NBA Lockout vs. Airline 'Too Fat to Fly' Rules

PHOTO: Southwest Airlines requires oversized passengers to pay for an extra seat on U.S. flights.
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The average height of an NBA player today is 6 feet, seven, inches and the average weight hovers around 222 pounds. Now visualize cramming such a physique into the average coach seat, and you have a real potential for "overflow." which is why airlines invented the "too fat to fly" rules.

Are basketball players affected by these policies? Possibly. But that's the trouble with these "customer of size" policies; they are notoriously difficult to interpret.

But if the NBA lockout continues, it's possible we could be hearing more about these "size" rules and how hoopsters figure into them; after all, not every player has his own private jet.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Traveling in comfort can be a trial for planeless players or for those who are simply frugal (perhaps they make a few bucks less than the reported annual average salary of $5.15 million). Maybe some ball players are just big fans of AirTran. If so, here's hoping the NBA lockout doesn't last through March, because that's when AirTran adopts Southwest's "customer of size" policy.

We all know that Southwest has a fairly stringent "big flyer" policy (and we know this because of film director Kevin Smith's endless tweets about it when he was told he took up too much space for a single seat); the reason AirTran is following Southwest's lead is because it's finalizing integration as part of Southwest's acquisition of the smaller carrier.

The specifics of the policy are somewhat confusing (which may be why Southwest devotes an entire section of its website to it, complete with 22 FAQs). What's confusing is, how do you know if you're too big for a single seat?

According to Southwest, the scale won't tell you, since "a number of overweight or obese people occupy only one seat." You can even use a seatbelt extension and not get dinged for an extra seat. What you cannot do is have any part of your excess weight overflow into your neighbor's seat.

Here's the official criteria from the Southwest website:

"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."

So the armrest is the "definitive" gauge, yet "encroachment" is the big no-no? Hard to figure if passengers like Pau Gasol of the LA Lakers (7', 250 pounds) or LeBron James of the Miami Heat (6'8", also 250 pounds) would have to buy one seat or two. It sounds like just one, since their "overflow" is vertical, not horizontal. But say you're stuck in a middle seat between these two giants; surely you would feel some sort of encroachment in the shoulder area, right?

Guess again: "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," the Southwest website states.

Question: will your broad-shouldered seatmate cooperate with upper body adjustment? They may have trouble moving at all. Imagine Gasol or James in coach seats; the poor guys would have to pass up the free Cokes because I can't see how they'd get their seatback tray tables down. Sure is different from NBA chartered flights with so-called "rock star configurations": news reports say they get 60 inches of space between the back of one seat and the front of another (while mere mortals in coach get about 30 inches of space).

Of course, most players will spring for first class, or hitch a ride on a friend's jet (I've read that Kobe Bryant has a pretty nice one), but you'd be surprised how many big-time celebrities have flown Southwest, including Brad Pitt, Lady Gaga, Venus Williams, Justin Timberlake and more.

For those who are not celebrities, though, the biggest problem is the inconsistent application of the "customer of size" policy. Last April, for example, flyer Kenlie Tiggeman was about to board a Southwest plane in Dallas when she was told she needed to purchase a second seat; yet, on her Southwest flight to Dallas, no one said a thing.

By the way, I am not slamming Southwest; this popular airline flies more people in the U.S. than any other carrier, and the fact that it's the only airline that allows passengers two free checked bags is one of the reasons it's so beloved (though it does seem as if Southwest attracts the most vociferous Twitter users).

Several other carriers also have "too fat to fly" policies including Alaska, American and United, and they have these policies because other passengers are sick of not always getting the entire seat they paid for.

It's a delicate balancing act (Southwest ultimately apologized to flyer Tiggeman), but these policies will not go away, so be prepared.

You have two choices. You can be proactive and buy two seats to avoid a potentially embarrassing scene at the gate, or gamble that you will fit in a single seat. Most, I suspect, will choose the latter, since there isn't much of an incentive to pay in advance for a second, not when airlines like United say they will make every attempt to larger passengers next to empty seats; hey, hope springs eternal.

However, if you lose your gamble and there isn't an extra empty seat on your plane, you could be locked out of your flight altogether, and you don't want that. Just ask the NBA players.

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