Airline Person Of Size Policies

Each airline has a policy for persons of size. The airline policies vary widely. Southwest Airlines has a progressive policy and is continuously improving their process for persons of size. Alaska Airlines has a clear policy. The remaining airlines in the U.S. top five, approach the issue with varying levels of concern for persons of size and quality of their policies and process.

These excerpts of person of size policies were retrieved on July 1, 2017. Check with the airline web site for the latest version of their policy.

Southwest Airlines Guidelines 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(s).

https://www.southwest.com/html/customer-service/extra-seat/

Discussion

  • This is the most progressive policy of the major airlines as of mid-2017, and Southwest Airlines should be lauded for their leadership.
  • Note that the definition says that the armrest is the definitive boundary. This implies a vertical plane at the armrest. If a person of size in a single coach seat would cross that plane on the side of an adjacent passenger, then they are a “Customer of Size.” This definition benefits everyone because persons of size can come in all shapes. Someone with an average waist, might have very large shoulders. So this policy is much better than other ones that focus on whether the armrest can be lowered or not.
  • One small ambiguity in the policy is exactly where on the armrest is the boundary located. Is it the middle or the far side?
  • Southwest Airlines also supports online booking of the additional seat. At the airport, you can check in at a kiosk, but you need to see a customer service agent to get your boarding documents.

Alaska Airlines Customers of size seating guidelines

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.

https://www.alaskaair.com/content/travel-info/policies/seating-customers-of-size

Discussion

  • Note that the definition is based on the passengers perception of comfort in a single seat with the armrests down.
  • Alaska Airlines defines the boundary as the armrest. See the discussion about this boundary in the Southwest Airlines section.
  • A refund is provided in certain conditions. Those conditions are that there was at least one open seat on all flights in each direction. In other words, the extra seat that you paid for would most likely not have been a revenue producing seat. (There are some special cases, such as only 1 free seat available and 2 people wanted to fly together). With Alaska Airlines policy there is the possibility that the additional seat(s) may not be refunded. So Alaska hasn’t really weighed in on the “right thing to do” but they are finessing the issue when it doesn’t cost them. That all said, it is better than other airlines that don’t provide an extra seat refund under any circumstances.

United Airlines Customers requiring extra seating

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.  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. 

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.

https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/specialneeds/extra-seating.aspx

Discussion

  • United Airlines policy is based on safety and comfort of the person of size, the ability to remain seated with the armrest(s) down, and whether there would be “significant” encroachment on adjacent seat(s).
  • United Airlines requires the purchase of an additional seat and it is not refundable.
  • United Airlines policy makes it clear that if the additional seat is not purchased with the first seat, the the cost may increase, or if no seat(s) are available the person of size may not be boarded.
  • United Airlines policy is designed to avoid having to de-board a person of size, and they also offer to cover the cost of one night lodging and meals if a same day alternate flight is not available.

American Airlines Customers that need extra space

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.

https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/special-assistance/special-assistance.jsp

Discussion

  • American Airlines policy allows each passenger to encroach 1 inch beyond the outermost edge of the armrest. The tradeoff here is that fewer persons of size will be required to purchase additional seating vs. the possibility of discomfort to adjacent passenger(s). The risk is that any encroachment on another passenger could trigger drama or air rage.
  • Note that American’s policy is written to require both encroachment AND a seatbelt extension. This conjunction of requirements can lead to intersting cases. For example, someone with an average waist and shoulders that encroach would not be considered to need extra space.
  • American Airlines requires that persons of size purchase additional seating or alternate seating in a higher class.
  • American Airlines policy does not address boarding or deboarding situations.

Delta Airlines CUSTOMERS REQUIRING EXTRA SEAT SPACE

If you are unable to sit in your seat without encroaching into the seat next to you while the armrest is down, please ask the agent if they can reseat you next to an empty seat.  You might also consider purchasing an upgrade to First/Business Class.

We will do all possible to ensure your comfort but you might consider booking an additional seat in order to ensure your best comfort during your travel.

https://www.delta.com/content/www/en_US/traveling-with-us/special-travel-needs/require-extra-seat-space.html

Discussion

  • Delta Airlines policy is short and terse. They recommend that persons of size purchase an additional seat or an upgrade.
  • Delta Airlines policy recommends but do not require the purchase of additional seating.
  • Delta Airlines policy does not discuss what would happen at the gate if a person of size requests but is not able to secure reseating next to an empty seat.
  • Delta Airlines policy does not address what would happen if a person of size boards the aircraft and can not put the armrest down or encroaches on another passenger.
  • Delta Airlines policy fails to address the common scenarios clearly and completely.

Summary

Size is an issue when... The airline solution is to... Is a refund provided?
Southwest Airlines encroaching upon any part of neighboring seat beyond the armrest. recommend proactively purchasing the needed number of seats. Yes - contact the airline after travel.
Alaska Airlines can not fit comfortably within one seat with the armrest down. require the purchase of an additional seat. Maybe - only if all flights in each direction departed with an open seat available.
United Airlines not able to safely and comfortably fit in a single seat AND able to remain seated with the armrest down for the entire flight AND must not significantly encroach upon the adjacent seating space. require the purchase of an additional seat or upgrade. No
American Airlines customer body extends more than one inch beyond the outermost edge of the armrest AND a seatbelt extension is needed. require the purchase of an additional seat and recommend that be done when booking. No
Delta Airlines can not sit in seat without encroaching in the the adjacent seat while the armrest is down. suggest asking the agent if they can reseat you next to an empty seat and also consider purchasing an upgrade. No
About Mark Morris
Mark Morris is a person, with several body dimensions that make airline travel in a single coach seat uncomfortable, including shoulder width, hip width, back to knee distance, and torso length. Mark is also sensitive to the inconvenience and discomfort of adjacent passengers. As he educated himself about the issues, he realized that there is no U.S. law or regulation covering person of size issues, and that airlines do not have a consistent policy. Mark created the Person of Size website to generate awareness, document situations and solutions, and advocate for improved laws, regulations, and policies related to persons of size situations in the real world.