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FAA Says Bigger Flyers Can’t Use Seat Belt Extenders

If you’re a person of size, don’t figure on evading the seat occupancy requirement by bringing along your own seat belt extender. That’s a no-no, said the FAA in an announcement this week. When an airline’s contract says that you have to be able to sit in a seat with seat belt fastened, that means the airline’s original seat belt.


The FAA didn’t explain the reason for this week’s announcement, but industry mavens speculate that the number of people requiring seat belt extenders is increasing, to the extent that, on some flights, airlines now run out of their own approved extenders. Or extenders manufactured by independent third-party suppliers simply do not meet FAA standards.


This latest salvo from the FAA demonstrates again that the airline industry has been unable to come up with a solution to the person-of-size problem that satisfies all the players. The root cause of the problem is that since the advent of high-density coach seating in the 1950s, Americans have gotten much wider and most coach seats haven’t. According to anthropometric research, typical coach seats these days are at least two inches too narrow to accommodate Americans in full planes, which means they’re much too narrow to accommodate the growing number of travelers who are well beyond the norm in girth.


Airline contracts allow them to refuse to transport a traveler unable to fit into a seat while fastening a seat belt, even when the airline provides an approved seat belt extender. Some airlines require such passengers to buy two seats, some say they will rebook the passenger on a less-crowded flight on which the passenger can spill over into a vacant adjacent seat, and some say they handle the problem on a case-by-case basis, which means they board the oversize passenger, anyhow, and hope the passengers in adjacent seats don’t complain too loudly.


The passenger-of-size problem pits two sides into mutually untenable positions:


  • Large passengers claim they have a right to travel for the same fare as anyone else—that attempts to charge them more or limit their choice amounts to discrimination based on physical characteristics.

  • Travelers seated next to large passengers who overflow out of their seats—and often raise the armrest—claim they receive less than the full seat they bought.

My personal position is that the right of any traveler to occupy 100 percent of a seat he or she bought trumps the right of oversize travelers to overflow into adjacent seats. But lots of folks disagree with that position.


An equitable long-term solution would be for airlines to offer extra-roomy seats at a reasonable surcharge. But that isn’t happening. The “semi-premium” economy several big U.S. airlines have adopted provides a little extra legroom at a reasonable surcharge but with the same ultra-narrow regular economy seats. And the true premium economy many Pacific and European airlines have adopted provides both improved leg room and greater width, but on most airlines, the price premium is out of proportion to the improvement. Air France touts “40 percent more space” than regular economy for its version—but charges roughly 100 percent more—not a compelling value proposition.


So, for now, the argument will continue with no real relief in sight that will please everybody. So, what else is new?


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