Every day, flying commercial reaches new depths of pain and suffering. Airlines keep finding new ways to save pennies, which almost always translates into new humiliations for passengers. And while many of the factors that make flying so awful are systemic, including overworked flight crews and the chaos of security checkpoints, much of the misery is physical—because the seats are shrinking.
Decades ago, airline seats were typically about 18.5 wide, and rows were set an average of 31-35 inches apart—not exactly luxurious, but comfortable for most people. Today the average seat is 17-17.5 inches, and the distance between rows can be as little as 29 inches. And although no airline has actually ordered any, some monster even invented “standing” seats with just 23 inches of room between rows—and you know some airline will pull the trigger on those one of these days.
All of this means that air travel is terrible for everyone. But if you’re what the airlines refer to as a “passenger of size”—that is, an overweight traveler—it can be excruciating…and expensive, as many airlines require heftier passengers to purchase additional seats to accommodate them. Of course, airlines are free to set these policies as they see fit, and passengers must adhere to them or find themselves unwelcome onboard the plane. But don’t despair (or dispair slightly less), as there are ways to make your airline experience a little more pleasant and affordable.
Four essential rules for traveling while “of size”
When it comes to traveling as a passenger of size, there are no universal truths. Every airline has its own policies, and every plane has different seating configurations. But there are a few general pieces of advice that will serve you well, whichever carrier you choose.
- Ask for a seatbelt extender. If your girth prevents standard seatbelts on airline seats from connecting properly, seatbelt extenders exist. The airline will typically have a supply of them, and will give you one if necessary—but it’s best to check ahead of time to ensure there’s one available. Keep in mind that some airlines will automatically require you to purchase a second seat if they have to issue an extender. Still, don’t buy your own—even if the packaging claims it’s “FAA approved,” it isn’t, and your airline probably won’t allow you to use it.
- Seat maps are your friend. Your airline’s website or a site like SeatGuru will provide a seat map and seat specifications so you can choose the ideal spot. For example, American Airlines will tell you that on an Airbus A319, the main cabin seats range from 17.3 inches wide to 18 inches wide—but an Airbus A320’s main cabin seats can be as narrow as 16.5 inches. Generally speaking, JetBlue and Delta Air Lines offer the best average seat width (up to 18.25 inches), but some airlines will have specific seats that are wider, and every plane is different. If you can afford it, first class seats are almost always more comfortable, with seat widths topping 20.5 inches. Another strategy is to look for flights with a single-seat row, as having no neighbors to one side and the aisle on the other side will mean fewer conflicts.
- Book an uncrowded flight. If possible, look for flights with a lot of empty seats. Even if you would normally be required to buy an extra seat because of your size, if the plane’s half-empty, you’ll likely be able to simply change seats to have an empty seat next to you.
- Go for a bulkhead row. If you have no other information to go on when choosing a seat, go for one in a “bulkhead” row. These are the seats directly behind a dividing wall in the plane’s cabin, and often lack storage because there’s no row in front of you. What they do offer is a lot of legroom at no extra cost, and in a pinch you’ll want more room any way you can get it.
What are different airlines’ policies for larger passengers?
Since each airline has its own policies and fleet of planes, your best approach will depend on your choice of carrier. Here’s a rundown of the best tips for each major airline:
United Airlines. United requires that you be able to put both armrests down and not intrude on the seat of the passenger next to you, and be able to buckle the seatbelt (which averages about 25 inches in length). United is pretty strict about these rules, so if they seem like they will be an issue, your best bet is to just book a second seat when you buy your ticket. You’ll get the same price and have peace of mind. As United’s average seat width is just 17 inches, they should be one of your last choices anyway. Extra tip: If you can’t buy an extra seat or upgrade at the gate and have to rebook onto the next flight, United should waive the change fee.
Southwest Airlines. Southwest has pretty narrow seats (ranging from 17 to 17.8 inches), but the airline doesn’t require that you buy an extra seat (though it heartily encourages you to do so, mainly to ensure there’s enough space on the plane). The good news? If you book in advance, you can get the cost of the extra seat refunded (this isn’t a fast process, but the money will eventually come back to you), and if you wait until the day of your flight the gate agent can (and likely will) just give you a complimentary extra seat if one is available.
American Airlines. American has similar rules to United in terms of defining an overweight passenger, but generally will offer you a second seat for free if they can find one on the plane. If there are no available extra seats on your flight, you may be required to purchase two seats on the next available flight, so make sure you have some room on your credit card. Keep in mind that American generally has the narrowest economy seats in the business, with an average width of just 17 inches, though things get better if you upgrade to Premium Economy.
Delta Air Lines. Delta doesn’t require you to buy a second seat. It requires that you be able to fasten your seatbelt without an extender, but doesn’t have any policy regarding the armrests, so if you can manage to take a deep breath and buckle up, you can avoid a double charge. Also note that Delta has some planes with 19-inch-wide seats (typically in their Premium Economy Class category), and even their regular seats are close to 18 inches wide. And you can always ask to be reseated next to an empty seat if one is available.
JetBlue. JetBlue is also strict about passengers of size—you’re required to buy a second seat, period, full stop. The good news is that JetBlue offers some of the widest seats in the business (you’re almost certain to get a seat at least 18 inches wide), and also offers their Even More Space program, which offers seats with up to 38 inches of legroom (as well as early boarding). That makes JetBlue a good bet for the larger passenger—just keep in mind that if you’re still a bit too hefty for the seat, you’ll have zero choice but to buy an additional one.
Spirit Airlines. Believe it or not, Spirit Airlines may be your best bet if you’re a passenger of size and they’re going where you’re going. That’s because they offer something called “Big Front” seats on every flight. These are a small number of seats in the first few rows of their planes that offer 36 inches of legroom and a width of 18.5 inches. You can’t change the recline, but that’s a pretty small price to pay for a seat that will hold you comfortably.