'The space was not built for me': Plus-size flyers say airlines have room to improve

Zach Wichter
USA TODAY
  • While regulators are taking steps to address airplane seat size issues, advocates say changes aren't coming quickly enough.
  • Some airlines accommodate plus-size travelers with extra space, but there's no uniform regulation.
  • Only a few carriers will reimburse passengers who need to buy a second seat to fly.

Few people say their favorite place to be is in the economy cabin of an airplane. As airlines have made their seat configurations tighter over the years, leg and even shoulder room has gotten more cramped.

For larger passengers, the densification of airplane cabins can be even more frustrating.

"It feels like there’s a lack of accessibility and comfort for plus-size people," Jeff Jenkins, founder of Chubby Diaries, told USA TODAY. 

"There’s not a standardized experience that we get. The experience, in general, is feeling too big for the space or feeling that the space was not built for me," agreed Annette Richmond, founder of the Fat Girls Traveling Facebook group. "It's not a you or me thing, it's a system thing."

Though regulators are taking steps to address the problem, advocates say changes aren't coming quickly enough.

"Not only do fat travelers have to be physically uncomfortable, we're mentally and emotionally uncomfortable, too," Richmond said. She described experiences when flight attendants have dismissed requests for seatbelt extenders and added that it's not always clear when the devices will be required.

"Not that all of the seatbelts are the same length," she said. "Getting a standardized seatbelt length is something that’s really feasible and possible, and one of the minor expense compared to reconfiguring a jet."

Annette Richmond, founder of Fat Girls Traveling, at the TWA Hotel in New York

For Jenkins, extra space while traveling has become a must. "I only fly premium or first class now," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is soliciting comments from the public with an eye toward possibly setting minimum seat dimensions in the coming years.

Some airlines go out of their way to help accommodate plus-size travelers with extra space, but there's no uniform regulation on the books. In the meantime, a patchwork of individual policies from each carrier governs how plus-size travelers are treated. Many airlines recommend or require that plus-size passengers purchase an extra seat, and a few airlines make reimbursements available for the extra cost. 

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American Airlines' plus-size traveler policy

On American, travelers can book two adjacent seats at their own expense, and they are required to do so if they do not fit within the dimensions of their assigned seat.

For those travelers who did not book extra space in advance, higher-class seats may be made available at the airport, but passengers will have to pay the fare difference. On less crowded flights, gate agents may be able to accommodate plus-size travelers with two adjacent seats.

If accommodations cannot be made, according to American, travelers can purchase two seats on another flight at their original ticket cost per seat.

Delta Air Lines' plus-size traveler policy

"If there is unintentional imposing on another customer's space, the customer may be asked to move to another location where additional seating is available. If the flight is at capacity, we may offer to rebook the customer to a later flight that can accommodate the additional need for space," an airline spokesperson said in a statement to USA TODAY. "To avoid any inconvenience to travel plans, Delta recommends customers that require more room than a standard seat offers consider purchasing an additional ticket."

Travelers line up to enter a security checkpoint at Newark Liberty International Airport on July 1, 2022.

United Airlines' plus-size traveler policy

United Airlines requires customers who cannot fit in a standard economy seat to purchase an adjacent seat, or pay for a ticket in a higher class of service.

"United Airlines isn't required to provide additional seats or upgrades free of charge," the airline's website says

United also prohibits passengers from bringing their own seatbelt extender. Passengers are advised to ask flight attendants for one.

Southwest's plus-size traveler policy

Southwest Airlines encourages all plus-size passengers to purchase an extra seat in advance, but notes that it is not required and that those purchases are fully refundable. 

"The armrest is the definitive gauge for a customer of size. It serves as the boundary between seats. If you’re unable to lower both armrests and/or encroach upon any portion of a seat next to you, you need a second seat," the airline's website says

Customers who purchase an extra seat can check in online but must see a customer service agent at the airport to receive documentation for a refund. 

Southwest cannot guarantee that adjacent seats will remain unoccupied.

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JetBlue's plus-size traveler policy

"JetBlue customers who require or desire additional space on board are able to purchase an extra adjacent seat ahead of time (based on availability), either online or over the phone at 1-800-JETBLUE. Customers who require seatbelt extenders will be provided (to) them," an airline spokesperson said in a statement. "In the event it is determined a customer will not be able to safely and comfortably be seated on board in a single seat, the customer will be given multiple options including a seat reassignment if space is available with an open adjacent seat, or to purchase an extra seat on a later flight with no additional change fees."

Spirit Airlines' plus-size traveler policy

Spirit requires passengers who cannot sit in a single seat with armrests lowered to purchase an additional ticket. Plus-size travelers may either purchase a Big Front Seat (Spirit's first-class cabin) or an additional economy seat, according to a spokesperson and the airline's contract of carriage.

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Frontier's plus-size traveler policy

"Customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who compromise any portion of adjacent seat or aisle should book two seats prior to travel. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats. Additionally, armrests (when fully lowered) are viewed as providing a measure of safety by restricting the seat occupant's lateral (side-to-side) movement," an airline spokesperson said. 

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Alaska Airlines' plus-size traveler policy

Alaska Airlines requires customers who cannot fit in one seat with lowered armrests to purchase an additional seat. 

"The purchase of an additional seat(s) serves as a notification to Alaska Airlines of a special seating need, and allows us to adequately plan for the number of seats that will be occupied on the aircraft. Most importantly, it ensures that all customers onboard have access to safe and comfortable seating," the airline's website says. "After you have completed travel, if all Alaska Airlines flights in each direction departed with an open seat available, you will be eligible for a refund of the second seat."

Hawaiian Airlines' plus-size traveler policy

"If you are unable to sit comfortably in your seat with the armrests lowered, we will try to find a suitable alternative. However, if no safe alternative seating can be found, we may not be able to transport you on your ticketed flight," the airline's website says. "If you may need extra room, we highly recommend booking an extra seat in advance. Please reserve your extra seat by calling our Web Support Center at 1-866-586-9419. Our agents can assist you with booking two adjacent Coach or Extra Comfort seats. Each seat will be charged at the lowest available fare."

Jets at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport.

Avelo Airlines' plus-size traveler policy

"We currently do not have a standard (policy) on this. However, if a customer asks about our seating, we share our seat dimensions and pitch upon request," an airline spokesperson said in a statement. "When customers ask about seating options, we ask how we can best assist them with their needs and offer to book an extra seat (which would be sold at the current price) and assign them adjoining seats."

Breeze Airways' plus-size traveler policy

Breeze recommends (but does not require) that passengers who need extra space purchase an additional seat when they book their flights, or to consider booking in first class on flights operated by Airbus A220s. The airline's staff will also work to move plus-size passengers to rows with extra empty seats if they are available

"Our inflight Team Members are happy to provide Guests with one of the five FAA-approved seatbelt extenders we have on each airplane. The length of our seatbelt is 38 inches, and the extender adds an extra 23 inches. Personal seatbelt extenders are not allowed," Breeze's website says.

Allegiant Air's plus-size traveler policy

"Passengers who are unable to lower the armrest and/or compromise any portion of adjacent seat(s) should purchase an additional ticket during the initial reservation. Two seats will be pre-assigned (at no additional charge) in order to ensure the passenger of size has two seats side-by-side," the airline's contract of carriage says. "If on the date of travel, a passenger of size requests a second ticket, the agent will be unable to sell a second ticket unless two seats are available side-by-side. In the event the flight is sold out and an extra seat is unavailable, the passenger of size shall be denied travel in the interest of safety."

Sun Country Airlines' plus-size traveler policy

Sun Country requires passengers who cannot fit in a seat with both armrests lowered to purchase an additional seat. 

"Passengers needing a seat belt extension cannot sit in the emergency exit row, and Sun Country passengers are not permitted to use their own seatbelt extensions," an airline spokesperson added in a statement.

'I always prefer to support companies that treat my community with respect'

These broad policies can still make things more stressful for plus-size travelers, Jenkins and Richmond said, and it would be better if they were more uniform across carriers, or at least if airlines made more of an effort to improve the onboard experience for everyone.

"Human beings have figured out a way to get to outer space," Jenkins said. "Outside of the innovation of air travel, when it comes down to seats and things like that, they have not been innovative enough. ... It’s like they were made for people decades ago, when airline seats were being born."

Jeff Jenkins, founder of Chubby Diaries

Jenkins said he mostly flies American Airlines because they serve the most destinations from his home airport in Austin. He acknowledged that because he usually travels in first class, he has to make sure to budget extra for every trip.

Richmond added that she prefers to fly Southwest whenever possible.

"Although I have not utilized the policy I always prefer to support companies that treat my community with respect and decency," she said.

On any airline, Richmond also said, other travelers can sometimes make the situation even more awkward or stressful.

"There's 30 people watching me to see if my seatbelt will buckle," she said. "Just tell people to mind their own business."

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