Tech & society

Just Call Me Curmudgeon: Airplane Seating

Update 4.17 pm: Kevin Smith normally reserves two seats to fly Southwest; he was flying standby and there was only one seat available (that’s the norm for standby). Via Southwest’s blog post, mirrored on its PR site. Questions below now have [answers in brackets].

A short weigh-in (heh) on the @southwestair /@thatkevinsmith mess. Here’s Southwest Airlines guidelines for “customers of size” (emphasis added):

Customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who compromise any portion of adjacent seating should proactively book the number of seats needed prior to travel. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats and measures 17 inches in width. This purchase serves as a notification of a special seating need and allows us to process a refund of the additional seating cost after travel (provided the flight doesn’t oversell). Most importantly, it ensures that all onboard have access to safe and comfortable seating.

As someone who has sat next to too many people who were too large for their seats, this is a “hurrah!” for the policy and for an airline being willing to actually enforce its own policy.

That said, here’s a few observations and questions:

  • Kevin was flying standby. Was this because he was trying to fly out on an earlier flight than the one he had booked? Did he have two seats booked on another flight? [Yes, he had two seats booked.]
  • Does Kevin normally fly Southwest and if so, does he normally book two seats in advance and get the refund if the seat isn’t needed (ie, the flight isn’t full)? [Yes]
  • Kevin says that he could get the seat arms down, but he (purposefully?) doesn’t mention “overflow.” Given that he mentioned this tidbit, I believe he is intimately familiar with the Southwest policy. Moreover, it’s quite possible to put down the seat arms but have body parts extend into the adjacent seat. (BTET, been there experienced that).
  • Kevin acknowledges that he’s “fat” but suggests that because he didn’t need a seat belt extender he should not have been kicked off the (first) flight. He does NOT tell us if the seat next to him is “open” on this flight. He uses the extender as a proxy for “too fat” but the extender does not measure width — which is the issue here. He even tweets about being “too wide for the sky” — so he knows that the issue is body parts extending into other seats.
  • If Kevin is obviously obese, shouldn’t the Southwest agent at the counter have mentioned that this might be a problem with standby seating? [Southwest did not address this in their response.]

I’d love to see the Southwest response but it appears their blog has been slashdotted. Maybe they addressed these points. I certainly don’t expect Kevin to do so.

The bigger issue — what is a reasonable seat width — is punted to another day.

PSA: See Jamie Oliver’s TED Talk.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

One reply on “Just Call Me Curmudgeon: Airplane Seating”

Via a tip on the Facebook version of this post. According to this article, Boeing figured out a way to widen seats on the 777:

“During the development of the 777 family of planes, Boeing took their findings and decided to add 5 inches to the width of the plane. It permitted them to put in wider, 18.5″ seats without diminishing the overall capacity.

The standard airline seat is 17.2″ wide, while seat pitch ranges from 28″ on some short-haul, down-and-dirty charters, to 33-34″ on some planes.”

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