July 28, 2010 -- Southwest Airlines recently kicked a skinny woman off a plane to make room for an oversized 14-year-old girl who needed two seats, a move that has prompted at least one expert to call for airlines to start selling a handful of special big seats on flights for bigger Americans.
Normally, we hear about passengers who are too fat to fly -- people so obese that they can't squeeze into their chair and never thought to purchase a second ticket. Remember when Southwest booted Clerk's director and actor Kevin Smith from a flight in February because of his heft?
But this time it was a 5-foot-4, 110-pound Sacramento, Calif.-area woman who was forced from the plane.
"It didn't seem right that I should have to leave to accommodate someone who had only paid for one seat," the anonymous woman told the Sacramento Bee.
The catch here is that the woman was flying standby and paid full fare for the last available seat on the flight from Las Vegas to Sacramento, and the extra-large passenger here happened to be a 14-year-old girl traveling on her own.
Southwest spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said via e-mail that sometimes the airline is "faced with extenuating circumstances and we try to make the best decisions possible." The woman was placed on another flight to Sacramento "within the hour."
"The flight was completely full and after boarding an adult passenger who was not originally booked for this flight, we learned a young customer traveling alone once onboard needed more than one seat to get safely to her final destination," McInnis said. "We requested the adult customer take the next flight to accommodate the young, 14-year old traveler who was being met at her destination."
McInnis acknowledged that the airline should have first sought volunteers and said Southwest apologized to the woman and refunded her one-way airfare.
Southwest Airlines' Obese Passenger Policy
It is normally Southwest's policy that passengers who are too big to fit in a seat buy two tickets in advance and then are refunded for the extra seat if the plane isn't full.
Southwest's coach seats are 17-inches wide, according to SeatGuru.com.
Southwest wouldn't say if the girl had purchased two seats. It also refused to say how many passengers each year are required to purchase two seats.
In fact, none of the airlines that ABC News contacted were willing to share such information about how many passengers are too fat to fit in their seats, and the government only keeps track of total number of passengers on planes, not actual seats sold.
"Our customers are not required to explain the reason for the purchase of a second seat and because of this, we're unable to break down numbers," JetBlue spokeswoman Alison Croyle said in an e-mail. "Anecdotally we see second seat purchases for people bringing instruments, buying a seat for their service animal, couples purchasing and not wanting anyone to sit between them, disability, or personal comfort for customers of size."
George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com, said a ticketed passenger normally has precedence over one flying standby. However, whoever was picking up the 14-year-old girl might have panicked if she wasn't on the flight.
"I think Southwest probably did the right thing here, and I'm pretty sure they'll make it right with the displaced passenger, who clearly has a very legitimate gripe," he said. "I'd probably be hopping mad if it happened to me, although when I fly standby I realize I'm taking my chances."
But not everybody is so forgiving of Southwest.
"This is crazy. The gate agent obviously made a bad judgment call," said John DiScala, a travel blogger known as Johnny Jet. "Did they ever think how embarrassing it is for someone to be taken off the plane? Other passengers might have thought she was a terrorist. The agent should've made the 14-year-old wait for the next plane. After all, she was late."
"The first thing the agent should have done was to seek volunteers and offer monetary compensation or credit to be used on future Southwest flights," he added. "Then it would've been a win-win situation."
Bigger Airplane Seats for Fat Passengers?
Regardless, Hobica said this is symptomatic of a larger problem -- so to speak.
"The solution for obese passengers is for airlines to install at least one row of extra-wide seats in economy class -- in a two-by-two configuration rather than the normal three-by-three -- that would be made available in advance to 'passengers of size,'" he said. "Airlines already sell extra-legroom seats, but while passengers aren't getting much taller year by year, they sure are getting wider."
At least one U.S. airline does just that. Spirit Airlines sells two rows of "Big Front" seats at the front of their plane for anywhere from $25 to $75 extra. While they are only an inch wider, the seats -- set two-by-two -- have large armrests and more room for overflow.
Hobica added that in Canada, airlines can't make passengers pay for two seats if they're extra wide.
"Whether or not we treat obesity as a medical or mental condition, facts are facts ... there are a lot of wide people," Hobica said. Adding extra-wide seat -- sold at a premium -- "protects not just the dignity of the clinically obese or someone who's spent too much time in the gym, but also those passengers who are sometimes forced to share half their seat with them."