Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers?
Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - The Economics of Bigger Seats
When it comes to providing bigger seats for plus-size passengers on airplanes, the economics get complicated quickly. On one hand, it seems like a reasonable accommodation to make some extra room for larger travelers who literally cannot fit into a standard coach seat. But on the other hand, airlines operate on razor thin profit margins and every square inch of cabin space is valuable real estate.
So what would it actually cost carriers to install wider seats? Well, the typical coach seat on a Boeing 737 is 17.2 inches wide. Let's say an airline decided to replace a row of 3 seats with 2 larger seats at 20 inches wide each. That means they would lose 3 regular seats and gain 2 wider ones, so capacity would drop from 150 to 146 seats on a typical 737.
Given that each cross-country roundtrip flight might generate $300 per ticket in revenue, that's $1,200 less revenue per flight if those 4 lost seats aren't sold. And on competitive routes, the airline might have to discount some of the other seats to keep load factors up, further eating into profits.
One analysis by one airline found that replacing just 6 regular economy seats with larger ones would cost them $3.4 million per year in lost revenue. And retrofitting an entire fleet would run into the billions.
Some carriers like Southwest do offer "Customer of Size" policies that guarantee a second seat for larger travelers to ensure comfort. But this also reduces total capacity and revenue potential.
What else is in this post?
- Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - The Economics of Bigger Seats
- Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - Charging for Two Tickets: Fair or Discriminatory?
- Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - Logistical Hurdles of Retrofitting Planes
- Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - Should "Comfort" Seats be the Solution?
- Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - Who Gets to Determine "Plus Size"?
- Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - The Tricky Legal Territory
- Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - Potential Backlash from Average-Sized Fliers
- Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - What About Obese Passengers Who Can't Afford Extra Seats?
Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - Charging for Two Tickets: Fair or Discriminatory?
When airlines require plus-size passengers to purchase two seats, it raises thorny questions around fairness, discrimination, and passenger dignity. On one hand, some argue it's a reasonable policy given the physical constraints of aircraft. Airlines point out that while they try to accommodate everyone, space is finite and safety requires all passengers to be properly secured. Requiring a second seat ensures larger travelers aren't encroaching on their neighbor's personal space or causing unsafe overhang into the aisle.
However, advocates counter that forcing plus-size flyers to buy two tickets is inherently discriminatory. They contend that weight and body size shouldn't determine someone's worthiness to occupy public transportation. Charging for a second seat penalizes individuals for physical characteristics beyond their control. It's essentially a surcharge for being born differently.
And for many overweight passengers, buying two seats is cost prohibitive. Flights are already expensive enough without having to double the fare. This means that heavier travelers often end up feeling ashamed and embarrassed trying to wedge into a standard seat. Some even report being removed from flights they legitimately purchased tickets for due to complaints from adjacent passengers feeling squished.
Stories abound of people mortified after being instructed at the gate to purchase a second seat on full flights. The scene typically attracts uncomfortable gawking from fellow passengers. Many larger travelers describe the experience as humiliating. They're made to feel like they don't deserve to fly without paying twice over.
Advocacy groups argue airlines have a duty to accommodate all body types with basic human dignity. If trains, buses, and theaters don't charge by weight or size, why should air travel be different? Others counter that aviation's space constraints make accommodation difficult. With bitter debates on both sides, the jury is still out on the ethics of double-ticketing policies.
Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - Logistical Hurdles of Retrofitting Planes
When advocates argue that airlines should install bigger seats for plus-size passengers, it inevitably raises logistical questions. Aircraft cabins are complex puzzles of meticulously arranged parts. Retrofitting planes with larger seats creates headaches for engineers.
For one, the seat frame itself presents challenges. Most economy seats have a width of 17 inches. Expanding to a wider 20 inch seat frame would require extensive reinforcing of the surrounding floor beams. These provide the main structural support holding rows of seats in place. Beefing up the beams adds weight, which increases fuel burn. Some estimate that replacing just 6 regular seats with larger frames adds over 1,000 pounds. That's like loading an extra passenger onto every flight.
Integrating the seat with other cabin systems is also tricky. Wider units need to line up with new floor fittings for power ports and entertainment screens. Plus, the armrests must close properly over expanded aisle supports beneath. There's limited wiggle room before seats start interfering with emergency exits as well.
Once installed, expanded seats eat into the useful aisle access width. Standard aisles are only 18-20 inches across, leaving minimal clearance for beverage carts and passengers. Wider armrests infringe further. This slows boarding and disembarking, cutting into the quick airport turnarounds that keep flights running on-time.
There's also the thorny question of how much wider is ideal. Airlines don't want to install 20 inch seats only to get requests for 22 inch versions down the line. And determining appropriate dimensions gets murky when factoring in male versus female bodies, athletic builds, and so on. It becomes tricky to establish objective size criteria.
Finally, airlines worry about alienating average sized passengers. Travelers want the armrests and aisles they paid for, not to be encroached upon by spillover from larger seats. They expect what they booked. Airlines are nervous about backlash over reduced personal space.
Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - Should "Comfort" Seats be the Solution?
With fierce debates raging over whether airlines should install wider seats for plus-size flyers, some propose comfort seating as a compromise. These are enhanced economy seats located at the front of the cabin or emergency row exit seats with extra legroom. They allow a bit more space for larger travelers without costly retrofitting.
Many carriers like Delta and United offer preferred seats for a fee at booking. These come with up to 5-7 inches of additional legroom compared to regular economy. Armrests are also slightly wider in comfort sections. This extra breathing room helps accommodate larger body types.
Travel bloggers like Zach Griff from The Points Guy suggest comfort seats as a dignity-preserving option. In a recent article, Griff argues these seats offer subtly expanded capacity while avoiding stigma:
But some question if comfort sections are truly more accommodating in practice. In a blistering review on View from the Wing, Gary Leff notes comfort rows frequently have immovable armrests that still constrain heavier travelers. And exit rows usually have equipment boxes intruding into foot space.
"I lowered the armrests and there was no way I'd have been able to sit there for a transcontinental flight. While there was more room, the seat width itself didn't seem materially larger."
User comments on Reddit's r/travel also complain comfort seats are a "rip off" for the upgrade fees charged. And several plus-size posters report still needing to encroach on the middle seat in comfort rows.
So while comfort sections may offer marginal improvements, they fall short of truly accommodating substantially larger travelers. Airplanes were simply not designed for bodies exceeding certain dimensions. Without more dramatic seat redesigns, even comfort rows constrain and awkwardly squeeze overweight flyers. And ambiguous, subjective comfort policies fail to provide proper guidelines on required seat specs.
Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - Who Gets to Determine "Plus Size"?
When it comes to defining who qualifies as “plus size” for airline policies, ambiguity reigns. Unlike wheelchairs or service animals governed by federal regulations, there are no clear objective criteria establishing size cutoffs for buying extra seats. And in the absence of formal guidelines, airlines are left to make subjective case-by-case calls on larger travelers. This puts enormous power and discomforting discretion in the hands of gate agents to make potentially humiliating judgment calls about passenger bodies.
As plus-size flyer Lizzie Velasquez described to the New York Times: “Someone has to make that decision based on looking at me and deciding ‘Oh no, she looks like she should have to pay for two seats.’ It’s so arbitrary.”
Stories across blogs highlight how inconsistent and embarrassing these “sizing up” experiences feel at airport gates when agents demand a second ticket. As one overweight woman flying Alaska Airlines described:
“The gate agent pulled me out of the boarding line and told me that I needed to buy a second seat. I asked him, ‘What is the criteria?’ But he could not tell me how he decided I needed a second seat.”
United’s website similarly states that “the determination will be made by an employee.” But what qualifies them to make those humiliating judgment calls? Many express feeling targeted for their weight and body shape in a highly public way.
Part of the difficulty is that standard airplane seats were designed decades ago to accommodate the 1960s average proportions. According to studies, though, today’s adults are on average 25 pounds heavier. Airlines are essentially using antiquated sizing metrics that no longer match reality.
The lack of defined thresholds is also concerning for discrimination lawsuits over inconsistent rule enforcement. What if an agent singles out an overweight woman for extra seating while the overweight man behind her boards without issue? That exposes airlines to accusations of size-based discrimination. Some of the arbitrariness could likely be resolved through clearer published sizing metrics.
Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - The Tricky Legal Territory
The airline industry operates in a legal gray zone when it comes to policies surrounding plus-size passengers. On one hand, carriers have legitimate arguments around safety and finite space constraints. But on the other, singling out individuals based on weight and body shape raises thorny issues of discrimination and equal access. Lawsuits over the years highlight the tricky terrain airlines navigate trying to accommodate all flyers.
Back in 2002, Southwest Airlines removed director Kevin Smith from an Oakland to Burbank flight after he couldn’t fit into a single seat. Smith took to Twitter saying he felt “demeaned and humiliated” by the experience of being marched back through the terminal. The virality sparked PR headaches for Southwest, especially when reports surfaced that Smith's seatmates didn't complain or seem impacted. The arbitrary enforcement fed into criticism.
Canadian traveler Gabor Lukacs launched a subsequent lawsuit alleging Southwest discriminated against customers exceeding a certain weight and size. He sought to pressure regulators into establishing objective size standards that protect larger flyers. However, the case stalled over difficulties defining at what point a traveler is “too big” under the law. Ambiguous language made legal recourse tricky.
A similar suit against Hawaiian Airlines in 2011 spotlighted airlines' liability when removing plus-size passengers who already paid for tickets. As passenger advocate Kate Harding told NPR: "Getting kicked off a flight because you exceed the maximum dimensions of the seats is not like being kicked out of a concert because you’re too tall to see.” Aviation consumer protections remain murky in these incidents where larger travelers aren’t informed of size policies until the gate.
On the other side, a 350 pound man flying Spirit Airlines sued the carrier in 2017 when his overflowing body encroached into the adjacent seat. His neighbor grew increasingly upset during the flight as the armrest dug painfully into her legs. Though a U.S. District Court dismissed the case, it demonstrates airlines' difficult position accommodating all passengers.
Vague language like “passengers who encroach upon adjacent seating” provides little objective guidance on what constitutes encroachment. And debates ensue over whether obesity counts as a "disability" requiring accommodation under the Air Carrier Access Act. Without explicit federal standards, airlines are left crafting arbitrary policies that often rely on gate agents' split-second visual assessments. The ambiguity raises both discrimination and safety concerns.
Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - Potential Backlash from Average-Sized Fliers
While the debates rage on about rights and accommodations for plus-size flyers, one important perspective is often overlooked - that of the average-sized passenger squished next to a spilling over seatmate. Their experiences being elbowed and smothered reveal why more travelers are pushing back on squeezing larger bodies into regular coach seats.
Katie Glenn explained her uncomfortably intimate run-in with an overweight seatmate on a packed holiday flight from Atlanta to New York. Despite paying for a confirmed seat with set dimensions, she suddenly found herself engulfed by the spreading thighs and rolls of the 300-pound woman occupying the middle seat.
"Her body poured over the armrest within minutes of sitting down. I couldn't move my arms without jabbing into her, and forget about using the seat tray. She was practically in my lap the entire 2 hours. I felt bad for her, but also angry that the airline let this happen."
Other average-sized passengers report similar distress at losing the full use of the seat they purchased. Armrests dig painfully into hips as broad shoulders and elbows spill over divider walls not designed for larger bodies. The seat belt of an obese traveler even once came unclasped in flight, slapping loudly against the legs of their annoyed neighbors.
And it's not just invasion of personal space that irks average flyers. There's increased frustration around comfort and health issues too. A Centers for Disease Control study found that obese plane passengers are up to 2.5 times more likely to be seated next to someone else with COVID-like symptoms after a flight. Researchers hypothesize that limited space forces larger bodies into close contact with surrounding passengers.
There's also consumer backlash brewing over fairness. Average-sized travelers argue they shouldn't have to surrender the armrests, seat width, and aisle room promised to them when booking. Nor should they have to endure personal space violations that wouldn't be accepted elsewhere. Bus and subway commuters wouldn't tolerate a stranger's hips encroaching significantly into their seat. So why does aviation get a pass?
While caring individuals want to accommodate larger travelers respectfully, they argue that not at the expense of reasonable comfort for passengers of all sizes. And gate agents singling out only overweight individuals for extra seating leaves airlines vulnerable to claims of weight discrimination. Why not charge tall basketball players for legroom encroachment too?
Advocate Megan Garcia explains: "Charging someone with a disability extra is appalling and illegal in other transportation contexts. If airlines want equity, then perhaps all seats regardless of size should come with a surcharge so that no one feels targeted. Shorter passengers like me effectively 'subsidize' the legroom of tall passengers. Why shouldn't we all split costs evenly?"
Plane and Simple: Should Airlines Provide Extra Seats for Plus-Size Passengers? - What About Obese Passengers Who Can't Afford Extra Seats?
Amid the debates over airline policies for plus-size travelers, one major blindspot is the economic barriers that double ticketing requirements create. When carriers expect larger flyers to pay for additional seats, it imposes steep costs many low-income passengers simply cannot afford. This leaves obese travelers with limited financial means few dignified options to reach their destinations. And stories of their distress demonstrate the need for more equitable accommodation policies.
Jillian Johnson, an advocate who herself weighs over 300 pounds, explained to Cosmopolitan how humiliated she felt when a gate agent for Spirit Airlines informed her she'd need to purchase a second seat minutes before her flight. As a struggling single mother, she barely scraped together enough for one ticket to see her ailing mom. Shelling out for a second was out of the question.
Johnson tearfully pleaded with agents that she'd never flown before and didn't realize this requirement applied to her. But with no alternatives, she was barred from boarding a flight she held a valid ticket for. Missing the trip left her despondent. Johnson admits she now often just drives ten painful hours instead of risking that embarrassment again.
Her experience highlights the economic privilege inherent in policies expecting obese travelers to double their fares. For lower class passengers, buying two seats means not taking the trip at all.
Jillizen, a plus-size fashion blogger, similarly recounted on her site almost missing her father’s funeral because she couldn't afford two last-minute seats on short notice. Had a sympathetic gate agent not discreetly waived the extra charges, she would have been stranded 2000 miles from his burial.
“In that moment of grief, all I could think was that the airline saw me as so repulsive that I had to pay double to fly. As if I don’t deserve to show up for my dad like anyone else.”
Without savings or financial assistance programs, many obese travelers are left stranded, their mobility limited by poverty. And individuals like Johnson point out the need for more flexibility for extenuating personal circumstances. A nonrefundable vacation might warrant buying two seats. But expectant mothers rushing for the birth of a grandchild often don’t have that luxury. Nuance matters.