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Skinny Passenger Gets Fat Refund

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When you pay for your coach ticket, you might think you’re guaranteed 46 cubic inches of personal space (give or take). But what about when a passenger of size begins to encroach on those precious inches?  That happened for Cedar Attanasio on a recent Southwest flight and he wound up with a fat refund. Find out how in his latest report.

Last week, Samoan Airlines announced that it will now charge by weight, giving smaller passengers, including children, a significant discount, while heavyset passengers support heavier fees. So far, larger carriers have avoided such an unpopular move, so how can they reconcile the needs of voluminous passengers with the comfort of those sitting next to them?

I found myself smooshed next to a larger passenger a few weeks on a Southwest flight. I complained, and like the skinny folks now flying Samoan, I ended up with a big discount. This is my tale of how I got a partial refund and how you can too.

“Excuse me, sir,” said the stewardess to the heavyset man in the front row, “but I’m having trouble selling that seat with the armrest up.” Reluctantly, the heavyset man pulled down the armrest, which pushed against his pudge, and spilled slightly over and slightly under the armrest. The stewardess then looked and me, and in a courteous but slightly pleading voice, kindly requested that I take the open seat.

Did I have a choice? Was this a legal order from a crew member? If I said “no” would I face a juried trial with the FAA? I looked towards the aft of the cabin. Passengers and untethered “lap babies” occupied every seat in sight. I didn’t have clear escape route from the heavyset man. Plus, I felt bad about what would happen if I refused to sit with the portly fellow. Would they kick him off the flight like Kevin Smith? Either way, I felt too embarrassed to call him out in front of 150 people, so I wedged into the open seat.

I settled my shoulder against the girth of the heavyset man’s arm, my jeans pressed against his khakis. Just as I said to myself “this won’t be so bad,” the man exhaled and relaxed his arms, pressing the hams of his upper arms against my shoulder more forcefully. After takeoff, I tried to read a book, but I couldn’t bend my left arm enough to hold it comfortably. The heavyset man’s bulk pushed at me from above and below the armrest, and my body held a continuous cringing position no matter how much I tried to relax. Every hour or so, I got up to use the bathroom even though I didn’t need to. Five hours later in San Francisco, the entire left side of my body was sore. The next day, it felt even worse.

When I received a follow-up email from Southwest asking me if I enjoyed my flight, I clicked the link to submit a complaint. I didn’t begrudge my heavyset neighbor. But I did feel ripped off. So I sent a letter.

Unlike those new Samoan air passengers, I had paid by volume, not by weight. I paid for approximately 46 cubic feet of space, but in the end I didn’t get to use it all.

The right to the volume of my seat seems like one thing the airline can control. Fellow passengers inevitably invade the imaginary bubble of your airplane seat with sounds, light and germs. Babies cry into your space. Window passengers open up the blinds for a view. Ill-mannered coughers and sneezers blow germs into your cabin. And that’s just travel. But when I pay for a seat I expect more than a fraction, and less than a friction. What’s next, sitting on each other’s laps?

Southwest responded to my complaint within 5 business days, and gave me a full refund on my flight (one way, $150) with an extra $100 voucher. How was my letter so effective? I didn’t even ask for a refund. I just asked them to clarify my rights, emphasizing that while I have always been a loyal Southwest customer, I wasn’t going to fly across country like that again.

From their letter, I also learned three important things about your rights when you travel next to “customers of size:”

  • Southwest crew are supposed assign two seats to overweight passengers before boarding
  • You have every right to “make flight attendants aware” that a person requires two seats
  • You are allowed to change seats after take-off because of their open seating policy

The Kevin Smith episode and a few others made Southwest the target of criticism from many customers of size. These days, however, they clearly accommodate them. I learned for example that my heavyset companion could have booked another seat for free. So, if you’re 17 inches or wider, enjoy the comfy seating on Southwest. If, like me, you weigh 28 percent less than the average American, maybe take your next vacation in the Pacific so that you can fly Samoan.

By Cedar Attanasio for Cedar Attanasio is a non-fiction writer based in San Francisco. His work has been featured in National Geographic’s Daily News and other blogs. You can follow him on Twitter @cedarattanasio

Feature image credit: Flight Global