Are You Too Big to Fly?

As a well-known film director can attest, the seating rules for larger-size airline passengers have changed.

February 18, 2010

Airplane seating regs don't leave room for some passengers.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—You may've heard about the turbulence last week after film director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, and the upcoming Cop Out) was removed from a Southwest Airline flight for being too large to fit in a seat. The resulting hullabaloo—Smith lambasted Southwest on his Twitter page—has called some attention to the issue of oversized-passenger policies. Turns out that several airlines have recently clarified their seating rules. (Even though the food they serve isn't helping anyone slim down.)

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THE DETAILS: Smith had actually booked two adjacent seats on a later flight, but found a seat on an earlier flight once he arrived at the airport. Only one seat was available on the flight, but Smith decided to chance it. After being seated, Smith was told that, in accordance with airline seating policy, he was deemed too big to fit properly in the seat.

Southwest later apologized to Smith for the inconvenience and embarrassment, and gave him a $100 voucher for a future flight. But meanwhile, Smith had begun sounding off about the incident. A heated debate ensued across the Internet between supporters and those who felt that such seating policies—which airlines say are based on legitimate safety concerns—needed to be enforced.

Read on to see how airlines determine who needs an extra seat.

WHAT IT MEANS: Most U.S.-based airlines now have a policy in place regarding large-size passengers, and you can normally find it on an airline's website under "travel information" or "special assistance." Your best bet to ensure you don't find yourself in a situation similar to Smith's is to be aware of the methods most airlines use to determine who can use a single seat:

• You must be able to attach the seat belt, though you can can use one seat belt extension if necessary (airlines normally have these on the plane)

• You must be able to sit with armrest(s) down for the entire flight if necessary

• You must not significantly encroach on adjacent seat space

Passengers who can't comply with any of these three criteria are required to buy a second seat, unless there are two open seats adjacent to each other on the plane.

If you or someone you'll be traveling with is plus-size, here are the numbers to keep in mind:

• The average armrest-to-armrest seat width in Economy class is 17 inches. In the new Boeing 777s it is 18 inches. Seats are wider in Business and First Class.

• The standard seat belt length is 47 inches. Extensions are 25 inches, for a total available seat belt length of 72 inches.

While there's no way to appeal the decision should the airline declare that you need a second seat, you can complain afterward if you feel you've been treated unfairly. Contact the airline's customer service department; you can also complain to the aviation consumer protection division and enforcement office of the U.S. Department of Transportation through the agency's website, airconsumer.dot.gov, or at 202-366-2220.