AirTran to Adopt Southwest's Too-Fat-to-Fly Rules

Starting this March, AirTran will adopt Southwest‘s “Customer of Size” policy, which essentially requires those who do not properly fit in a single seat to purchase a second one.

But what is a “proper” fit?

Listen as I talk about what’s right and what’s very wrong with fat-flyer rules:

What’s Wrong with Fat Flyer Rules

That is a big problem with these rules – interpreting them is a nightmare for airlines. Another frustration for flyers is that the rules are often inconsistently applied.

For the record, Southwest is extremely popular with the flying public (it moves more people in the U.S. than any other airline) and it is not the only airline with special regulations regarding big flyers. Alaska, American, United and others have similar policies and they have them because other passengers are tired of not getting every square inch of seat that they paid for.

Celebrities who got kicked off planes for being too fat to fly (and other reasons)

However, the rules governing oversized passengers are complicated. Southwest  devotes an entire section of its website to its size policy which includes 22 “frequently asked questions.” Unfortunately, it seems to raise more questions than it answers.

‘Customer of Size’ Defined

Here’s how Southwest defines those who must purchase a second seat:

  • “The armrest is the definitive gauge for a Customer of size. It serves as the boundary between seats, which measure 17 inches in width. Customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who encroach upon any portion of the adjacent seat should proactively book the number of seats needed prior to travel.” -Southwest website

Which celebrities fly Southwest and why?

So which is it: armrest or overflow? And what about non-seat related overflow, such as in the shoulder area?

  • “Simply having broad shoulders would not necessarily prevent another customer from occupying the adjoining seat. The upper body can be adjusted, but the portion of the body in the actual seating and armrest area doesn’t have this flexibility.” -Southwest website

Then there’s the consistency factor: for example, in April, a passenger named Kenlie Tiggeman was boarding a Southwest plane in Dallas when she was told she needed to buy a second seat. However, on her Southwest flight to Dallas, no second seat was required! Ultimately, Southwest apologized to her (though it’s not quite clear why, if airline employees were simply following policy).

The problem with such policies is that they are applied by human beings such as gate agents, flight attendants and human beings who make mistakes (just ask movie director Kevin Smith, who went on a Twitter rant about his “too fat to fly” situation).

Tough Choices for Large Passengers

For larger flyers, there are really only two options:

  • Be pro-active and purchase a second seat to avoid a possibly humiliating scene at the gate
  • Gamble that you will fit in one seat and/or no one will notice you

The trouble with the second option is that if you lose your gamble and are told you must buy a second seat, there may not be one available, and you will miss your flight. If you gamble and win, however, you have just saved yourself some money.

Which would you do? Let us know.


Published: October 27, 2011