Writer/director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma) is still asking that question after he was booted from a Southwest Airlines flight last week for being too big. Smith, who has no problem admitting his size—"I'm fat, but I ain't that fat," he says—took to Twitter and his online podcast to go public with his story.
The misadventures of the portly Mr. Smith began on his original flight from Burbank to Oakland, for which he had purchased three tickets and ended up checking in for two. Smith admits that when flying low-cost carriers he often purchases three seats when traveling with his wife, and two when traveling solo. He claims the he does this for privacy and comfort, not because he can't fit into one seat.
That booking meant Smith had two return tickets to fly from Oakland to Burbank. However, he decided to get on an earlier flight, which meant he was flying standby. All other passengers had to be boarded first, and by the time Smith was allowed to board, only one seat was available.
At the gate, the agent alerted him of potential "safety issues" on the plane. Southwest's official stance is that "customers of size" must purchase two tickets for travel. If the flight does not oversell, the additional seat purchase will be refunded; if the customer has purchased a discounted, advance-purchase ticket, the second seat will be sold at the same fare; if a customer has purchased an unrestricted full fare, the second seat is sold at a child's fare.
Smith explained to the agent he originally bought two tickets by choice, not because he can't fit into one seat, and was allowed to board. He sat down in the middle seat and, according to him, was reaching for his seat belt when the same gate agent approached him about being too large for the seat.
According to Southwest's policy, a "customer of size" is defined as someone who cannot lower both armrests, which are 17 inches apart, and/or who compromises any portion of adjacent seating.
Smith showed that he could put down the armrests, and while he hadn't yet fastened his seatbelt, he maintains that he's able to wear a seatbelt without the help of an extender. "And that," Smith proclaimed on his podcast, "is a hallmark for any fat person."
It didn't matter. He was taken off the plane. And that's when the blogging started—and quickly turned into a front- page story about when fat people fly—or attempt to fly.
Southwest then apologized to Smith and refunded his money.
However, in their apology to Smith, Southwest claims that they asked him to leave for the safety of the other passengers on the flight. Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Southwest, says that the airline's policy is clear: "A customer must comfortably within the armrests."
Smith's argument against the policy is that the definition of "comfortably" is fuzzy, but King maintains that Southwest employees are trained to determine whether an overweight passenger needs to purchase an additional seat. Smith is so confident that he is correct that he challenged the airline to bring in a row of seats and test it out on national television. If he doesn't pass the armrest test, he says he'll donate $10,000 to a charity of Southwest's choice. But if he fits, they must admit that they were in the wrong.
Ironically, on his next flight to Burbank, Smith was seated in the same row as a woman who was pulled aside by a flight attendant who suggested she consider buying two seats in the future.
Later, that woman appeared on Smith's podcast to tell her side of the story. According to her, she's a frequent flier who has never had an issue fitting in her seat, and the experience on Southwest was humiliating and handled badly.
Some have chalked this up to nothing more than a celebrity diva temper tantrum, especially considering that Smith's latest movie, Cop Out, was scheduled for release just days after the incident.
But this fact doesn't change the issue. The question of whether to charge overweight passengers for two seats has been hotly debated in recent years.
Most airlines don't have official policies but will cite the rule from the Federal Aviation Administration: Passengers must be buckled in their seat during takeoff, landing and during turbulence. If you can't fasten your seat belt with the help of an extender, you can't fly.
That rule, of course, doesn't address the comfort of other passengers. A securely fastened seat belt doesn't guarantee that a larger passenger won't crowd into the space of their more diminutive seat mates.
JetBlue deals with this situation on a case-by-case basis, but the crew has the right to determine if a passenger must purchase a second seat with no option of a refund. Officials note that JetBlue does operate a fleet of A320s, which offer roomier seats and aisles, and offers special "Lots of Legroom" seats for an additional fee.
United Airlines added a policy in 2009 that says passengers who cannot put down the arm rests or buckle their seat belts comfortably will have to purchase a second seat or buy an upgrade to a roomier cabin.
The airlines took some heat recently when a photograph made the rounds on the Internet, allegedly showing an overweight passenger on an American Airlines flight. The photo was supposedly taken by a flight attendant and shows a man so large that he blocked the aisle while seated.
American Airlines spokesman Ned Raynolds said the photo was taken prior to takeoff during the boarding process. "American Airlines would never fly with anyone or anything blocking the aisle for any reason, nor would the FAA permit it," Raynolds said in an email statement. "Prior to takeoff, that particular passenger was given two seats at no charge, and the other affected passenger near him was moved to another seat on the same flight."
Raynolds expressed that while the airline has no hard-and-fast policy toward overweight passengers, it tries to maintain some flexibility. "We do not always or routinely charge for an extra seat unless there are simply no other options," he says. Raynolds does point out that most travelers aren't flying for the first time and should be aware of whether they can fit into a seat comfortably. "It can be costly, but you should be considerate of other passengers."
Even foreign carriers are putting official rules on the books. According to Air France-KLM, passengers with high body mass can purchase second seat at a 25 percent discount, which will be refunded if the plane isn't full. Refusal to purchase the second seat may result in being kicked off the plane.
However, if you're flying in Canada, you may be in luck. In 2008, the Canadian Supreme Court upheld a rule that plus-size passengers can get a second seat for free on domestic flights. According to the ruling, obesity is considered a disability in that context.
What do you think? Should overweight passengers be required to purchase two tickets? Should it be up to the discretion of the passenger or the airline crew?