United Airlines is requiring extremely obese passengers who can't fit in their seats to pay for a second seat when there is no other way to accommodate their girth.
United said Wednesday that it will charge obese, coach-class passengers for a second coach seat or for upgrading to a larger seat in business or first class, if necessary. The policy applies to United and United Express flights. United published its new policy on its website under "Passengers requiring extra space."
"We had 700 complaints about this last year," said Robin Urbanski, a United UAUA spokeswoman. "Now our employees have a formal policy they can refer to."
Federal safety regulations require all airline passengers use a seat belt. Passengers using a seat belt extension cannot sit in an emergency exit row.
United's new policy comes into play when a heavy passenger cannot lower the armrests, close the seat belt even with a seat belt extender and seats next to that passenger are full.
In that case, Urbanski said, flight attendants will first see whether there are two empty seats together in the same cabin on that flight. If not, the gate agent will talk privately with the passenger. United will offer a second seat on a less-crowded, later flight at the same price paid for the original seat and waive the fee for changing flights.
Passengers who refuse to comply will not be allowed to fly.
Urbanski said United is one of the last large carriers to develop a formal policy for heavy passengers. Continental Airlines said it has the same policy. But some airlines handle the situation differently. American Airlines uses a case-by-case approach. If a flight is full, Delta Air Lines offers a heavy passenger the option of buying a second seat on the next available flight at the lowest fare available, which may not be as cheap as the passenger paid for the first seat.
Southwest Airlines came under fire in 2002 by enforcing a policy of charging obese passengers for two tickets if they take up more space than the seat they paid for, but the policy stands.