'Silent Bob' ignites the debate about airline passenger size

Consumuing Interests

February 21, 2010|By Eileen Ambrose | eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

When movie director Kevin Smith, also known as the "Silent Bob" character in several of his films, was booted from a Southwest Airlines flight last week, the public discourse over passenger rights was inflamed.

"Truthfully, how many of us would want to be in the window seat with Kevin Smith next to us in the aisle seat?" asked Doug, one many who commented on The Baltimore Sun's Consuming Interests blog.

Countered Charlie: "It is the responsibility of corporations to serve all the people. Even those who don't meet your standards for beauty and flexibility."

Silent Bob (from the "Clerks" movies) also broke his silence, taking his battle of the bulge public on Twitter. Smith wrote: "Dear Other Airlines ... I'm in the market for a flight east this Thursday. Which one of you like fat people?"

In its defense, Southwest says it has required "customers of size" to buy two seats for decades, adding that other airlines have such policies, too.

Indeed, many do. But like those of us trying to hide a bulging belly in swimsuit season, the airlines don't exactly advertise them.

"You would be hard-pressed to find it on their Web site," says Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, which unearthed size policies at other airlines by searching online for terms such as "armrests," "oversize" and "seat belt extender."

Under the policies, it's not your weight that matters, but one or more of these factors: You can't fit in a single seat; can't lower the armrests or fasten a seat belt — even with an extender; or you intrude on another's seat.

Airlines developed the policies years ago because of safety, travel experts say. Passengers crammed into seats — and those around them — can't exit a row quickly in an emergency.

Yet passenger size has become more of an issue in recent years.

Before the recession, airlines posted profits with planes at 70 percent capacity because there were plenty of business travelers buying tickets at higher prices, Seaney says. Airlines had no problem then accommodating passengers needing an extra seat.

Now, space is scarcer, with airlines flying as many passengers as possible to make up for higher fuel prices and fewer business travelers, Seaney says.

But that's not the only reason that we now hear more about passenger size.

"Americans are getting bigger," says Christopher Elliott, National Geographic Traveler's reader advocate. We can't blame the seats, either. "The seat width has been pretty consistent," Elliott says.

Airlines also are hearing more complaints from passengers who don't want a seatmate invading their space.

If you're concerned how this might affect you, check whether your airline has restrictions that would require you to buy a second seat. You will have to call the reservation center to book side-by-side seats, and many airlines charge a $15 to $25 fee for this.

With the help of FareCompare, here's a rundown of policies from major airlines:

Southwest, the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, encourages passengers to buy a second seat — for the same price — if they won't be able to lower both armrests or will encroach on a neighbor's seat. If the flight has empty seats, Southwest will refund the price of the second ticket.

Continental, United, Air France, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air have similar policies to Southwest.

US Airways, with many flights out of Reagan National Airport, says if an empty seat isn't available, the passenger can take a later flight that's less full and won't be charged for the spare seat. Or, the passenger can buy a second seat on a full flight, and the airline would compensate a passenger willing to give up a seat and fly later.

AirTran Airways, another major player at BWI, says it doesn't have a size policy and accommodates all.

Delta can remove passengers or refuse to transport them if they can't sit with their seat belt fastened.

Lufthansa handles size on a case-by-case basis.

Seaney, for one, wants the Federal Aviation Administration to establish a standard policy for all airlines, perhaps requiring airlines to keep an empty seat on each flight to accommodate passengers needing more room.

"It's odd. The FAA has a policy on how much room you have to give a pet in a kennel," Seaney says. "But they don't tell the airlines how much leg room, how much seat room or weight they have to give" passengers.

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