Image: Seatmates of size
Kim Carney / msnbc.com
If you can't fit into your airline seat and lower the armrests, will you have to purchase a second seat? Will your airline help accomodate you or your seatmate? It pays to know, writes Well-Mannered Traveler columnist Harriet Baskas.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/23/2009 10:21:28 AM ET 2009-04-23T14:21:28

No matter your weight or width, the next time you fly make sure you know your airline’s policy on “seatmates of size.” Better yet, print it out and carry it with you. It could help you avoid a pain in the butt and save you some bucks.

Last week, United Airlines took heat for its new “Passengers requiring extra space” policy, which went into effect April 15. The policy covers passengers who can’t fit into a single seat in their ticketed cabin; need more than one extender in order to buckle their seatbelt and; are unable to put the seat’s armrest down when they are seated.

The airline's official policy, posted on its Web site, reads: “If unused seats are available on the ticketed United or United Express flight, then a customer meeting any of the above criteria will be re-accommodated next to an empty seat” for no extra charge.

If there are no unused seats, United spokesperson Robin Urbanksi said airline staff will try to accommodate a passenger who needs extra space on a later flight, also at no extra charge, but because many customers take advantage of stand-by travel, “we will not know if the next flight has any extra seats until departure.” “To guarantee that an extra seat is available, we recommend that a second seat be purchased,” she added.

“The original announcement sounded very cut and dry,” says Peggy Howell of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), “but they seem to be taking a kinder, gentler stance. Saying they will exhaust all possibilities to accommodate their passengers of size is a far cry from the first announcement.”

Regardless, NAAFA has formally come out against United’s new policy and has posted a link to a NAAFA-members petition.

Not just United
United Airlines is not the first airline to formalize a policy regarding large passengers.

Southwest Airlines’ “Customers of Size” policy has been in effect for some time and the airline was the first to set the armrest as the definitive boundary between seats.

Under Southwest’s policy, passengers who can’t lower both armrests “and/or who compromise any portion of adjacent seating” are asked to buy an extra seat. However, if the flight isn’t full, the airline will refund the cost of the extra ticket.

Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air's policy lives in the “Seating” information section on its Web site. The rules state that customers who cannot “comfortably fit within one seat with the armrests in a down position” will be required to purchase a second seat. Refunds are available if all flight segments between the passenger’s origin and destination had empty seats available anyway.

Continental Airlines is more stringent. A passenger with an economy seat who does not “safely and comfortably” fit in a single seat is required to purchase an additional seat for each leg of their itinerary or purchase a ticket for an upgraded cabin. Tickets not purchased before the day of travel are charged hefty day-of-travel rate. And, even if the originally scheduled flight ends up leaving the gate with empty seats, Continental will not refund the cost of the extra ticket.

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What about other U.S. airlines?

While Southwest, Alaska, Continental and United post policies outlining when and if a passenger of size will be required to purchase two seats, other airlines either make passengers hunt for their rules or don’t post policies at all.

Hard-to-find policies
American Airlines does not post its seatmates of size policy on its Web site. Spokesperson Andrea Huguely says the airline does not require large customers to purchase two seats but advises passengers whose weight exceeds 250 pounds that “there are possible airport limitations” that might result in the airline not being able to accommodate that passenger. “Our policy is: If a passenger advises they may not be able to sit in one seat, we advise they may need to purchase additional seats ... If a flight is not full, our flight attendants may be able to change passenger seat assignments in order to more comfortably accommodate all passengers.”

JetBlue Airways has no formal policy for plus-sized passengers but, according to the airline’s Alison Croyle, the airline “addresses the needs of our customers on a case-by-case basis.” She also points out that the airline’s two aircraft types offer seat widths at least an inch wider than the 17-inch seat width that’s standard on most of its competitors.

On Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, spokesperson Betsy Talton says although the policy is not posted online, the airlines will work to accommodate a large passenger. “Upon request and based on availability, we can assign them a seat next to one that is unoccupied.” However, she adds that if the plane is full “we can offer the passenger the option of purchasing an additional seat on the next flight.”

On Virgin America’s Web site, a traveler must poke around in the “Help” section under “Special Needs” in order to find the spot where extra space needs are addressed: “We ask that our larger guests purchase two seats. In the event that the flight departs with an empty seat, we are happy to refund the cost for the extra seat to that guest upon request.”

At Midwest Airlines, “[I]f a customer must lift the armrest in order to sit in the aircraft seat and occupies a portion of or the entire adjoining seat, the customer must purchase the additional seat ... As long as the flight does not oversell (denied boarding of confirmed, revenue passengers), the company will refund the additional seat purchase after travel has been completed.”  To find out more, click here or insert the phrase “Passenger Comfort Policy” into the Search box on the airline’s Web site.

Spirit Airlines does not post any policy for its large-sized customers, but an e-mail from spokesperson Misty Pinson said, “customers who require an additional seat for their own comfort are required to purchase an additional seat.” She did not elaborate.

US Airways/America West has a policy, but spokesperson Michelle Mohr says it’s not posted on the airline Web Site. “We handle the issue at the reservation or call center level, or at the airport. If we can accommodate the passenger with an extra seat, we will. The last straw is charging for an extra seat.”

The approach is similar over at AirTran Airways. There is no policy posted on the airline Web site, but spokesperson Christopher White says the airline’s attitude is: “We’ll work something out. We’ll either move that plus-sized passenger or move the passenger seated next to them to accommodate them. We’re not going to have a hard-and-fast rule.”

Bottom line: Inches and policies matter
For her part, NAAFA’s Peggy Howell says, “I certainly understand the need for all businesses to improve their bottom line during these difficult times, but airlines need to get more creative in coming up with solutions.”

Howell says larger seats for everyone would be ideal, but in the meantime she prefers to know upfront where an airline stands on the subject “rather than be unpleasantly surprised when I’m standing in line waiting to board the plane.”

That seems fair. A clearly outlined and posted airline policy regarding passengers of size can make it easier for Well-Mannered passengers who need extra space to decide which airline to fly. And having that policy printed out might help if a passenger needs a little ammunition to get a gate agent or flight crew member to find that extra seat for a large passenger. Even if it means the plane leaves the gate a few minute late.

Likewise, a well-mannered traveler who fits in his or her seat but has a seatmate who doesn’t might be able to use an airline’s policy to reclaim ownership of the entire seat.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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