The major carriers in the United States have substantially different policies when it comes to customers of size. All note that if you are unable to sit in a seat with both arm rests down should purchase a second seat.

Airlines are not required to provide more than one seat per ticket. Some people may not be able to afford the extra seat and may elect not to fly due to this. There is one airline that will always give you money back if you require two seats. Who is it?

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines has the most comprehensive and thoughtful policy of all airlines I checked. You make a booking online for two passengers and the second passenger name should be the same but with the middle name put as XS.

Once you have completed your travel, you request a refund for the second seat. Interestingly, Southwest appears to be the only airline that will always refund the second seat which I think is very fair.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines policy is fairly decent as well. They require you to call their call centre to make your booking and pay for your second seat. Once you have flown, you need to request a refund. It makes sense for the airlines to refund after you have flown as a passenger could no show for the journey.

Refunds will be approved as long as the flights in both directions had free seats. Full flights or oversold flights would mean no refund, which in a way is fair enough. The airline is protecting their revenue and it does make sense, though you would expect that if the flight was full one way and had seats free on the return that you’d get half the second seat back. When you don’t get a refund you can apply to receive frequent flyer miles for both seats which is fair enough.

What About American, Delta and United?

American Airlines policy states that you need to purchase a second seat and no refunds are mentioned. One line states, “If you didn’t book an extra seat in advance, ask an airport agent to find out if 2 adjacent seats are available.” This implies that doing it at the airport may result in no cost. The risk here is that you may not be able to travel if your flight is full.

Delta state to ask an agent at the airport who will try to seat you next to an empty seat. Failing that you can purchase an upgrade to First or Business Class. It also says that you “might consider booking an additional seat” and to contact reservations. This is similar to what American Airlines say, but it is written slightly more sensitively.

It seems with American and Delta that you can buy an extra seat and not be refunded which would guarantee things for you. Alternatively you could try at the counter at the airport with the added risk of not flying but also the benefit of not paying more.

United come across as very strict in that customers are “required to purchase an additional seat” or upgrade and they are not obliged to give extra seats for free. It does not appear there is any option to avoid paying.

Customer Of Size Loyalty

There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that customers of size actively choose Southwest due to their policy. Southwest is profitable so it is clear that refunding the extra seats is not hurting their bottom line. It would be interesting to quantify the cost of the refunds.

Frequent flyers of some of the airlines listed above may actively choose Southwest instead of their own airline if they are a customer of size. The fact that Southwest are going above what the regulations require should be applauded.

Overall Thoughts

Southwest, you’re doing it right! For people of size it is fair that they should have two seats to ensure they are comfortable and have space and also don’t encroach on other passengers space. I think it is also fair that people of size should only pay for a single seat.

A clear policy such as that outlined by Southwest, Alaska and United should be on the airlines web sites. Delta and American have policies which are open to interpretation but perhaps that puts the decision in the hands of the front line staff on a case by case basis rather than there being an arbitrary corporate policy, so this is not necessarily a bad thing.

What are your thoughts and experiences on this? Thank you for reading and feel free to add any comments or questions below.

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Featured image via Southwest Airlines, other images from Alaska Airlines and American Airlines.