Dealing With the Big Seat Squeeze

VIDEO: At 6 feet, 6 inches, Brooks Anderson could not fit into a Spirit Airlines seat.

Tight seating in economy class continues to be a major air travel hassle. It's bad enough under ordinary circumstances, but an oversize seatmate can sometimes make travel unbearable. A reader writes:

"What bothers me as much as the narrow seats in Economy is the invasion of other, more portly people into the space I have a ticket to occupy. I don't think it's fair for people to have their valuable seat space stolen by other flyers who don't fit between the established parameters of their seats. Why don't airlines establish some rules for people?"

The short answer is, "Most airlines do have rules, but most rules are vague and most are poorly enforced." And no rules are designed specifically to protect the real victims: travelers stuck next to or between oversize seatmates.

Current Rules: What They Do Say?

Most U.S. lines say something about oversize travelers, either in the customer service plan or contract of carriage, but commitments vary considerably:

  • Southwest is unique in that it clearly specifies that "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." When travelers buy two seats, and the flight is not full, Southwest refunds the cost of the second seat.
  • Alaska states: "For the safety and comfort of yourself, as well as your fellow travelers, you may be asked to purchase a second seat on your flight if you cannot be accommodated by the seat measurements listed below."
  • American says it "requires passengers to be able to sit in a seat with seatbelt fastened and armrests down." Travelers who don't fit can buy a second seat for the same fare as the original seat when they reserve. At the airport, travelers will be seated next to an empty seat if one is available. If not, travelers have to buy a second seat on an available flight.
  • Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, United, and US Airways are less specific, mainly saying that they can refuse to transport anyone unable to sit in a seat with the seatbelt fastened.

Of course, anyone who has flown recently knows that airlines often ignore even these modest "rules" in their rush to dispatch flights and clear lobbies. They dump the problems onto the flight crew, who may or may not be able to arrange a good solution.

… And What They Don't Say

I couldn't find anything in any line's contract of carriage clearly stating that a passenger with a valid reservation and ticket is entitled to 100 percent of a seat. And if you're stuffed next to a oversize seatmate on even one side, let alone both sides, you may wind up with maybe just 60 percent or 70 percent of the seat you bought.

If a flight crew decides to actually work on the problem rather than just ignore it, the standard solution is to move either you or the oversize traveler to another seat (or seats), depending on what seats are available. That's not a contractual requirement; just common sense. Also, in theory, the crew could move either you or your oversize seatmate up to a roomier cabin, but – as far as I can tell – that doesn't happen very often. And if your flight is full, once it departs, the flight crew can't do anything to fix the problem.

No Improvements in Sight

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