•The FAA requires all passengers be able to buckle seat belts with armrests down.
•Most airlines define how far you can encroach on another seat.
•All airlines are developing accommodations for overweight passengers.
•Some airlines are doing a good job of documenting a policy while considering the comfort of all passengers.
•Other airlines are not doing such a good job at this.
Seating for oversize passengers has put the airlines in a quandary. They want to keep all their customers happy with comfortable seating without infringing on the comfort of others, all while simultaneously conforming to FAA regulations. You have probably seen reports about passengers feeling disrespected, becoming vocal and even taking legal action.
Some carriers have handled the controversy of their particular seat policy for overweight travelers directly and respectfully; others still have work to do. Southwest Airlines‘ seating requirements are spelled out in helpful detail. On the other hand, Spirit Airlines appears not to have a customer-of-size issue, mentioning very little in terms of official policy.
General FAA Requirements
All domestic airlines must adhere to the seat belt guidelines published by the FAA. They require that each passenger is secured with a seat belt during certain phases of each flight. The FAA also addresses the use of the seat belt extenders, those issued by the airlines and those owned by individual flying passengers. Each passenger is allowed one extension of 25 inches, but the law does not require that extra seating is provided.
Airlines With Specific, Thoughtful Policies
Perhaps the most articulate airline concerning requirements for heavier passengers is Southwest Airlines. This carrier has a thoughtful position on seat policies for overweight travelers. The company website presents that they are attempting to accommodate the needs of all passengers. Those of size have the option to purchase an additional seat in advance or wait and work with the agent at the airport.
Only an advance purchase will guarantee that you will be seated on the flight. If you purchase an additional seat and the flight is not full, you can request a refund after the flight is completed. If you do not purchase an additional seat and one is available, it will be complimentary. The website gives both internet and phone options for obtaining additional seats. Furthermore, it includes check-in and boarding instructions for larger passengers.
Internet information about United Airlines seating is also detailed. United does not classify these passengers with a label. They are simply referred to as “customers who require extra seating.” The requirements are:
- You must be able to wear the seat belt with one extension.
- You must be able to sit for the complete flight with the armrests down.
- You must not “significantly encroach” upon the adjacent seat. This leaves room for interpretation, and a friendly seat partner may be willing to accommodate.
When these three criteria cannot be met, an additional seat or an upgrade must be purchased. United also has a helpful and relevant Frequently Asked Questions section.
Airlines With Vaguer Policies
The American Airlines seating policy requires that “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.” You are not given the option to purchase that additional seat online, and you must call the airline. On the other hand, you can wait and purchase an additional seat or upgrade at the gate. The airline goes on to state that if accommodations cannot be made on your original flight, they will try to rebook you on another flight at the same rate. You are encouraged to work it all out over the phone ahead of your flight.
You can ask the agent to re-seat you next to an open seat if the Delta Air Lines seat size does not allow you to be compliant with FAA regulations. If that adjustment is not available, you may be asked to buy an additional seat or upgrade. Delta, similar to American, asks you to call before your flight.
Although it is a U.S. airline, Spirit has not addressed the seating question. There is no stated passenger size policy on its website. The Spirit Airlines seating chart offers Big Front Seat upgrades for a price range of $12 to $199. This buys you a wider seat, more legroom and no middle seat.