainly isn’t new, airlines have been challenged to find ways to accommodate heavier travelers while pressured to sell seats and maintain customer safety and comfort.

Airline Policies for Overweight Passengers Traveling this Summer

Safety regulations from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandate that passengers must be able to lower their armrests and sufficiently buckle and fasten their seat belts. However, the average seat width for a domestic economy flight ranges from 17 to 19 inches between the armrests. So what happens when you can’t fit in the seat? According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), airlines are not required by law to provide additional seating or an upgrade in the event additional space is required for a passenger.

There is no industry-wide policy, and each airline handles the situation differently. So, while we often get questions about passengers of size, it’s not a straightforward answer. Knowing the airlines’ policies can help you save money and avoid embarrassment while boarding. Here’s what we found by searching airline websites and calling them.

Domestic Airlines

Southwest Airlines:

Passengers who cannot fit into a seat must purchase an extra seat, either online or over the phone, although they offer cheaper rates over the phone for the extra seat. Southwest also advises that a passenger of size may contact them for a refund of the cost of additional seating after travel.

Passengers of size who do not 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, passengers will be accommodated with a complimentary additional seat(s). However, you may be bumped to another flight if no extra seating is available. Southwest Airlines’ width between armrests measures 17 inches.

American Airlines:

American Airlines requires passengers to purchase an additional seat or upgrade if they do not meet one of the following criteria:

  • Unable to fit into a single seat in their ticketed cabin and/or
  • Unable to properly buckle their seatbelt using a single seatbelt extender (available upon request from a flight attendant) and/or
  • Unable to lower both armrests without encroaching upon the adjacent seating space or another passenger.

American Airlines notes passengers to address their seating needs at the time of booking the original reservation. If seats are available in your ticketed cabin, you may be accommodated in the same cabin next to an empty seat. The additional seating must be available without downgrading or unseating another passenger. If time allows, and upon payment of the fare difference, you may be offered a seat in a higher class of service that may provide more space. If additional seating is not available, passengers may purchase a second adjacent seat on a different flight. The fare for the second seat will be the same as the original seat. American Airlines economy seat width ranges from 17 to 18 inches.

United Airlines:

Passengers traveling on United Airlines are required to purchase an additional seat or upgrade if they do not meet one of the following criteria:

  • The passenger must be able to properly attach, buckle and wear the seat belt, with one extension if necessary, whenever the seat belt sign is illuminated or as instructed by a crew member.
  • The passenger must be able to remain seated with the seat armrest(s) down for the entirety of the flight.
  • The passenger must not significantly encroach upon the adjacent seating space.

United will not board a passenger who declines to purchase a ticket for an additional seat or upgrade for each leg of their itinerary when required. The second seat may be purchased for the same fare as the original seat, provided it is purchased at the same time. A passenger 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 passenger may instead choose to purchase a ticket for United First, United Business or United BusinessFirst, or elect to pay for an upgrade to a premium cabin if there is availability to do so. United Airlines economy seat width ranges from 17 to 18.3 inches.

Delta Airlines:

Delta does not require passengers who need a seat belt extender or are unable to lower the armrest to purchase additional seats. However, you may be asked to move to another location that provides additional space. In the event of a full flight you will be asked to take a later flight with available seating. To avoid this, Delta Airlines recommends that you purchase an additional seat. Economy seat width is 17.2 inches.

JetBlue Airways:

No clear policy is stated online. When calling Jetblue, they advised to either purchase an additional seat at the current price or opt for a seat belt extender. JetBlue seat belts are 45 inches in length and you can request 25 inch extensions on-board the aircraft. Economy seat width ranges from 17.8 to 18.25 inches. Passenger’s who cannot fit, will have to purchase an extra seat at the current fare offered.

Spirit Air:

No policy is published online. When calling Spirit Airlines, they will advise you to either purchase an additional seat at the same cost of the first seat, or to purchase a Big Front Seat which offers additional seat width. Economy seat width is 17.8 inches. Spirit Airlines offers Big Front Seats which is 18.5 inches wide.

While we wish there was a standard industry wide policy, the reality is that each airline handles overweight travelers differently. International carriers are no exception. For example, in Canada, forcing one passenger to buy two seats is illegal on domestic flights, because Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that charging extra to someone who is “functionally disabled by obesity” is discriminatory.

To book an extra seat for yourself you will need to call and speak with a travel advisor who can assist you since each airline’s policy is different. For the most up to date information, please contact us at 1-800-243-2724 or e-mail us at support@cheapair.com.

Was this helpful for you? What do you think about these policies?

10 Comments

  1. Thank you! It’s great to have someone attempt to get the info out of the airlines but there is more than a bit of disconnect when it comes to the real world, in my experience. Have you tried to purchase an additional seat on-line? I have. The system didn’t allow the purchase of two seats with the same passenger name.

    Regardless of the question of whether charges related to size are appropriate, what difference does ‘policy’ make if you can’t implement it?

    • Hi April,

      Thank you for your feedback. The airline policy determines how the airline handles a passenger who requires an extra seat. Since the policy is not standard across all airlines in the industry, our website will not allow a customer the option to enter the same name twice when attempting to purchase an extra seat. Airlines often will require some additional information informing them of the extra seat requested. For customer’s who would like to purchase an extra seat, we strongly recommend calling our travel advisors who can assist with requesting extra seat space.

  2. Hi,
    All well and good if you are obese person to buy an extra seat, but what about someone who is just large?

    My son and I traveled on an American Airlines flight to St. Croix, he is 6ft 5in and is not at all fat. He was wedged into the seat and had bruses when he left the plane. A flight attendent who was dead heading to another airport was much larger in the butt, and said many people have the same problem. Air travel is not enjoyable any more.

    • Ann, I am a “passenger of size” and often fly Southwest. Their policy accommodates both big and tall passengers. He can simply ask for his additional seat at the gate, no extra charge. If he chooses to pre-board (which is allowed to any passenger requiring the additional seat), he should have no trouble getting one of their 6 front row seats (which sacrifice a tray table for an unbelievable amount of legroom). I am 5’10″ and the last time I took a front row seat on Southwest, I put my legs straight out in front of me an my feet just reached the wall.

  3. The truth is that most airlines are simply dodging the issue because it is easy to–it is socially acceptable to publicly shame overweight people and therefore the airlines can get away with having weak policies that treat large passengers unfairly.

    The issue isn’t whether or not a person who takes up more space should buy an extra seat. That’s a given. Whether you are tall, wide, or just smelly, you should pay for what you use.

    The issue is that large passengers basically have to gamble with expensive airline tickets with no guarantee of what they are going to get. A gamble that ‘average’ sized passengers are not expected to take.

    Airline seats are not the same size. Passengers can go through acrobatics to figure out what size seats their particular flight will have, but of course equipment problems or weather delays may mean that the actual aircraft they end up flying on is different than what they planned for. There needs to be some standardization in seat sizes so that passengers know what they are getting when they purchase one seat. There should be a sample seat available at the airport prior to boarding, just like there is a sample suitcase size available for passengers to verify compliance prior to boarding.

    Second, airlines allow flight crews to use their discretion. The crew member themselves can decide they don’t want a large passenger on their flight, or they can easily bow to the complaints of another passenger, who oftentimes just wants more room for themselves. The large passenger then pays the cost of a choice that other people made. The bottom line is that if a passenger can meet the criteria (arm rests down, no more than one seatbelt extender) then there is no room for discretionary decisions on the aircraft. This is no different than decisions about children on a flight. If they are of a certain age or weight they must have a seat. It’s not up to the flight attendant to decide if they are safe sitting on a parents’ lap.

    And finally, there must be some standard means of charging for additional seats at the last minute. It is not fair to charge thousands of dollars to a passenger at the last minute when they have not been given an opportunity to avoid the excessive charges. The current protocol amounts to nothing more than sanctioned extortion–a passenger has to decide, right there on the aircraft, if they are willing to fork over a substantial sum of money, or forfeit both their plane ticket and their vacation or business trip. There needs to be a standard in place so that plus sized passengers know how much an additional seat will cost prior to boarding.

    Not that none of this has anything to do with whether or not the average airplane seat size is reasonable nor does it have anything to do with the growing obesity epidemic. This is about basic commerce practices–currently airlines have two sets of rules. Sometimes they abide by the terms and conditions of their transactions, and sometimes they don’t. Nobody knows which will be the case for them until they show up to fly.

  4. Not Telling,

    How one-sided can you be? It’s nobody else’s fault that you are a person “of size”. We all have our allotted space on the plane, and if you take more than your share, you need to pay for more. Encroaching on others’ space is just not an option…we all pay for our tickets and the comfortable seating space that comes with it. Either pay for a 2nd seat or don’t fly. Stop acting like a victim.

    • I think that “Not telling” has an issue with inconsistent policies and standards. That is primary focus of the comment. If you re-read the post you will see that (s)he agreed that you SHOULD pay for what you use. That being said, I agree that no one has the right to be talked down to or treated unfairly because of their size. You were a perfect example of the rudeness and disrespect that an overweight person likely encounters in these situations. It’s not about being a victim, it’s about being treated fairly. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

      • I agree with Not Telling, you lot are acting like victims. The airlines are acting in a very professional and dignified manner whereas overweight passengers are acting like entitled brats. Are you seriously suggesting that airlines should change their entire seating arrangements and lose passengers+profits, rather than you simply choosing to lose some weight and fit in a seat like everyone else? You not hear this all the time from inside your fat-acceptance bubble but this kind of behaviour is pathetic and embarrassing. The airlines aren’t charging extra for black people, they are simply using a fair economic policy. Even if they did increase seat size, it would only be a matter of time until even fatter people couldn’t fit in the bigger seats. This whole topic is nonsense.

  5. If they increased seat size that will reduce the total number of seats on the plane therefore it will increase the price per seat so they make the same profit per flight, thus making everybody pay more money to accommodate fat people. So screw that! I don’t want to pay more to cover the cost for flying fat people.

    It is your problem you are fat. Nobody cares about your excuse for being fat. If you take more than 1 seat you pay for more than 1 seat. It is that simple.

    Entitled morons.

  6. I am really skinny and I think it’s unfair that I pay more for my ticket because of all the “normal” sized people needing more room than me. If everyone on the plane were my size they could fit more seats on the plane and cut prices a lot more than they are now. Why are there only 6 seats per row when there could be 10 to 15? I think all the regular sized people as well as the obese people should be checked as baggage. Actually, we could all just sleep during the flight with like 100 rows of “Skinny Beds” (I coined the phrase myself) – maybe 2 beds per row. Not sure how many rows would fit, but we can work in more by redefining normal until more people fit. I once knew a person who was obese because of a hormonal imbalance and who wants to fly with someone who is imbalanced? And I don’t like “normal” people cause they think they’re normal. I’m so glad I’m the way I am and not like those other people!

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