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The skinny on United’s ‘seatmates of size’

United's policy on its Web site said one thing. Its spokesperson said another. A day into the airline's new policy dealing with overweight passengers, Well-Mannered Traveler Harriet Baskas delivers the skinny.

United Airlines on Wednesday joined Southwest Airlines and others formalizing and putting into effect a policy for how it deals with “seatmates of size.”

Notice about , which can be found in the “Customers with Special Needs” subsection of the airline’s Web site, was quietly posted about six weeks ago. No press release was issued and no e-mail notice was sent to the airline’s frequent fliers. The policy applies to tickets purchased on or after March 4, 2009, for travel on or after April 15, 2009 and specifically concerns passengers who “are unable to fit into a single seat in the ticketed cabin; are unable to properly buckle the seatbelt using a single seatbelt extender; and/or are unable to put the seat's armrests down when seated.”

If you looked on the United Web site over the past few weeks and throughout the business day yesterday (April 15th), the policy was presented as:

“Any customer ticketed on a United or United Express flight and meeting one or more of these criteria must either purchase a ticket for an additional seat, or purchase an upgrade to a cabin with seats that address the above-listed scenarios. The seat purchase or upgrade must be completed for each leg of the itinerary. If a customer meeting any of the above-listed criteria decides not to upgrade or purchase a ticket for an additional seat, he or she will not be permitted to board the flight.”

(Note: Underlines added for emphasis, and did not appear on United's Web site.)

The “Passengers requiring extra space” (PRES) policy went on to say: “If purchasing on the day of departure and an additional seat or upgraded seat is not available on the ticketed flight, then the customer will be required to rebook on the next United flight that has adequate seating available.”

My interpretation of the policy was that if someone didn’t fit into their assigned seat, they would no longer be permitted to commandeer part of their neighbor’s seat, as was the airline’s previous, informal default policy.

And, using the criteria and wording initially posted on its Web site, United’s new policy appeared to be: if you need more room, you have to pay for it.

Making overweight passengers pay for extra space would please about 80 percent of the nearly 18,000 people who took's informal poll asking if plus-sized passengers should have to pay for a second seat.

But in several back-and-forth e-mails, United Airlines spokesperson Robin Urbanksi told me that the airline’s policy is actually to have the flight crew first try to accommodate passengers in need of extra space, for no charge, next to available empty seats on their original scheduled flight. Urbanski said requiring a passenger to buy a second seat or to get bumped to a later flight where they have to purchase a second seat would only occur “after all other solutions are exhausted.”

I’ve been on plenty of United flights where flight crews and gate agents did indeed work hard to accommodate travelers with a wide variety of special needs.

I was concerned, however, because it seemed likely that United's new policy could, and would, formally trump the “after all other solutions were exhausted” policy.

“Not so,” said Urbanksi, in more strongly-worded e-mails later in the day. She said the “after-all-other-solutions-are-exhausted” policy is absolutely still in place.

Lo and behold, when I went back to re-read the policy on the United Airlines Web site at the end of the day, the policy's wording was modified.

“That was the policy all along,” Urbanski insisted in an evening phone call. However, she said, mostly because I was making such a fuss here online, some sentences in the policy were re-ordered. Some important clarifying wording was also added, such as:

  • 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.
  • If no unused seats are available on the ticketed flight, then the customer must either purchase an upgrade to a cabin with available seats that address the above-listed scenarios, or change his or her ticket to the next available flight and purchase a second seat in addition to the one already purchased. If a customer meeting any of the above-listed criteria cannot be accommodated next to an empty seat and chooses not to upgrade or change flights and purchase a ticket for an additional seat, he or she will not be permitted to board the flight.

Call me dense, but I think that’s a significant change.

And, while I doubt the new wording was put in there just because I was making a fuss, I feel United Airline’s new PRES policy is much clearer and easier for everyone to understand.

In its new form, the posted policy better reflects the “after-all-other-solutions-are-exhausted” approach Urbanski insists will remain the flight crew’s first response to situations where a passenger does not fit in a seat or when a traveler is uncomfortable because a neighbor is invading his or her space.

That’s progress — on “paper.”

Now Well-Mannered Travelers of all sizes will have to wait and see how United Airline’s new policy plays out on the ground and in the air.

Until things shake out, I still recommend printing out the posted policy and tucking a copy into your carry-on. Just in case things change — again.

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for