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Overweight Airlines Passengers May Feel the Pinch – in Ticket Prices

According to the Star Tribute, “Super-size passengers beware: Airlines have you in their sights”, if you are overweight, your next airline ticket might be twice the price of a skinny person.

Soaring fuel costs are helping send airlines into bankruptcy. But there’s another little-known reason for airlines’ financial problems: soaring sizes of passengers.

Overweight passengers are costing the airlines millions in added fuel costs, according to a report published last fall in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Portly passengers should take notice. Your costs, too, might rise. If you can’t fit between the armrests, you might be buying an extra seat. Southwest Airlines has had the armrest rule for 24 years, but has enforced it only recently. US Airways, Northwest and America West airlines can require overweight passengers to pay for two seats, but very rarely do.

How much does the extra-large passenger pay on Southwest? If the customer is holding an advance purchase, discounted fare, the second seat will be sold at the same discounted fare. If the customer has an unrestricted full fare, the second seat will be sold at a child’s fare.

If an extension on your seatbelt works and you can squeeze into the 17-inch space with the armrests down, you’ll probably be OK. But even if you can’t fit, there’s a chance you’ll get your money back: If the plane isn’t full, Southwest offers a refund for the second seat after the passenger arrives at the destination.

The article sites a poll conducted by Airlines.ws which states that “55 percent of respondents said heavyweights should pay more for airline tickets.” According to the story, Southwest Airlines says that they want to enforce the issue of overweight passengers not just because of fuel costs, even though everything and everyone on the plane plays a role in consuming fuel, but because of the increase in customer complaints about oversized passengers.

Do you think overweight airline travelers should pay more for their seat (and their weight)? Having sat next to people on the airplane who spilled over the seat arm into “my space”, and having been one of those who fought with short airline seat belts, how do you feel about this issue?

12 Comments

  • Posted October 17, 2005 at 14:08 | Permalink

    Being overweight most of my life myself, I’ve struggled with how I feel about this issue since it started making headlines back in 2002. I’ve decided that on one hand, for the most part, most airplain seats are too small even for skinny people — even at my skinniest (at my goal weight), I felt like a sardine. Because the size of Americans is increasing, airlines should buy bigger seats and charge more money.

    In the meantime, I agree that if you can’t fit into your purchased seat, you should have to pay for an additional seat. It is not fair to the person sitting next to you to have to be as uncomfortable or more than you for however long it takes to get where you are going.

  • Concerned passenger
    Posted March 27, 2006 at 20:06 | Permalink

    I think airlines seats have always been too small (of course to maximize profits). But if airlines are going to start penalizing people based on their size or weight, then it should be fairly administered. To be equally fair in charging by weight, ticket fares should be distributed by weight range where lightweights get a really cheap fare and heavier people pay a little more. But if this “Pay by the Pound” strategy becomes the norm….seat sizes should be appropriate to where all passengers can be comfortable since they’re all paying for the ride.

  • mandzoco
    Posted July 18, 2006 at 22:01 | Permalink

    What’s next? Charging folks extra because they are too tall, or too (place your choice here). All airlines should consider the facts, if folks are getting larger and seat size is 17″ wide. A real solution is take out the smaller seats and install seats that are 25.5″ wide. Divide the costs for lost revenue between the new/remaining seats and raise, yes raise prices to cover costs. It’s ridiculous to see fares for $200 round trip to various locations when that doesn’t even pay for the fuel or other operating expenses. Before people start getting ‘snippy’ about folks being this or that let’s look at realistic solutions to the problem.

  • Squished
    Posted July 28, 2006 at 14:36 | Permalink

    Changing the seats in airplanes would be a multi-million dollar expense that would drive a discounter like Southwest out of business. Their seat sizes haven’t changed in years; as folks have mentioned, it’s the passengers who are getting bigger. You’re not buying a trip from Southwest, you’re buying a seat on a given flight. If you don’t fit in it, you’ll have to buy another. Seems straightforward.

    Also, this rarely comes up in the news when the “large” person is just hugely muscled or has an enormous frame; it only comes up with the large person is fat. Obese, usually. Regardless of all the warm-and-fuzzy associations and organizations who want everyone to be okay with being obese, it isn’t okay. It’s unhealthy, to say the least. I’m not saying everyone needs to be an underwear model to be healthy, but there’s a huge difference between being an underwear model and being a 350-pound 5.5-foot person. In the end, obesity is a decision: While it might be incredibly difficult for someone to lose, and keep off, that weight, it can be done. MOST overweight Americans can afford it, through their health plan, even, if a medical procedure is required.

    Regardless, I don’t personally care if someone’s fat. Doesn’t affect me, right? Until, of course, it DOES affect me, as I’m squashed next to them in an airplane as they try to fit their 38-inch selves into a 17-inch seat. I work extraordinarily hard to keep from being obese – I’m not at a perfect weight, but I’m not bad – and it galls me to be impinged on by someone else. It also galls to have people suggest that I help pay for airline remodels to accomodate their oversized selves. I have a better idea: If fat can be so easily accomodated by wider seats, pay for it yourself: Fly first class.

    I have several 6.5-foot plus friends, and in fact airlines DO charge them extra for being tall. They’re so uncomfortable in coach that they either buy “economy plus” tickets for more legroom, buy first class tickets, or select airlines with more legroom. I don’t believe any of them have ever sued an airline over it, though, and since they absolutely cannot control their height, you’d think they’d have a much better argument than someone who could, potentially, control their girth.

  • K. Price
    Posted August 1, 2006 at 20:55 | Permalink

    All this talk about extra fuel consumption has a flaw in it. These are large airliners not Piper Cubs. An overwieght indevidual is not going to have any more of an effect on fuel consumtion as it does on car milage when you have extra passengers(meaning very little).

  • Julie Foster
    Posted August 4, 2006 at 12:58 | Permalink

    Dear all,

    I recently was on a US Airways flight and was unlucky enough to be seated in front of a severely oversized man in coach class (aisle seat). The flight was 3 hours long. Two 2 hours into the flight I reclined my seat by 1/3 the distance of my husband’s reclined seat next to me. The man immediately bellowed and became very obnoxious and angry because the seat hit his knees. My husband defended my honor by telling this overbearing man that I had paid for a seat and should be allowed to recline my seat, and why should I suffer as a result of the man being obese. The oversized man replied that I had put my seat way back, which was a total fabrication. The funny thing is I have never reclined my seat before on an airline flight in my life, and the first time that I do, some overbearing man has a persnickety fit. My husband received no complaints from the oversized man’s “brow-beaten-acting” wife behind him. After attempts at reasoning with the oversized man, my husband then went to find an attendant. However, the male attendant sided with the obese man and said that I should be considerate because of his long legs. That did not sit well with my husband, and an argument ensued. So the head attendant came back and also told me the man’s legs were too long. She merely admonished me as if I were a child and made a snide remark like “Let’s just all get along, we’re starting our descent now.” She also gave an excuse that some of the seats go back too far sometimes. That was not the case. The fact of the matter is that if he had fit into his seat properly, there would have been a problem. He claimed he had long legs, but at the baggage claim, he was actually shorter than my husband, so is 5’11″. To make the situation worse, the two passengers seated on each side of the obese man and his nice wife told me I was rude for not putting my seat back up immediately. I have been on numerous flights and go out of my way to be consider and kind to other passengers and the crew. I have never been involved in nor witnessed such an incident. It was basically a nightmare for me. I suspect that this large man has gotten away with this before because he knows he is large and scary and his victims tend to back down.

    I would like to contact the airlines to make an official complaint. I cannot find any written policy on their web site regarding oversized passengers. For example, do they have a policy requiring oversized passengers to book 2 seats, or be obliged to book a 1st class seat or perhaps sit, e.g., in the emergency exit row where there is more leg room.

    Can anyone give me practical (not a malicious opinion) on this problem?

    Thank you for reading!

    Julie Foster

  • Posted August 4, 2006 at 16:31 | Permalink

    Contact the airline directly. Every airline has their own policies and they might not be published online.

    I recommend that you contact your lawyer and ask them to “gently” contact the airline officials to inquire as to the policies and issues. At most it will cost you the attorney’s fees and gain you two round trip tickets somewhere. At the least, it will cost you the attorney’s fees but you won’t have the hassle of dealing with airline customer service, where, on these types of issues, service shouldn’t be in their names.

    You can start with a letter to their corporate office and await a reply, or get faster action by having a lawyer on the end of the phone. It’s up to you. But don’t expect much. Whiners are everywhere and there can’t be a rule for every whine.

  • Chunky Passenger
    Posted August 9, 2006 at 22:21 | Permalink

    I’m overweight, and knew to purchase or upgrade to business class in order to travel comfortably. I used my United Airline miles to upgrade my coach seats to business class. Upon the return leg of my long overseas trip, I missed a flight and was rerouted. In order to make the new flight, I was told there were no such desirable seats available, and that I would need to be seated in the middle seat. After much debate, I asked again if I might sit in business class, because my original seat had been upgraded to business and was informed that indeed, I could not. Saddened, I walked to my seat, only to find that I had been seated between two gentlemen.

    They let me enter, but I did not quite fit in the space allotted, so I squeezed in. I told the men that I wished I were thinner, but unfortunately that was not the case. I asked a flight attendant if there was a window or aisle seat that I might move to, but was told some minutes later that there was not. I sat cramped and hurting for about two hours, when I got up to go to the bathroom. I looked at my thighs, and could see the imprint of the arm controls on each. The area pressed into the armrests was very reddish.

    I went back to my seat and squeezed back between my two seatmates, and spent the remainder of the 15-hour flight trying to sit very still and squeeze myself together so that my thighs wouldn’t hurt so much. Upon exiting the plane in Incheon, Korea, my legs were hurting badly. I found blisters on each thigh. The area was fire-red and hot to the touch. I have a line of bruises down my right thigh. I know that I am overweight. I am not blaming the airline, because I gained this weight on my own. I believe I was wrongfully denied a business class seat that would have alleviated the pain that still has me taking pain-killers in order to sleep peacefully, and will probably leave me scarred for life.

    [Edited to remove personal information]

  • Overweight business woman
    Posted October 12, 2006 at 20:14 | Permalink

    I can sympathize. I am a successful business woman and just returned from a management meeting. Wow – I had not flown in a while and remember why. The plane I was on did not offer First or Business class. It was full and they did not suggest that I book two tickets. I am in horrible pain the day after the flight and hope that I have not done something permanent. I have learned a great lesson in that I will never go on a plane that does not have First/Business class or additional seats for sale. Not worth the pain over a few $$.

  • Skinny Minnie
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 22:00 | Permalink

    I just finished a nightmare 6 hour flight from JFK to Oakland on JetBlue – with an extra hour on the runway prior to takeoff. I was in the middle seat, my husband at the window. When we boarded, I put down the armrest. As the flight filled, the last passenger to board was a severely obese woman and, yes, hers was the seat next to mine. She looked down, angrily slapped up the armrest (as though I did it on purpose) and proceeded to sit down in her seat and in mine and on me before I moved over. I paid for a whole seat and got 1/2. A suggestion above mention 25 1/2″ seats – this would have in no way solved the problem as this woman was twice that size.

    She was unable to put the tray table down more than 3 inches and I was unable to pull mine out all the way. She was unable to unbuckle her seatbelt extension so I had to do it for her. And she had 3 friends in seats nearby on the flight and none of them offered help! She could not be awakened when I had to use the restroom. When she fell asleep, her arms did not stay on her torso but fell into my lap. She frequently fell asleep with food in her hands and I am not being unkind – I had to take it from her so it did not fall into my lap.

    I was patient and offered her the use of my tray table which she readily accepted, but I should not have had to do this. I put the armrest up between me and my husband, but the design of the seat made it impossible to scoot over. I have filed a complaint with JetBlue, but I am sure it will go nowhere. I should not be forced into this situation and will only fly airlines that make large passengers purchase two seats. Sorry, but if I pay for a whole seat I should get it. I have always considered myself a tolerant Californian, but this was too much to bear. A TV of my own in no way made up for this.

  • Julie
    Posted January 1, 2007 at 22:33 | Permalink

    SHAME, SHAME, SHAME…Being a previous Southwest Airline employee I have been very ashamed of their choices since 2002. Their excuse was that 9 out of 10 of their complaints had to do with customers of size. Bull…I am now close to 300lbs and can fit in one seat without hanging over into someone elses seat. Now I may take up every single inch of that seat but they are small. Newer planes are even making seats slightly larger. I would have been proud as punch if they took the high road and made it as easy as a phone call and a note in the reservation that two seats are set aside. Continue to earn that reputation of POS positively outrageous service. Most of the so called complaints were probably related to size descrimination. Just because you are disgusted about people that are overweight that is your short coming. Any airline in America would not be allowed to make a person of a different color, religion, or odvious Iraqee decent buy two seats for the safety and comfort of other passengers. Any descrimination is a cancer that grows. Case in point to travel on Southwest Airlines company business down to headquarters but of course still had to do standby and was the very last to get on the plane. I had to take the last seat available next to a very nicely dressed businessman. As I sat down I could here him sigh and then as we took off he pressed himself up against the window and under his breath said “fat pig”. I spent the rest of the flight with tears in my eyes but never said a word because if I were to draw attention to myself as an employee I could have lost my job. During my time with Southwest I probably flew in over 200 planes and was around 250lbs so had no problem in just taking up one seat because I am very tall and wear my weight well. There were many instances where other passengers have presented sighs and body language of disgust except thankfully without a comment under their breath. I THINK THE REAL PROBLEM IS SEATS THAT ARE TOO SMALL, AIRLINES THAT NEED TO REMEMBER WHETHER FAT OR THIN THE CUSTOMERS KEEP THEM IN BUSINESS, AND A FEW MINORITIES OF PEOPLE THAT STILL DON’T REALIZE THAT WE COME IN ALL SHAPES, SIZES AND COLORS. complaints would not make a person of a different color or “religious pr

  • Melissa
    Posted January 6, 2007 at 17:00 | Permalink

    I’ve never had problems with airlines or adjacent passengers until my LAST flight 2-3 years ago. When I checked I requested a seatbelt extender. I was told that I would need to board early, sit in a chair and let them determine if I was too overweight and therefore needed to purchase two seats. When I sat down I was told that my body touched the armrests, that I didn’t fit into the seat, and I had to purchase the extra seat. I was humiliated and angry. Once the other passengers were on the plane, I was still speaking with the airline employees about it. It seemed that almost everybody on the flight was touching the armrests/and or adjacent passenger in some manner. This statement was dismissed by the employee so I said that I would go down the aisle and see who was touching other people. I was then told that I could not speak to the other passengers or even get out of my seat. Even though I said that I had no intention of speaking to them, I was again told not to speak to anyone and was threatened with being tossed off the airplane. I did feel very threatened. There ended up being an extra seat beside me, at the front of the airplane where I was placed. The passengers sitting opposite me had seen the airline employees speaking to me and wanted to know what was wrong. They were very nice to me but I just shook my head. I then noticed that these women’s arms touched each other over the armrest.