Most airlines have a procedure in place for passengers of size (those who can’t comfortably fit in one seat). The policy varies by airline, though virtually all airlines encourage such passengers to book an extra seat to be sure they’re comfortable. What differs by airline is:
- Whether you can earn points for the second seat
- How expensive the second seat is
- What the process is for booking the second seat
- What happens if you don’t book a second seat but don’t comfortably fit in one seat
If you want more details, CheapAir.com has a good rundown of how the policies of different airlines vary.
Regardless, you’d think airlines would be happy when passengers are proactive in booking two seats so that everyone is as comfortable as possible. Reader Andy emailed me to share an experience he had booking a second seat on Southwest, which just leaves me floored. Here’s the email he sent me (it’s fairly long, but I don’t think I can do justice to this without sharing the whole thing):
Thought I’d share a very interesting story about a bizarre Southwest experience I had traveling this past week from Las Vegas to Houston Hobby. I don’t recall seeing much blog traffic on this particular topic so I figured I’d share the story as I was pretty flabbergasted as to how this played out.
I’m a bigger size passenger (not your standard passenger of size but at 6’2″, 250lbs it’s not hard for me to be uncomfortable on a flight), and I typically go out of my way to avoid discount airlines or coach seats for longer flights. Of course not always the case, but more often than not I’ll pay for a first class seat if I can’t get an upgrade.
I had to take a Southwest flight from Vegas to Houston and concerned about the flight length I decided to call the airline and inquire as to purchasing a second seat. The agent was helpful and accommodated me, and my reservation was made. I paid about $690 for my first seat in business select and the second seat cost a little under $200.
When I got to the Vegas airport and went to check in, I had to see an agent. I went to the counter and the woman greeted me, asked about my issue checking in, and when she noticed my second seat booking she stepped out from behind the counter, looked me up and down, and said she needed a supervisor.
Her supervisor came over, looked at the computer, and informed me that I wasn’t “big enough” to qualify. I explained to him that I reviewed their policy, which was vague and only defined the policy as the boundaries of the armrest, and he informed me he had the discretion to refuse my ticket. I offered to sit in a seat and demonstrate my concerns but he told me he would be canceling my seat and I could fly with one or not at all. I asked the agent what gave him the right to deem me “not fat enough,” and he said his “20 years of experience.” He even went so far as to point to another much larger passenger to show me what he viewed as a true passenger of size.
After the flight, I contacted Southwest and informed them of both the humiliation of having two different agents judge me and reject my seat, but also the inconsistency of their policy and the discretionary enforcement. As I explained to the customer service agent, shouldn’t the airline be appreciative of customers willing to pay for two seats to avoid discomfort for themselves and others?
Southwest has been pretty apologetic but this issue apparently got elevated to senior leadership. I was given a lousy $100 apology voucher and a refund on the second seat I purchased, and I was told the issue is being “reviewed in the monthly executive meeting given the sensitivity”.
My gut tells me they did something very wrong here, based on the quick elevation.
This may be an interesting case for the blog. Of course it’s a sensitive topic for me, but I can’t help but think Southwest should revisit their policy and maybe find a less humiliating, discreet way to “enforce” it? Shouldn’t a customer be able to pay for two full seats if they’re concerned about comfort? Isn’t this better for the airline; they get the revenue for the seat without the additional fuel burn or snack consumption, too.
I’m sort of in shock here. While Andy might not be a “traditional” passenger of size, I think he did the right thing by looking after not only his own comfort, but the comfort of those around him. With airline seats constantly shrinking, one really has to wonder how small you have to be to fit “comfortably” into economy seats nowadays. So for a Southwest employee to judge him in this way seems ridiculous.
I had a look at Southwest’s policy on this, and it sure is vague:
What is Southwest Airlines’ policy for Customers of size?
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; width between the armrests measures 17 inches. 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.
How do I know if I need a second seat?
The armrest is the definitive gauge for a Customer of size. It serves as the boundary between seats; the width between armrests measures 17 inches. Customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who encroach upon any portion of the adjacent seat may proactively book the number of seats needed prior to travel or receive a complimentary additional seat.
The rules suggest that if a customer encroaches on any part of the neighboring seat they may proactively purchase an additional seat. This is vague on many levels, and especially in this case it seems crazy to tell a passenger (who paid extra for a second seat) that they won’t encroach on another’s seat in any way.
Southwest was way out of line with this, in my opinion. If they’re not going to have a clear policy, it can’t be up to individual customer service agents to decide who is large enough to pay for an extra seat.
Really I don’t get why airlines don’t let people buy extra seats across the board. You’d think they’d love to have people paying for extra seats. Their rebuttal would be that inventory management is complicated, it would cause low fares to sell out faster, skew airfare, etc.
However, it sure seems like the current system is a bit broken.
What do you make of this situation? Should individual customer service agents be deciding who isn’t big enough to purchase an extra seat?