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Larger passengers pay more on Southwest Air

By Chris Woodyard
and Barbara De Lollis, USA TODAY

The airline industry is having a problem with wide bodies.

Not big planes — rather, big passengers.

As many Americans have grown wider around the middle, they are having an increasingly hard time fitting into economy-class seats. Now, airlines are taking action.

Starting Wednesday, Southwest Airlines will begin enforcing a 22-year-old policy requiring that larger passengers be charged extra if they need two seats. And it doesn't matter if the flight isn't full.

A passenger unable to fit in one seat would pay $160 one-way for a Houston-Dallas ticket bought on the day of travel, instead of the usual $91 fare, says Southwest spokeswoman Christine Turneabe-Connelly.

Passengers who buy any kind of advance-purchase ticket will be charged the same fare for the extra seat. Those who buy their tickets on the same day of travel will pay a child's fare for more space. Once their travel is completed, if the flight wasn't full, they can request a refund for the second seat. No matter what they pay, those who buy extra seats won't get extra frequent-flier points.

In the past, gate agents might have let extra-large people slip by. But not now. "We're not allowing our customer service agents to turn a blind eye," Turneabe-Connelly says.

It's no small problem. The government says 61% of Americans weigh too much, and 26% are deemed obese. Yet, coach seats seem made for the svelte set. Southwest's seats measure 17 1/4 inches across.

With so many citizens shopping for plus sizes, the issue presents a prickly problem for airlines concerned about not provoking a backlash from larger folks.

"The airlines are putting the public in the unfortunate position of being the bad guy," says Barbara Brooks of the Strategy Group, a crisis public relations firm. "But the truth of the matter is, they've squished all of us into miserable little seats."

Major airlines such as American and Northwest say they require extra-large passengers to buy an extra seat on full flights. And the policies appear to have held up in court challenges.

But advocacy groups for large people say these policies discriminate against them.

"If a person takes up more than one seat, that's not the problem of the person, that's the problem of the seat," says Miriam Berg, president of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination.

Just ask 6-foot, 2-inch, 350-pound software executive Steve McAllister. He's flown 2 million miles on business, including seven around-the-world trips, and never once been asked to buy a second seat — until he decided to fly Southwest last Thursday from Sacramento to Burbank, Calif.

"The agent looked and me and said, 'You're going to have to purchase a second seat,' " McAllister recalls. Incredulous, he says he asked why. "Safety reasons," she responded.

McAllister says he talked to a supervisor and eventually talked them out of assessing him the price of another ticket, but the incident left him disillusioned and unlikely to fly Southwest again.

"Not if they force me to buy another seat, not if they make a freak show out of it like they did the other day," he says. "This is not too much different than the Nazis."

The laws seem to be on the airlines' side.

Southwest says the courts have ruled in its favor in two cases in the last decade.

Two years ago, a woman weighing more than 300 pounds, Cynthia Luther, claimed discrimination after Southwest asked to her to buy a second seat on a flight from Reno to Burbank. A California state judge dismissed the case, and that ruling was upheld on appeal last year.

"We won. End of story," says Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart.

In a previous case, Pamela Hollowich sued after she was told to buy a second seat in August 1990. The judge ruled in Southwest's favor, and that ruling was upheld on appeal.

The Department of Transportation's rules don't prevent airlines from charging passengers for a second seat if they need one, says Alexander Anolik, a travel attorney in San Francisco.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act includes provisions about obesity, but lets airlines off the hook. While the ADA requires businesses to make "reasonable accommodation," the notion of airlines giving away the second seat isn't considered as reasonable by the government, Anolik says.

Attorney Jim Goodman of the Persons with Disabilities Law Center in Atlanta says there might be a way around that problem since "many times, obesity is symptom and not the disability itself."

He also pointed out that airlines don't require the legally blind to buy a ticket for their guide animals.

But airline experts say the policies are a matter of simple business fairness: People who use more of a product — in this case, airline seats — should be willing to pay for them.

"It's not their fault," says airline industry consultant Mike Boyd.

Some companies are sensitive to the traveling needs of their larger employees. Thom Nulty, president of Navigant, a large travel agency chain, says his company has, on the occasions it was required, upgraded traveling workers to first class so they would have enough seat room.

Airlines say their intention is not to discriminate. They say their hope is that those needing two seats will take action themselves to buy one rather than force the issue at the airport.

Southwest, for its part, says it will bring its policy into play at the airport when a passenger needs to lift the armrests to fit into a seat and requires a seatbelt extension.

Southwest says it began reviewing its policy two years ago after passengers complained.

Southwest frequent flier Jerome Bannister of Nashville applauds the airline's decision.

"If you have someone in the 250 (pound)-plus range, they can start making it uncomfortable" for other fliers, Bannister says.

New boarding passes

The change will take effect the same day that Southwest begins its switch from numbered plastic boarding cards to electronically generated paper boarding passes that show, among other things, whether a passenger has bought a second seat, Turneabe-Connelly says.

Unlike other major airlines, Southwest is the only one that allows open seating, a policy aimed at speeding the boarding process.

While most airlines make seat reservations when people book their trips, allowing them to block out two seats for people who say they are extra-large, Southwest has a strict policy of no reserved seats. It also is an airline known for having a lot of planes that are full. It filled 70% of its seats in May, roughly the same as last year, and about the same as the industry's average for domestic flights.

Yet, all airlines face the same challenge of accommodating oversized passengers. What some are doing:

  • Delta. The airline says big people won't have a problem if they can find an empty seat next to them. If the plane is full, they are asked to buy another seat or are allowed to book on a less crowded flight without penalty, says spokesman John Kennedy.
  • Northwest. Gate agents broach the subject of a passenger's size by asking if they might need a seatbelt extension. Some passengers wedge themselves into the seat fine without one. But if it appears they can't, they are asked to buy another seat.

United. If a passenger needs two seats, then they have to pay for two seats — but they will get double frequent flier miles, says spokesman Chris Braithwaite.



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