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Small airline seats becoming big problem


A little-noticed but worsening problem for the airlines: squeezing passengers into those small seats.

“Lost is the question…What about the rights of the travelers squeezed by neighbors too big for their own seats?” says the Sacramento Bee.

The situation brought a brief spate of publicity when oversize movie director Kevin Smith was turned away by Southwest Airlines.

“By all accounts, the problem is getting worse. Coach seats remained the same width — 17 to 18 inches — while obesity rates grew,” says the newspaper.
More than a third of Americans now are defined as obese by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As airlines have shrunk their fleets, passengers are packed into planes even more tightly, according to newspaper accounts.

United Airlines last year said it received 700 complaints in 2008 from passengers angry that a larger passenger took up part of their seat.

Southwest says its oversized passenger policy affects "far less" than half of one percent of its customers, or 127,000 last year.

Unlike many carriers that lack rules or keep them under wraps, Southwest posts a two-page Q&A about the policy its followed for 29 years on its Web site.

Large passengers must buy two seats.

If there aren't more passengers waiting to board the flight than seats on the plane, Southwest will refund the second seat and give the customer side-by-side seats. If the flight is sold out, the passenger can buy an extra seat on a less full flight.

"We could no longer ignore complaints from customers who traveled without full access to the seat purchased due to encroachment by a large seat mate," says the Web site. It adds:

"These customers had uncomfortable (and sometimes painful) travel experiences and it is our responsibility … to prevent this problem."

The subject is a sticky one for carriers.

"It's embarrassing -- airlines don't want to touch this with a 20-foot pole," Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare comparison site Farecompare.com told CNN. "[But] this is only going to get worse."

And the rights of thinner passengers?

"When you buy a ticket and are assigned a seat, that means the seat's yours," said Robert Evans, a telecommunications business owner. ''Not half of it, all of it."

Various groups are being formed to protest seat-sharing. And experts say there will be no quick resolution of the problem as protests grow even larger.