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Dealing With the Big Seat Squeeze

Tight seating in economy class continues to be a major air travel hassle. It’s bad enough under ordinary circumstances, but an oversize seatmate can sometimes make travel unbearable. A reader writes:

“What bothers me as much as the narrow seats in Economy is the invasion of other, more portly people into the space I have a ticket to occupy. I don’t think it’s fair for people to have their valuable seat space stolen by other flyers who don’t fit between the established parameters of their seats. Why don’t airlines establish some rules for people?”

{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}The short answer is, “Most airlines do have rules, but most rules are vague and most are poorly enforced.” And no rules are designed specifically to protect the real victims: travelers stuck next to or between oversize seatmates.

Current Rules: What They Do Say …

Most U.S. lines say something about oversize travelers, either in the customer service plan or contract of carriage, but commitments vary considerably:

  • Southwest is unique in that it clearly specifies that “Customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who encroach upon any portion of the adjacent seat should proactively book the number of seats needed prior to travel.” When travelers buy two seats, and the flight is not full, Southwest refunds the cost of the second seat.
  • Alaska states: “For the safety and comfort of yourself, as well as your fellow travelers, you may be asked to purchase a second seat on your flight if you cannot be accommodated by the seat measurements listed below.”
  • American says it “requires passengers to be able to sit in a seat with seatbelt fastened and armrests down.” Travelers who don’t fit can buy a second seat for the same fare as the original seat when they reserve. At the airport, travelers will be seated next to an empty seat if one is available. If not, travelers have to buy a second seat on an available flight.
  • Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, United, and US Airways are less specific, mainly saying that they can refuse to transport anyone unable to sit in a seat with the seatbelt fastened.

Of course, anyone who has flown recently knows that airlines often ignore even these modest “rules” in their rush to dispatch flights and clear lobbies. They dump the problems onto the flight crew, who may or may not be able to arrange a good solution.

… And What They Don’t Say

I couldn’t find anything in any line’s contract of carriage clearly stating that a passenger with a valid reservation and ticket is entitled to 100 percent of a seat. And if you’re stuffed next to a oversize seatmate on even one side, let alone both sides, you may wind up with maybe just 60 percent or 70 percent of the seat you bought.

If a flight crew decides to actually work on the problem rather than just ignore it, the standard solution is to move either you or the oversize traveler to another seat (or seats), depending on what seats are available. That’s not a contractual requirement; just common sense. Also, in theory, the crew could move either you or your oversize seatmate up to a roomier cabin, but – as far as I can tell – that doesn’t happen very often. And if your flight is full, once it departs, the flight crew can’t do anything to fix the problem.

No Improvements in Sight

You’d think that, given the increasing obesity of the population, airlines would be looking at wider seat designs in economy. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. In fact, seating is going the other way. When Boeing’s 777s first started service, economy seats were universally installed nine-across, and those seats were the widest in the industry. Recently, however, several airlines have installed very tight 10-across seats in current 777s and specified 10-across in future deliveries. So far, the bad actors are Air France, Air New Zealand, Emirates, and KLM, but you can look for more lines to downgrade their economy seating.

Similarly, when Boeing announced the new 787 “Dreamliner,” it touted roomier economy seating, at eight-across. More recently, however, many customers are apparently specifying ultra-tight nine-across. If you’re on one of those, your “Dreamliner” trip is likely to be a nightmare.

Book a Wider Seat If You Can

Booking flights with wider-than-average seats can help to avoid the worst crowding problems:

  • The best seats are on the Embraer 170-195 series: They’re wider than average, and in pairs only, with no middles.
  • Boeing 777s with nine-across seats are the best of the widebodies.
  • All Airbus models and Boeing 767s generally have wider seats than Boeing 737-747-757 models.

You can find seating details for any airline you’re likely to fly on SeatGuru.

On a long intercontinental flight, you can virtually guarantee no encroachment problems by booking in premium economy. Seats are several inches wider than conventional economy on all lines that offer premium economy except KLM. But the extra cost of premium economy is usually very high. When Air France announced its premium product, for example, it touted “40 percent more room” than standard economy – but the fare was 100 percent more than standard economy. Not a very attractive value proposition, but typical of premium economy pricing. Fortunately, airlines often run “sales” on premium economy seats that help offset high fares. But forget those semi-premium economy cabins with extra legroom: Those seats are just as narrow as in regular economy.

What to Do in Flight

If you’re caught in a squeeze, your obvious first move is to ask the flight crew to move either you or your oversize seatmate to a different seat. Chances are an attendant will honor that request if it’s feasible.

But if no alternative seats are available, you just have to tough out the flight. If possible, document the problem – take a picture of the seat with your phone camera, for example – or get a statement from another passenger or two. Then, when you can, submit a formal complaint to the airline. Note that the airline failed to deliver the product you thought you bought – full and exclusive occupancy of a seat – and specify whatever compensation you think is appropriate. Don’t just ask for an apology. An apology and $2 might buy you a latte. Instead, ask for a partial cash refund, a voucher, a future upgrade, frequent flyer miles, or whatever is acceptable.

If the airline stonewalls your first complaint – the most likely initial outcome – repeat your complaint and indicate your willingness to explore all avenues in search of a resolution.

Airlines will never solve this kind of problem without prodding from affected travelers. The only way to get them to move is to keep applying pressure. Do it.

Your Turn

Have you ever had a complaint about a seat squeeze resolved to your satisfaction? Tell us about it by adding a comment below! As always, we ask that you keep your comments polite and constructive in order to have the most fruitful discussion.

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