UPDATED: January 20, 2015. Added information for Virgin America and Alaska Airlines.
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.
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.
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.
Passengers who cannot fit comfortably in a seat with the armrests down must purchase a second seat. Those customers that choose not to purchase an additional seat cannot be guaranteed boarding. If you purchase the second seat at the time of original purchase, the second seat will be sold at the same rate. At a later date (or at the airport), the lowest ticket price available will be sold. If all legs of the flight have at least one empty seat, the second seat cost may be refunded post-travel. Alaska Airlines seat width is 17 inches.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Persons of size are asked to purchase a second seat in advance. No specific rules in place for those who choose not to do so. For pricing, contact a representative at the time of booking. A refund may be requested post travel if the flight was not at capacity or overbooked. Virgin America Economy seat width is 17.7 inches.
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 [email protected].
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