Kim Carney / MSNBC.com
Sometimes an extra inch or two can make the difference between a passenger seated next to you and one that is filling up not just their seat, but some of yours, the Well-Mannered Traveler writes.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/19/2007 10:37:02 AM ET 2007-04-19T14:37:02

A few weeks ago, the Well-Mannered Traveler column outlined some strategies for dealing politely with “seatmates of size” situations on airplanes.

The response was overwhelming. Thousands of readers voted in our survey. And hundreds of folks weighed in with comments, stories and, given that this is a column about travel manners, a disappointing amount of fat-phobic responses and flat-out bigotry against people who are obese or overweight.

Some people found my suggestions “way off,” “idiotic” or unprintably worse. Others thought I should have strongly urged overweight people to “just stop eating” or to “stay home” if they are unable to fit comfortably into the average airplane coach seats, which are rarely more than 17 inches wide.

For example, Stacy C. of Radford Va. wrote: “…[W]hy don’t you advise the overweight and obese to walk to their destination ... I am all for being well-mannered and treating others with respect but I am tired of all the crying and catering to overweight and obese people ...”

And Phoebe from Los Angeles said, “You have got to be kidding me! If you cannot fit your biscuit into a seat without disturbing others then you should have two choices (1) Do not get on the plane, or (2) buy two tickets! I paid for my seat and, for that matter ... the legroom in front of it as well ... ”

But there were also many readers, large and small, who wrote to say that they were surprised that this sensitive topic was tackled at all. The note from Mary M. of Dallas, Texas said, “Thank you for your thoughtful approach to this story. It could have been a basher and I appreciate that you took the high road and that you encouraged others to do the same!”

And a good many self-described “fat flyers” and potential “seatmates of size” sent along notes describing their unpleasant on-board experiences and offering some of their own seating strategies: Galen D. from Yucaipa, Calif., wrote, “I am a large person, not only due to extra pounds, but large framed, too. When possible, I try to get an aisle seat as I can lean toward the aisle and give the passenger in the middle some breathing space. ... [I]t allows me to get up and away from the seat easily, thereby giving the other passenger some relief.”

And Joanne from Beloit, Wis. shared a sweet story about the romantic upside of having to squeeze in alongside a large seatmate. “My husband and I are both large ... I book seats on smaller planes that have a row of two seats together ... We leave the arm rest up and snuggle until we get wherever we're going. We've been married 40 years, and it works for us!”

Galen, Joanne, Joanne’s husband and many others seem to have found a way to make an uncomfortable flying experience a bit more tolerable. But for those who don’t want to snuggle up with a seatmate, I’ve gathered some additional information to add to the travel toolkit.

Inches matter
Sometimes an extra inch or two can make the difference between a seat that’s comfortable, too snug or just downright too small. Or between a passenger seated next to you and one that is filling up not just their seat, but some of yours. A useful Web site — seatguru.com — offers detailed information about a wide variety of airplane amenities and allows users to search for seat widths by airplane and airline.

Policies matter
Some airlines have clear policies outlining when a passenger of size will be required to purchase two seats, but there doesn’t seem to be a consistent policy amongst the different airlines. To make matters more confusing for all passengers, only a few airlines even mention these policies on their Web sites. And even those airlines may leave the enforcement of the policies to the crew members on duty.

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The airline that addresses this issue most directly is Southwest Airlines, which outlines its “Customers of Size” rules under the policies area of its Travel Tools section.

In addition to a straightforward Questions and Answers section on this topic, Southwest states: “Customers who are unable to lower the armrests (the definitive boundary between seats) and/or who compromise any portion of adjacent seating should proactively book the number of seats needed during initial reservations. This purchase serves as a notification of an unusual seating need and allows us to process a refund of the additional seating cost after travel (provided the flight doesn’t oversell). Most importantly, it ensures that all onboard have access to safe and comfortable seating.”

Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air addresses this issue in its Disabilities and Special needs section. Travelers need to click on: Seatbelt Extensions to see policy information, which includes this statement:

“The seat width on all Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air aircraft (armrest to armrest) is approximately 17 inches ... Some passengers of size may need more room than the seat width allows and must occupy their own seat and a portion of the entire adjoining seat. For the safety and comfort of all customers, the passenger of size will be required to purchase two seats ... ”

And while there is no posted policy about customers of size on the JetBlue Web site, customers who poke around a bit can uncover information about seat dimensions for the airline’s fleet of Airbus A320s (17.8 inches wide) and its EMBRAER 190s (18.2 inches wide).

Other airlines I contacted, including United Airlines, US Airways/America West, Northwest Airlines and American Airlines don’t have published policies on their Web sites, but spokespeople at each airline told me their employees usually deal with passengers of size situations on a case-by-case basis and that their goal is to try to make all passengers comfortable.

For example, although Delta Air Lines does not post “passengers of size” policies on its Web site, spokesman Anthony Black sent along an e-mail outlining options for those seated next to passengers who are encroaching into their seat space. It read:

Delta will offer empty seats to the larger customer, if available. We will do all possible to rearrange seats so a larger customer can have an additional seat at no extra charge. If a smaller passenger seated next to the larger customer speaks to the flight attendant at departure time and the flight is not full, Delta will move either passenger to another available seat(s). If the smaller passenger speaks to the flight attendant and the flight is full:

1. Delta will try to find another flight for the larger customer. Change fees do not apply.

2. The larger customer may purchase an additional seat on the later flight and any continuing return flights to guarantee carriage and comfort.

And American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner’s e-mail said: “ ... We quite-capably handle these situations individually and in person, and we prefer not to have the punitive set-in-stone policy that some other airlines have implemented. If we have open seats on a flight, the simplest thing for us to do is move a passenger who feels that his or her space is being encroached upon. Customers should be sure to, as politely as possible, ask a flight attendant if there is another available seat ... ” He added “ ... [A] 17”-wide seat will safely and comfortably accommodate the vast majority of travelers, including most of those who might be overweight ...”

Let’s hope so. As we know, airlines are scrambling to cut costs and keep ticket prices competitive. So along with meals and laundered pillows and blankets, wider seats are now squeezed off most airlines’ in-flight amenities checklist.

No wonder one Well-Mannered Traveler reader wrote to say that, these days, the only ideal seatmate is Olive Oyl, Popeye’s toothpick-shaped girlfriend.

Harriet Baskas, The Well-Mannered Traveler, also writes about airports and air travel for USATODAY.com and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”

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