Welcome | SIGN OUT
Find a Flight
  1. Click to reset this suggestion
    Click to reset this suggestion
    Click to view the calendar
    Click to view the calendar
0 sites selected
Please select at least 3 sites above to compare

If you search more sites, you might find better deals

Ok, I will pick moreNo thanks

Airline “Fat Police” and Why the “Size” Policies Don’t Work

February 15, 2010 | Posted in: Airline News,Ask Rick,Passengers

airline fat police size policies

The late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once made a famous allusion to hard-core pornography, noting it was “hard to define” but, “I know it when I see it.”

I suppose that may have been true in his day (the statement was made in reference to a 1964 case) but standards evolve and measurements change, and so it has been with the fat flier.

So now we have a famous movie director vs. Southwest – and despite the airline’s apologies, Kevin Smith is still steamed. Without getting too involved in who’s right/who’s wrong, it seems clear the situation could have been handled better.

And yet – as long as we have human beings acting as the Fat Police coupled with packed planes, there will be more confusion, embarrassment and stories like the one this weekend.

These policies are way to subjective: sure, everyone from flight attendants to captains to gate agents may say they know what “too-fat-to-fly” is when they see it – but everyone’s idea may be more than a slight bit different.

It’s like carryon bags: all of us have seen the cheaters – those who get away with bringing a clearly oversized bag (or three) on board – and yet, others get stopped. Now, nobody wants to be the Baggage Police (and I don’t blame them) – so who on earth would want to be in charge of quantifying who is and is not “too fat to fly”? Face it, some sizeable passengers are genuinely puzzled when they are allowed to fly an airline one week only to be ordered to buy a second seat the next.

And many airline policies reflect this confusion. Keep reading to see what your favorite airline’s rules are, for “customers of size”.

How do you know if you need an extra seat? Many airlines have standards similar to American Airlines’ which says “customers…may require more than one seat because they are:”

  • Unable to fit into a single seat in their ticketed cabin and/or
  • Unable to properly buckle their seatbelt using a single seatbelt extender (available upon request from a flight attendant) and/or
  • Unable to lower both armrests without encroaching upon the adjacent seating space or another customer.

Got that?

Now, click on the airline name for full details on its large passenger policy. Note that not all airlines seem to have such a policy (or none that we could find, we used airline website site specific google queries like seat belt extender, armrests, overweight, oversize, etc to try to find them), and those that do, are not always crystal clear.

Further: if “required” to buy two seats side-by-side, you will have to call the airline’s reservation center instead of booking online, and many airlines charge up to a $25 fee for that.

Not to mention the policy encourage those that need/want two seats to roll the dice at the gate — which is more enticing paying $350 roundtrip and taking your chances at the time of boarding, or paying $700 roundtrip and possibly getting a refund in 3 credit card billing cycles?

AirTran: We could not find specific information on policies for large passenger on this site

Alaska/Horizon: You are expected to purchase two seats, but if there are empty seats on your flight, you can receive a refund.

American Airlines: You are to be proactive and make a reservation for two seats (each seat will cost the same). If you don’t book two seats and there’s space, you will be seated next to an empty seat at no extra charge. If there are no empty seats, you will have to book two seats on the next flight.

Continental: You must purchase a second seat; if you wait to the day of your flight, you could pay a stiff price for that second seat. No mention of being seated next to empty seats.

Delta: We could find no specific policy on Delta’s site, but in its “Contract of Carriage” it states that the carrier may refuse transport “When the passenger is unable to sit in a seat with the seatbelt fastened”.

JetBlue: We could find no specific policy on JetBlue’s site

Southwest: It’s the customer’s responsibility to buy a second seat (at the same price as the first); if the flight does not sell out, the customer can get a refund for the second seat

United: If there are empty seats, the customer will be seated next to one; if not, the customer must purchase another seat on the next available flight; no mention of discounts or refunds

US Airways: We could find no specific policy on this site

Air France: The carrier recommends purchasing a second seat, which will be sold at a discount, and refunded if there are seats available on the flight.

British Airways: We could find no specific policy on the site, but a UK publication reports that “British Airways has no weight limits for passengers, but advises overweight people to buy a second seat for their own comfort and safety if necessary”

Lufthansa: No formal policy; when cases arise, they are dealt with individually

10 Responses to “Airline “Fat Police” and Why the “Size” Policies Don’t Work”

  1. Jon Krakower says:

    Hey Rick, love the article. I am an overweight person who has had luck in flying lately. I have never been asked to de-board or to purchase a second ticket. I do find it interesting though that people will go to great lengths to complain about the obese person sitting next to them. Let’s take a look for a second at the toddler sitting next to you crying, or the person getting sick in the air, or the kid in back of you kicking your seat or the person sitting next to you yakking your ear off, the list goes on and on. These people are having an uncomfortable flight and all they need to do is ask to be moved to another seat, just like the thin mint sitting next to cream puff. If you are in any one of the aforementioned scenarios and there are no other seats then you would be stuck with that annoyance, the same if you are sitting next to the fat guy. I ask you Rick, if you were to have the choice of sitting next to an obese person or sitting next to the guy who decided not to shower this month, which would you choose?

  2. Rick Seaney says:


    I am no shrinking-violet in size myself, so – as long as the arm rests go down, I’ll take the sweet-smelling “passenger of size” – and hopefully for both of us, it won’t be a long flight.

    Safe Travels,

  3. Barb Byro says:

    Why the arrogant businessman should have sat with the “big, fat gals”.

    Some years ago, my best friend and I decided to treat ourselves to the luxury of flying from NYC to Orlando to take our children on their annual holiday at Walt Disney World. We have 5 children between us (my 3 and my friend’s twins) and we normally piled both families into our station wagon and made the drive into a fun part of the experience. But that year, our husbands had to work, so we decided to fly and they would meet us at the end of the week for just the final long weekend and fly home with us.

    So being brutally aware of what our 5 normally well behaved kids could be like collectively, we made careful plans to manage them on the flight. We booked far in advance, drew up seating plans with all the strategy of a military operation, and set up a project plan of activities to keep them occupied and distracted for the entire flight. We carefully packed each child’s personal little wheely carry-on with books, crayons, paper, playing cards, toys, etc. We knew my oldest, a teenager, was fine on her own with just her Walkman and a book. We would seat my older son and one of my friend’s twins (both 8 years old) next to her; they took violin lessons together and could spend the flight talking about their duets, etc.

    The critical threat was from my youngest son who was 4 and my friend’s other daughter. They were both very bright, incredibly verbal, easily bored, and past masters of mischief. As the plane was supposedly an off-peak, undersold flight, we decided to reserve a window seat and aisle seat for each Mother & child pair to enable maximum damage control. We were determined that our fellow air passengers would enjoy their flight undisturbed my our small terrors.

    We boarded early, seated as planned and prepared for a well managed flight. We had lucked out and the only 2 empty seats in economy were in my aisle set of 3 and my friend’s. However, just before they closed the doors, a last minute passenger boarded with a reservation for the seat between myself and my son. He was loudly grumbling about space. I offered to move to the middle seat but he declined. The stewardess offered him a middle aisle seat but he declined. My friend and I offered to put our children together in her set of seats and we’d lit with him offering him a flight with adults rather than my squirming disruptive 4 year old.

    The man loudly insulted us saying, “I’m not sitting with “those big, fat women”. Well, we were big girls but nothing alarming and we were offended. So I told him, fine, we’d put the 2 children in the window and aisle seats and he’d have lots of space. He was happy with that but insisted that the kids’ wheely bags (backpack things) go in the overhead bin. The stewardess was smirking and winking at us by that point. We belted the kids in and walked back to our set of seats.

    The man got what he deserved. While the kids were quiet enough not to disturb the other passengers, they drove their seat-mate up the wall. They talked across him the entire 3 hours, non-stop. They wriggled and twitched, and bounced. They speculated morbidly on the chance of lightning striking the plane and it crashing. They discussed what the dead bodies would look like and acted out the scenario. They recited their favorite Dr Seuss books – over, and over, and over. They took frequent trips to the toilets. They discussed using toilets in flight. They speculated on whether the stuff dropped down on the houses below. They had a wonderful, hilarious time. The man didn’t.

    Periodically the Stewardesses would stop by and update us on the man’s slow torture. We loved it. We relaxed back, had a drink, and snoozed.

    Three hours later, we reclaimed our children and couldn’t help smirking at the man – you should have sat with the fat girls.

  4. Rick Seaney says:


    I loved that story! And my editor wants to add something: “Let me know when you’re flying again – I want to sit with you guys!”

    Thanks for the day brightener,

  5. Kristen says:


    I must say thank you for this article. I am a plus size woman currently planning a vacation to Las Vegas and to say I have anxiety is an understatement! I fear experiencing the embarrassment of being asked to get off of the plane and I can only hope to have such luck as your other readers. I traveled to Atlanta a year ago and the woman next to me was so kind, she actually insisted we leave the arm rest up! It would go down but she could see it was uncomfortable and even she didn’t like it, so I was thankful for that. Here’s hoping my Vegas travels are smooth!!

    Thanks again for the refreshing article (even if I am behind the curve by about 3 months! =) )

  6. Melody says:

    Kristen, I’m in the same boat. I have to go from Denver to Branson. I’m ready to just drive. It’s only 800 miles, not that big a deal. It would actually be comparable $-wise to pay for gas instead of a ticket. I wish someone had a typical airline seat set up somewhere so I could try it. I haven’t flown in over 20 years, so have no idea how I’ll fit in a seat.

  7. LWR says:

    The problem with “fitting between the arm rests” is that it is inconsiderate of your seat neighbors.

    If the person next to me “spills over” the arm rest and into my seat, how is that different than, say, a “thin” seat neighbor sticking their legs into the space in front of me? Nobody would argue that the latter is inappropriate — how can you argue that the former is OK?

  8. Roger says:

    All the best, Kristen.
    I’ll be traveling to Detroit from Ft. Lauderdale for a retreat in the middle of July — yes, the peak of summer travel — and I am a tall and large-framed man. I’m already dreading the experience, as I have not travelled via airplane since Novemember 2004. I booked an early flight, in the hopes that there’ll be an empty seat somewhere, just in case other passengers get fussy. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that all goes well.


  9. Rick Seaney says:


    Glad you liked it – hope you enjoy your Vegas jaunt.


  10. Rick Seaney says:


    I don’t know how much room will be on the flight, but by flying real early in the day, you do tend to get the better deals.

    Thanks for writing,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.