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Airline Doubles Fare for Fat Flyers

Southwest to force some obese passengers to buy a second seat

WEDNESDAY, June 19, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Southwest Airlines boasts that its customers are "free to move about the country." But for some of the airline's heftier passengers, the price of that freedom just doubled.

As of next week some "people of size" will have to buy an extra seat on full or nearly full Southwest planes if gate agents believe they won't have enough room in just one.

Some see the move as unfair to heavy passengers. One critic said that, instead of squeezing additional profits from them, the airlines should have larger seats to begin with.

Beth Harbin, a spokeswoman for Southwest, said the company decided to formalize the "people of size" policy because agents were enforcing it inconsistently. "If a passenger is purchasing a second seat on outbound but not return, we can understand that they would not be happy," Harbin said.

Harbin said the main reason for the policy was the comfort of both oversized passengers and their neighbors.

The policy doesn't specify weights or girths that would trigger the one-person, two-seat rule. Instead, airline employees will have to judge whether a passenger is heavy enough to need extra space.

Harbin said that, ideally, Southwest passengers would notify ticket agents that they need an extra seat. But with the rising use of Internet and telephone sales, she said, that often doesn't happen. So the airline is training its agents to be consistent in their application of the policy, which levies the extra fare on people who need their armrests raised or a special seat-belt extender.

"In most cases, it's obvious, and it's based on our agents' experience," she said. "They have a pretty good indication of who requires a second seat." But if there is a question, the airline will pre-board the passengers to see if they do fit, she said.

Southwest, which does not make seat assignments, said customers could request a refund for the second fare if their flight ended up having a vacant seat.

Many airlines, including Southwest, occasionally charge oversized passengers more to fly. But the latest move is believed to be the first formal policy on the matter, industry experts said.

The carrier was sued by an overweight California woman, Cynthia Luther, after agents asked her to pay for an additional seat. But a judge dismissed Luther's harassment and discrimination claim two years ago.

Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said airlines may charge passengers for a second seat under the 1987 Air Carrier Access Act. "We have received complaints from time to time, and our answer is that carriers are within their rights" to double-bill the bulky, Mosley said.

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance could not be reached for comment, and the group's Internet board was nearly silent on the Southwest policy. But one chat-room poster, with the username BigasTx, said he considered the move "a point against" the airline.

BigasTx, who asked not to use his real name, described himself in an e-mail message as carrying 460 pounds on a five-foot, 11-inch frame. He said he didn't object to gate attendants being the arbiters of seat assignment. After all, they have long been tasked with identifying passengers who need to have seat rests lifted or who require seat-belt extenders to fit around their ample laps. But, he added, "I'm not happy about it and I wish there was another solution" -- such as installing larger seats on airplanes.

"I've upgraded to first class or tried to find flights that were not fully booked so as not to be crowded or crowd someone," he said. "It works sometimes. But the real question is, what responsibility does a common carrier that has a federal license to operate owe large people? If a carrier [is] for all the people [it] seems like accommodations need to be made."

Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the flight agency doesn't interfere in passenger policy issues.

What To Do

To learn more about your rights as an air traveler, visit the U.S. Department of Transportation. For more on discrimination against the obese, try the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

SOURCES: Beth Harbin, spokeswoman, Southwest Airlines, Dallas; Bill Mosley, spokesman, Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C.; Alison Duquette, spokeswoman, Federal Aviation Administration, Washington, D.C.; BigasTx
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