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Airline Seating


Southwest Airlines Forces Larger Passengers To Buy Two Tickets (June 2002)

In June of 2002, Southwest Airlines announced that they would be strictly and uniformly enforcing their policy of requiring larger passengers to purchase two seats on their airplanes. The story was broken by the Washington Times, and that article quoted Miriam Berg, president of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination. In the days following that story, Council representatives did nearly one hundred press interviews with print, radio, television and online news media. We also received countless emails, some in support of our position, others opposed. This essay will explain our position and our opposition to Southwest's policy.

Businesses Are Supposed To Compete By Providing Good Service

In a free market economy, businesses are supposed to compete for the consumer dollar. The company that provides the best service will beat out the competition. This is true in all industries except the airlines. Instead of making their service more accessible and comfortable, they keep their seats the same cramped size and then blame larger passengers for everyone's discomfort.

Airline Seating Is Far Too Narrow For Most Of The Population

Few people are comfortable in airplane seats. They are smaller than the seats in buses, trains, and all other forms of transportation. Only children and probably the smallest quarter of the population actually fit comfortably in airplane seating. Until recently, seat designers have relied on a 1950 Harvard study of train passengers that said that the average adult requires eighteen inches per seat. A study by the Society of Automotive Engineers is underway to update that information.

Unlike airlines, builders of new sports stadiums or movie theaters have realized that they need to make their venues fit the populations they serve. Rather than wait for the results of this new study, they have realized that people have gotten both taller and heavier, and they are making the seats wider and providing more legroom than they did a few years ago. Many movie theaters are installing twenty-two inch seats, and sports stadiums are building their seats from nineteen to twenty-four inches across. Some facilities have set aside 20% of their seats to be extra wide, and sometimes they charge slightly more for those seats. That would be more equitable that making the seats very small and charging people double.

Businesses such as movie theaters and sports arena builders have acknowledged the fact that the population is getting larger. They know their customers, and they are providing the service that will keep those customers happy and make them want to come back. Why aren't the airlines following the same basic principle of business and competing for the consumer dollar?

People Are Different From Packages

In recent Southwest statements, the airline has said that they must charge more for the usage of more space, just as they do with freight. The difference between people and packages is that people book passage, whereas packages pay by weight or volume. Southwest Airlines is treating people like packages.

People Come In Many Sizes

There are substantial differences in human sizes, shapes, and weights. Airline policy today does not permit children and smaller adults to pay less. Taller individuals do not pay more. Football players are not asked to purchase two seats. Pregnant women and mothers with infants do not pay for two seats. People who are heavier than average are being singled out by Southwest, and other airlines, to bear the extra costs, even though other groups also require more than one seat. The reason for this discrepancy is that heavy people do not fit into socially approved categories. Airlines feel they can get away with discriminating against such people, since there is already a lot of animosity against them.

Americans are getting heavier. Some people may not like that fact, but it is a fact. More than 60% of the population is classified as overweight, according to the National Institutes of Health. If the airlines want to serve the majority of passengers, they should be making their seats more comfortable.

Airlines Are Public Accommodation

Air travel is a public accommodation, licensed to provide services for the public good. As businesses, airlines have an obligation to turn a profit. But as public services, airlines must serve their public by making their seats fit most of the people. If they are not willing to do that, then they must accommodate those who need extra room by providing them with an extra seat or portion of a seat without charge. They already do this for mothers with infants, football players, and people with disabilities. Most airlines now deal with passengers with special needs without charging them double. Few flights are 100% booked, so ticket agents merely block off the seat next to a person who needs more room for whatever reason.

Middle-Size People Will Be Affected Too

We are concerned not only for very large passengers, but for middle size people who may now be forced to buy an extra ticket that they never needed before. Right after Southwest's policy was announced there was a story in the news about a man in California who had been flying Southwest for years with no problem, fitting into one seat. After Southwest's announcement, a ticket agent told him he must buy two seats. This scenario will probably be repeated at Southwest ticket counters all over the country.

This Is False Advertising

Southwest's policy is false advertising. When an airline sells a passenger a ticket, they don't say $200 buys you 18 inches of seating to Orlando. They don't say the fare is for a certain number of inches of space, but for passage from one point to another. They advertise that a coach fare costs so much. Now they are imposing a new limit on the fare and saying that the fare doesn't apply to some passengers. That is false advertising. The airlines must inform passengers beforehand of their conditions for buying passage on their flights. Only then can a customer decide whether or not they want to fly on that particular airline. It is not fair to tell people of this requirement only after they have bought the tickets and are standing at the gate.

Who Will Decide?

Southwest's policy is overly vague, and open to interpretation and abuse. How will they decide who has to buy two seats? Will they have scales or tape measures at the ticket counter? Will they have a model of an airplane seat there and people will have to prove they fit into it? Or will it be left to the ticket agent to estimate a person's weight? What if the ticket agent is having a bad day and starts double-charging people who would fit perfectly well into a single seat?

Two Seats Even On An Empty Flight.

Southwest's new policy is overly strict. If they determine that you need two seats, you have to buy two tickets no matter how empty the flight is. You have to pay double even if you are the only passenger on that flight. They say that you can apply for a refund afterwards if the flight was not full, but they don't say what kind of hoops you will have to jump through to get that refund. They are probably counting on people being embarrassed and not even asking for the refund.

Frequent Flyer Miles Not Awarded For Extra Seats

We have had reports from passengers who bought two seats and then found out that the airlines did not give them the frequent flyer miles for the extra seat they paid for. Frequent flyer miles are supposed to be a bonus and a discount for those who buy many tickets. It should apply to extra seats.

Bad Publicity And Lawsuits

Southwest's new policy will backfire on them. It will create nothing but ill will and bad publicity for the airline, and there will probably be lawsuits. People who are larger than average, and their families, and those who think this is unfair, will be taking their business elsewhere. The Council is prepared to join in and help with any lawsuits arising from this policy.

What The Airlines Should Do

There are several things the airlines could do to remedy the situation. If they took out one seat per row, and took out one row of seats, they could add the extra inches to all the other seats for more width and more legroom. This would help both wider and taller passengers. Yes, it's true, they would have to increase the price of each ticket slightly, but flying would be a much more pleasant experience, and customers would accept the increase. As it is now, the seats are designed for the smallest people, and so the larger passengers are being asked to subsidize the smaller ones.

Airlines could also remedy this situation by installing a minimum number of rows of larger or adaptable seating that could be used by those who are larger than average, people with disabilities, or those with other special needs. Since all passengers, including smaller people, would probably prefer to sit in these wider seats, there would have to be restrictions on who could buy those seats.

What Consumers Can Do

We encourage people to write to the airlines, especially Southwest, and complain about the size of airplane seats and of their new unfair and unworkable policy.

Colleen Barrett, President and COO
Southwest Airlines
2702 Love Field Drive
Dallas, TX 75235
Phone: Customer Service, (not toll free) 214-792-4223

Southwest Airlines does not accept email comments.

What Plus-Size Travelers Can Do

Until the airlines make their seats wide enough for the majority of the population, this is what we recommend for plus-size travelers:

Don't fly. Don't give the airlines your money until they make the seats wider.

If you must fly, go during off-peak hours when the flights are less full.

Check with the airlines as the flight approaches to see if the plane is full. If it is, change your reservation to a different flight.

Travel with a thin companion or a child.

Travel with another large person and share three seats between two people. Most larger people don't need two seats, they just need an extra few inches. Of course, this is not an option on Southwest. They will force each person to buy two seats even if they sit together.

If you fly a lot, use your frequent flyer miles to upgrade to first class.

When you buy your ticket, tell them your situation. Don't be embarrassed or ashamed. Treat it like any other problem, and ask for their help in solving it. On all other airlines besides Southwest, you can ask them not to book the seat next to you.

Sometimes there are family emergencies, or business trips, and you don't have a choice about when you fly. Some people simply cannot afford an extra fare. If you can't fly on off hours, and you can't afford two seats, and they can't or won't leave the seat next to you empty, and you have no choice but to sit next to an average size or another large person, then all you can do is try to make the best of a bad situation. Talk to your neighbor, apologize for taking up some of their space. You already have something in common-you both hate how small the airplane seats are.

There is a lot of hostility towards large people in our culture, but on the other hand, most of us have at least one good friend or loved one who is plus size or larger. Nobody likes to be pressed up against a stranger. So if it comes to that, whether you are the large person or the one next to the large person, it will be better for everyone if you at least acknowledge each other's presence and maybe even get to know one another. Good people come in many different sizes.