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'Seatmates of size' should check ahead before flying, experts say

With the holiday travel season ahead, large passengers need to carefully check airline policies before embarking in order to avoid unwelcome surprises at the gate or on the plane.

There is no overarching federal regulation guiding airlines regarding obese passengers who have difficulty fitting into a single seat, making for a hodgepodge of approaches, says Airfarewatchdog founder and consumer travel advocate George Hobica. That’s troubling, he said, because there is no question obesity is an increasing problem in this country.

That means some airlines require larger passengers to purchase two seats in advance if armrests cannot be lowered because of their size. Some airlines will attempt to find a second, extra open seat if available – at no extra cost – for the larger passenger to use; other airlines may ask to move the passenger to another flight where there are open seats. Others may ask a larger passenger at the airport to buy another ticket at the lowest available price at the time. But if a seat isn't available, the passenger might not be able to fly.

“You would think with this growing problem – no pun intended – with the Department of Transportation’s penchant for regulations, they would somehow come up with some industry-side standards,” Hobica said. “People are getting bigger and bigger and seats aren't getting any wider.”

Hobica’s group recently rounded up the policies of the major airlines and put it in a chart for consumers. They were surprised by the extreme lack of uniformity, he said: “DOT should have some kind of standardized approach to protect not just those who are obese, but those who get spilled over on.”

Beyond the ability to fit into a seat and the issue of comfort, there is money at stake, he says. Some airlines that ask larger passengers to purchase a second seat if they cannot fit in a single seat will refund the cost if it turns out there are open seats on the flight and the passenger can be accommodated. Other airlines have no such policy.

The issue of accommodating larger passengers has led to some recent high-profile publicity and lawsuits. A New Orleans woman, Kenlie Tiggeman, sued Southwest after she claims she was told when boarding a Southwest Airlines flight in 2011 that she was "too fat to fly."

Southwest's "Customer of Size" policy states that passengers who cannot fit between the 17-inch armrests must purchase a second seat.

In her lawsuit, which was dismissed in October for a technical reason (but can be reopened), Tiggeman said that she should have been told at the point of purchase that she needed to buy two seats.

In another case that garnered widespread media coverage, in February 2010, movie director Kevin Smith was asked to get off a Southwest flight because he allegedly couldn't fit properly into his seat.

James Zervios, director of communications for the Tampa, Fla.-based Obesity Action Coalition -- a national advocacy organization with 40,000 members -- strongly urged larger-sized fliers to read up on their chosen airline’s policies, then print it out and bring it with them while traveling, with the relevant sections highlighted.

“This is an issue that comes up quite often,” he said. “There is so much difference from airline to airline regarding purchasing an extra seat, for instance. If you’re going to be traveling by air, definitely contact your airline ahead of time, and ask them to show you their policy on their website. Ask them to explain it if the information is not too clear. For instance, if you are required to purchase an extra seat, will you be asked to give up (the) seat so a standby passenger can fly? If (it's) not a full flight and you have purchased an extra seat, can you ask to have it refunded?”

It’s an especially important time of year to be prepared, Zervios added: “It’s like anything else -- around the holiday season things get a little tense. So have the policy in hand and make sure you’re an informed flier.”