Ask FGG: "Could I be kicked off a plane for being fat?"
Posted by Angela in Ask FGG,Getting Real
Between the Seats by SC Fiasco

When Southwest Airlines booted writer/actor/filmmaker Kevin Smith from his buckled-in seat aboard an Oakland-to-Burbank flight on Saturday, Feb. 13, the question of passenger size vs. seat size was catapulted into headlines. Again. Some readers may remember that Southwest drew a lot of (positive and negative) attention in 2008 with the announcement that it would begin actively enforcing its longstanding “customers of size” guidelines on flights. Simply put, the policy states that anyone who cannot comfortably lower both armrests, or who encroaches on another passenger’s space while seated, may be asked to purchase a second seat and/or wait for a later flight with more space. United Airlines instituted a similar policy last year, and many other airlines (AirTran is one notable exception) maintain some rule regarding passenger size and seating encroachment.

With so much recent press on the topic, it’s no wonder many of us are more nervous than ever about flying. And yet, a girl has places to go, right? While the troubling lack of consistency with which the rules seem to be applied means that any one of us could find ourselves in Smith's shoes with zero warning, we think the best defense is a good offense.

Be informed. Do your homework before booking a flight and select the airline with the pricing/policy/accommodations combo that makes you most comfortable. Locating each airline’s approach to larger passengers can be a bit tricky (search for links to “special assistance,” “travel policies,” or “services and information") but most web sites have them listed somewhere. Sites like Seat Guru will tell you how many inches of seat width and leg room to expect on the many types of planes each airline employs. Southwest’s seats are a uniform 17” wide, while many seats on AirTran, JetBlue, and Midwest measure 18”. That one extra inch may not seem like much, but for those of us with wide hips (*raises hand*), it might mean a more comfortable flight.

Once you've selected an airline, know your rights as a paying customer. Familiarize yourself with the specific travel policies and have a plan for the day of travel, including how you'll handle the situation if your size should come into question.

Be proactive. To better the odds of adjacent empty seats, book flights during off-peak travel times whenever possible (Monday afternoon through Thursday morning, or early morning/late night).  When selecting a seat, opt for a window or aisle to minimize the number of shared armrests. For whatever reason, the size debate seems to keep coming back to armrests, the distance between them, and their ability to be lowered completely and "comfortably." So let's work with that: board your plane as early as possible, buckle up and lower the darn armrests for the world to see. You can always ask your seatmate to raise the shared one(s) later if it makes more sense.

If you know you need a seat belt extender, ask the flight attendant when you first board the plane. S/he will usually have several in the cabinet up front or will ask for your seat assignment and bring one to you. If you don't realize until you're seated that an extension is in order (don't panic -- belt lengths differ from plane to plane and sometimes from seat to seat), just press the call button or ask an attendant as they pass to do a luggage check. In my experience, every flight attendant has handled the belt situation discreetly. The important thing is to be confident and assertive, approaching the request for a belt extender the same way you would if you were asking for a pillow, blanket or extra napkin. There's no shame or worry needed here; you're just meeting a basic need.

Be honest. If you truly know in advance that your body’s dimensions and comfort requirements are going to significantly exceed the boundaries of a 17? or 18" seat, do yourself a favor and buy the second seat -- preferably by calling customer service and being up front about your needs. Be clear about why you'll require two seats together and ask how that reservation will be guaranteed and handled on your date of travel. Some airlines (including Southwest) will refund the cost of the second seat if the plane does not fill, while others (like United) will waive the standard call center fee. It's not a perfect solution, but it will ensure your comfort and safety during the flight and it minimizes the potential for unpleasant surprises once aboard the airplane.

What say you, readers? We'd love to hear your opinions, recent airline experiences or flying tips in comments. And watch for a full-length Fat Girl's Guide to Traveling in Comfort in the coming weeks.