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
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
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
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
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
Airlines Are Public
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
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
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
2702 Love Field Drive
Dallas, TX 75235
Phone: Customer Service, (not toll
Southwest Airlines does not accept
What Plus-Size Travelers
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
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.