Opinion: Should fat people get an extra airplane seat for free? Southwest Airlines believes this should be the case

Kimmy Garris, who describes herself as a “fat solo traveler,” probably had no idea her 30-second TikTok video would cause a sensation when she recorded herself in September, she politely asked a Southwest Airlines gate agent if she could take advantage of the airline's “customer of size” policy.

Her TikTok post went viral because of what happened next.

The gate agent hands Garris an extra boarding pass, she walks onto the plane, asks for a seat belt extender, takes a window seat and places the extra boarding pass on the middle seat.

Opinion columnist

Robin Abcarian

“If anyone tries to sit in it,” she wrote, “I will kindly let them know that I have booked two seats. To be honest, I'm almost never approached because no one wants to sit in the middle seat next to a fat person on an airplane.”

You were expecting some kind of plane crash made for social media, right? The video went viral, I think, because people were shocked and delighted that an airline could be so accommodating and empathetic.

“Southwest is the only airline that allows you a second seat at no extra charge, even if the flight is FULLY booked,” wrote Garris, who traveled from her home in Nashville to Los Angeles.

Garris has invoked the policy dozens of times, she noted, and “never had a problem or was denied.”

Curiously, Southwest says its “customer-customized” policy has been in place for 30 years. Taller people can purchase a second seat in advance and Southwest will refund the cost of the extra seat after the flight. Regardless of the demand for seats on that flight, the free extra seat is guaranteed. Or, if there is room on the flight, passengers can simply ask at the gate, as Garris did, for an extra seat. They also receive pre-board rights.

“The armrest,” says the official Southwest policy, “is the definitive benchmark for a major customer. It serves as a boundary between seats. If you are unable to lower both armrests and/or access part of a seat next to you, you will need a second seat.”

I don't know what gods are smiling down on Southwest, but Garris' TikTok post couldn't have come at a better time for the beleaguered Dallas airline.

This week, Southwest was hit with the largest fine the Department of Transportation has ever imposed on an airline — $140 million — for its spectacular 2022 operational crisis that led to the cancellation of nearly 17,000 flights and the stranding of more than 2 million passengers. (Garris told me she hadn't heard the news.)

Of course, not everyone is happy that Southwest is giving fat people an extra seat for free.

“I've gotten a lot of responses,” Garris said. “People are angry that I am to steal a chair of a skinny person. It's a Catch-22: “You're disgusting and I don't want to sit next to you, but you're stealing a seat.” You can't have it both ways.”

Traveling while fat can be a miserable experience.

“A few years ago I was in the middle seat as a coach. I felt so uncomfortable and the guy next to me texted about me, “There's a fat girl sitting next to me.” I was terrified,” says Katie Sturino, 43, a popular content creator and influencer who founded Megababe, a cosmetics company that sells products that help with chafing thighs, chest sweat and body odor.

Last week, Sturino, who describes himself as a “body acceptance advocate,” praised Southwest for its policies. “Bravo Southwest,” she said on Instagram. “It is a kind and generous policy.”

Over Zoom from New York, she told me, “I think it acknowledges a reality, which is that in America, most of our country is bigger. There are people whose bodies absolutely cannot fit in an airplane seat. It's a people-over-profit move that's earning Southwest a lot of love. Other airlines should take notice.”

Other airlines do allow large passengers to purchase a second seat, but none offer to refund the cost afterwards.

There is a lot we don't know about being overweight, but one thing is certain: it is certainly not a choice.

Recent scientific consensus says that obesity is a multifactorial disease. Regardless of the cause, a large percentage of Americans are considered obese. The Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan public health policy and advocacy organization, estimates that almost 42% of adults are obese and that almost 20% of children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese. People of color experience the highest rates of obesity, “often due to structural barriers to healthy eating and a lack of opportunities and places to be physically active.”

Last spring, major travel blogger and self-described “fat activist” Jae'lynn Chaney, who says she is a size 6X, started a Change.org petition They are calling for the Federal Aviation Administration to require airlines to give larger passengers as many free extra seats as they need to fly comfortably.

“The industry needs to realize that the average woman is no longer a size 14,” Chaney told BuzzFeed last year. “They now have size 18 and larger. But as we've gotten bigger, things like airplane seats, clothing and everything else have gotten small or stayed exactly the same.”

The FAA does not mandate seat sizes, but instead has focused on whether smaller seats hinder evacuations in an emergency. So far there is no evidence that they do.

Garris, 31, who loves to travel, told me she wouldn't fly in her 20s because of her size. “I would think: 'I'm too big, let me lose weight first, I won't fit.' I got tired of waiting and decided to travel and share my experiences.”

Now, says Garris, who recently started taking aerial photography classes, “I find joyful ways to live in the world.”

Just as all people deserve joy, all people deserve to fly in comfort, whether they occupy one seat or two.

Or, hell, even three.

@robinkabcarian

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