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Southwest starts enforcing plus-size passenger policy

By Christy Oglesby

(CNN) -- Southwest Airlines says it will begin enforcing a 22-year-old policy next week when it routinely charges large passengers for a second seat on its flights.

Starting June 26, Southwest passengers who are booked on full flights and need seat belt extensions, or whose bodies extend beyond the 18 3/4 inch cushions, will be required to purchase a second seat, said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, a Southwest spokeswoman.

"It's a policy that has been in place since 1980," Turneabe-Connelly said. "Over the years, we allowed some flexibility with the agents at the time of check-in. As of June 26, we will be consistent."

After examining the impact of the policy during the last few years, the airline's managers determined the flexibility created inconsistency and caused more stress for passengers and gate agents than it eliminated, Turneabe-Connelly said.

Gate agents might not have asked large passengers to purchase second seats on their outbound, partially-full Wednesday flight, but then those same people would get slammed with an extra fee on the overbooked Friday afternoon return flight.

Scenarios like that exacerbated tenuous interactions between employees and "people of size," Turneabe-Connelly said. "It's already a very difficult and sensitive issue to address."

All of Southwest's flights offer coach-sized seating. Business and first-class seats do not exist. And the "people of size" policy only applies to full flights where a larger person would not have access to an empty seat.

If a larger person required a second seat on an already full flight, then the flight would go into an oversell situation, and the crew would ask for volunteers to give up their seats, Turneabe-Connelly said.

The policy does not necessarily mean large people will pay double fares. If a person bought a ticket within the 14-day advance purchase window and knew they needed extra space, then that passenger would buy two tickets at that discounted fee.

However, if a person was buying a full-price ticket at the last minute for business or bereavement reasons, one seat would sell for the higher, walk-up fare, and the second one at the 14-day advance purchase price, Turneabe-Connelly said.

If a passenger buys a second seat and the plane is subsequently not full, passengers may get a refund. That too, Turneabe-Connelly said, has been the airline's policy since 1980.

The policy is really to ensure the comfort of all passengers, said Beth Harbin, a Southwest spokeswoman. Complaints from people of size have been rare, she said. Most complaints have come from people who felt discomforted by sitting next to larger passengers.




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