Forced to buy second seat on Southwest Airlines?
February 12, 2008 1:10 PM   Subscribe

I am a fat woman (oh, excuse me, “customer of size”) who will be taking five separate flights on Southwest in the next month. If you’re fat and you’ve flown Southwest, did you have to buy a second seat?

Although Southwest is the only airline that routinely forces their “customers of size” to buy a second seat, they don’t have any clear criteria that I can use to determine if I will fall into this category (their Guidelines and Q&A aren't at all specific). Everything I’ve found says the decision is at the gate agent’s discretion. I need data, dammit. If you had to buy a second seat on Southwest (or if you consider yourself fat, but didn’t have to shell out), I would appreciate knowing your stats: weight, height, hip measurement. I’m willing to set aside extra funds for this trip, but I’d like to have a clue as to what I can expect. If it matters, the flights are DTW-SAN, SAN-LAS, LAS-SAN, SAN-MDW, and MDW-DTW. Thanks!
posted by shiny blue object to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
It is all up to the mood of the person at the gate.

This man had to buy a second ticket on his flight, even though he had flown earlier without a problem. He was overweight because his liver had failed and he retained water. The flight was not full.

I will never, never, never fly Southwestern. I'm sorry that you have to.
posted by sugarfish at 1:20 PM on February 12, 2008


The Q&A linked in the question cites "the ability to lower the armrests" as the determining factor. It probably varies slightly based on the model of the airplane but for a 737 that gives you 17.25 inches to work with.
posted by moift at 1:20 PM on February 12, 2008


There's a bit more info on this page, which has an interview with a Southwest representative (and an American one, as well).
posted by cerebus19 at 1:23 PM on February 12, 2008


As someone who has flown often, I would advise you to purchase that second seat. Despite your intentions, and though you may have impeccable manners, if you will be unable to fit within a single seat, then it is rude to not pay for the extra seat. Otherwise, you will inevitably be using a product (part of the seat) that another customer has purchased.

Ethically speaking, however, the airline should refund the second ticket if the flight is not booked solid. If there are open seats for you to occupy, then they should not be charging you extra, fuel costs not withstanding.
posted by explosion at 1:24 PM on February 12, 2008 [5 favorites]


For what it's worth, I've flown Southwest and I'm a big guy (245 lbs, 6'1). I can lower the armrests though with no big problem, but I was seated next to a much larger woman who... "bled through" from under her armrest and it was less-than-ideal.

I would imagine she would be the type a gate agent could pick up on, but again it'll have to do with flight fullness and exactly how "of size" you are. Do you need a seatbelt extender? Do you have trouble fitting into the space of a single seat?
posted by disillusioned at 1:28 PM on February 12, 2008


explosion's advice is perfect.
posted by meerkatty at 1:29 PM on February 12, 2008


Also, from the link above, Southwest will refund the second ticket if the flight was not full.
posted by disillusioned at 1:32 PM on February 12, 2008


This article seems to indicate that if you have to buy a second seat the cost will be refunded to you if the flight isn't full.
posted by MsMolly at 1:32 PM on February 12, 2008


A friend of mine tells me that the seatbelt extender is the key--if you don't need one, it is harder them to make the case for a second seat.
posted by yellowcandy at 1:35 PM on February 12, 2008


I would appreciate knowing your stats: weight, height, hip measurement.

I flew Southwest about a year ago. I am 5'2", 52 inch hip. I don't weigh myself, but I think I weigh somewhere between 240 and 260. I can lower the armrest. I had no difficulty.

I flew with my family, all of us are rather large. My mother is 300 pounds, she had no difficulty either.

Southwest doesn't have any standards, the determination will be made based on the gate agent's bigotries. If you're flying out of a fat city like I was, maybe that makes a difference. Who knows.
posted by Danila at 1:35 PM on February 12, 2008


I agree with explosion.
Also, I would argue it's better to take care of it ahead of time, have the seat booked and feel comfortable flying and get a refund afterwards (here's hoping your flight isn't overbooked).

Fretting about whether or not the gate attendant will force you to buy a seat while standing with the B group on each of your flights doesn't seem worth the stress.

What I wonder is if you purchase a 2nd ticket ahead of time, and don't need it (because of some body dysphoria convinced you you needed one) on an over booked flight if you can still get a refund. This would be the only reason not to purchase a ticket ahead of time.

Also, although getting the refund is an inconvenience, you can have a middle seat to yourself on the otherwise hellish Southwest flights.
posted by JimmyJames at 1:49 PM on February 12, 2008


I haven't flown Southwest since they started this policy, but I have a friend who has. She is probably about 325lbs, and wears a size 32/34/5x.

She was flying with her skinny boyfriend. She had a window seat, he had the middle seat, and they flew with the armrest up. She has her own extender. They flew out with no problem. On the way back, she was asked to buy a second seat. Even though she would not be affecting anyone other than her boyfriend, they insisted. She begrudgingly complied, after public humiliation. Once they were on the plane, it turned out that the flight was overbooked, and they tried to sell her "second seat" to another customer. See, she was still sitting in the window seat, and her boyfriend was still sitting in the middle, so her "second seat" was the empty one on the aisle. At that point, she got more than a little pissed off and it turned into a shouting match. And they finally agreed to refund her second seat.

Yeah, I will never ever fly Southwest again. The asshats.
posted by kimdog at 1:58 PM on February 12, 2008 [5 favorites]


fuel costs not withstanding

Southwest's guidelines do not appear to mention this at all.
posted by gnomeloaf at 2:13 PM on February 12, 2008


I know of a larger gentleman who was flying with his family, wife and three kids. He bought six tickets so he and his wife could share a row. He did this simply for his own comfort. The plane ended up being overbooked, and when he wouldn't give up the extra seat, he was the plane pariah.

Speaking as a normal sized person who has suffered the "experience" of sitting next to someone who was too big for one seat, I agree with the spirit of the policy. I can't imagine being a larger person and NOT wanting a second seat. I feel bad for people who don't want to spend the money, however.

Answering the question, it's far too subjective. Southwest probably ought to install a couple rows of two seats where three would normally be, and charge 1.5x for them. It would certainly alleviate a lot of physical and emotional discomfort.
posted by gjc at 2:14 PM on February 12, 2008


I've flown Southwest once since all that bullshit went into effect, since then I've tried my damndest to avoid, but in that instance there was not a choice as I needed a flight immediately. I didn't get any hassle - your fatness may vary. Somewhere along the line I heard the determiner was whether you need a seatbelt extender or not, but I'm pretty sure that was from a friend who works for a different airline altogether so I'm not really sure what you can do to know in advance other than fly another airline (if the cost of two southwest seats is still cheaper, then stick with them). As an aside I can only say I think it's terrifying that they are letting airline attendants determine who's too fat, considering it is one of the few non-performative career paths where eating disorders are actively encouraged.
posted by SassHat at 2:19 PM on February 12, 2008


This article seems to indicate that if you have to buy a second seat the cost will be refunded to you if the flight isn't full.

Also, here are two MSNBC columns on the topic:
Hey, where's my airline seat? -- "Seeking compensation after an uncomfortable flight next to an XL seatmate."

Squeezed to meet you. -- "As waistlines grow, passengers must deal with ‘seatmates of size’"
posted by ericb at 2:28 PM on February 12, 2008


Southwest probably ought to install a couple rows of two seats where three would normally be, and charge 1.5x for them.

That's what other airlines call first class, and I'm sure plenty of not fat people would love to pay 1.5x for some extra real estate for their behinds.
posted by clh at 2:55 PM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


One piece of advice: get to the gate early. Southwest has "open" seating, or first-come-first-served, and not all of the seats are created equal. The first time I flew them I played it cool at the gate and was the last to board. I wound up in the first row, which faces the tail of the plane, and is face-to-face with the second row. The cringe-inducing part was that the edge of my seat was no more than 8 inches from the edge of the seat of the person opposite me, and I spent the whole flight with a stranger's knees interlocked with mine. It seems more and more true that flying these days is a lesson in dehumanization for people of any size.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 5:48 PM on February 12, 2008


[a few comments removed, this is getting a little off topic]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:23 PM on February 12, 2008


One piece of advice: get to the gate early. Southwest has "open" seating, or first-come-first-served

This isn't really the case anymore. If you check-in early online (I forget the earliest you can check-in, but whenever that is, you should do it), you get an earlier slot in line at the gate. So even with open seating, there is still some order. It used to be just 3 zones, but now the check-in line is more granular; you are still assigned to a zone, but now you also get a number and everyone lines up in order.

I get to the gate about 20 minutes before and find my spot in line. That being said, I hate Southwest.
posted by bluefly at 5:16 AM on February 13, 2008


MeTa
posted by kalessin at 12:41 PM on February 13, 2008


If you check-in early online (I forget the earliest you can check-in, but whenever that is, you should do it), you get an earlier slot in line at the gate.

Notably, though, you frequently have to be really on the ball to take advantage of that. I've seen the ‘A’ boarding passes run out within minutes of the opening of online check-in, the day before the flight.
posted by XMLicious at 2:01 PM on February 13, 2008


A friend of mine tells me that the seatbelt extender is the key--if you don't need one, it is harder them to make the case for a second seat.

If you don't need a seat belt extender, you don't even need to be asking this question. A lot of people need those who are a far cry from a "customer of size." You have to be quite overweight to not be able to lower the armrest, like into the two seatbelt extender range practically. I wouldn't sweat it until you take the first flight. You probably fit fine and if on a future flight the agent raises the issue just tell them that you fit on the last flight.

The armrest criteria seems directed only at overweight people. What about people who are just huge, but not necessarily overweight? I have had some guy sit next to me (poor guy had the middle seat, but I was "lucky" enough to get the window) who looked like a pro linebacker wearing shoulder pads. Good lord was he wide, but hardly overweight. Although it was uncomfortable for us, I felt sorry for him. He knew he was expanding into our seats but couldn't help it, plus he was far too tall for the seat and his legs were all scrunched up.
posted by caddis at 3:27 PM on February 13, 2008


Thanks to those who actually answered the question I asked! I appreciate the information. The other stuff ... less so.

I asked the question because I need to know how much extra money I should set aside for this trip -- I know Southwest will refund the price of the second seat if the flight isn't full, but I would still have to have the money to buy the seat in the first place.

The Q&A page I linked above states "If a Customer cannot lower the armrest (and is unable to comfortably travel with it in the down position), he/she is required to pay for the additional seat occupied." (emphasis added). That's just subjective as all hell.

For the record, I didn't choose to fly Southwest on this trip. The tickets were purchased by someone else, who will be asked to not book me on Southwest in the future.
posted by shiny blue object at 1:13 PM on February 14, 2008


Update!

Total SW flights taken: 5
Total SW flights on which I had to buy a second seat: 0
My height / weight / hip measurement: 5' 10" / 285 # / 55"
Total amount I hate flying: Infinite
Total gratitude for usefulness of AskMeFi: Pretty damn infinite
posted by shiny blue object at 7:37 AM on March 2, 2008


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