- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Southwest Airlines will start charging larger passengers for two seats on its 2,800 daily flights starting June 26.

The airline, which operates out of 58 U.S. cities and is the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, will begin charging "persons of size" for two seats if they think they may not fit comfortably in one.

Ticket agents will not have weight and height requirements to follow when determining who can comfortably fit into one seat or who needs to purchase another ticket, said Southwest spokeswoman Christine Turneabe-Connelly.

"It is, unfortunately, a judgment call," she said.

Miriam Berg, president of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, questioned agents' ability to make the correct assessment.

"Do they have scales to weigh people? Do they have tape measures to measure a person's girth?" she asked.

Southwest has always asked large passengers to purchase two tickets if they would have difficulty fitting into one seat, and ticket agents used to have some flexibility when accommodating these passengers, Mrs. Turneabe-Connelly said.

But as of June 26, the airline will ask large passengers "whether the flight is full or not, to purchase an additional seat," she said.

If the flight isn't full, the passenger may request a refund after the flight, Mrs. Turneabe-Connelly said.

"For an airline to charge people double based on the person's size is pure discrimination," Miss Berg said. "Do they discriminate the same way against basketball players who are 6 foot 5 inches and don't fit in their seats?"

All people who are too large to fit in one seat, not just the obese, are included in the Southwest policy, Mrs. Turneabe-Connelly said.

The industry does not have a general policy on airlines' accommodation of large passengers, said Diana Cronan, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the major carriers. However, some carriers charge large passengers extra.

Chicago-based United Airlines, for example, charges larger passengers double if they cannot comfortably fit in one seat, said United spokesman Joe Hopkins.

Miss Berg said she has had more complaints from large travelers about Southwest, which is the fourth-largest domestic airline based on passenger numbers, than any other airline.

"They think they can get away with it because they think discriminating against people on the basis of weight will be acceptable to most of the population," she said.

She blames the airlines for making seats too small to accommodate larger Americans.

"The fact is that Americans are getting larger," she said. "This is what the population looks like, and an airline has an obligation to make its seat fit the population."

The actual trend in size is hard to pin down. In 1998, the government's body-mass index was changed, resulting in 30 million Americans going from government-approved to overweight or obese overnight.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that, under the new standards, 61 percent of Americans were overweight or obese in 1999. The percentage of obese Americans nearly doubled from about 15 percent in 1980 to 27 percent in 1999.

The policy change at Southwest was prompted by studies of its service, the company says. The airline found that many large passengers did not purchase two tickets and that other customers often complained when their space was encroached upon.

"We learned some important lessons from that," Mrs. Turneabe-Connelly said.

Advocacy organizations such as Miss Berg's have long opposed airlines charging large passengers extra.

The National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance offers large passengers tips on its Web site for dealing with airlines but acknowledges that passengers often encounter stumbling blocks.

"Your needs deserve to be met, but it may be up to you to remind them of this simple fact," the site reads. "Remember that you have a right to accessible transportation."

Mrs. Turneabe-Connelly said Southwest ticket agents are trained not only to make good judgment calls on who needs to pay for an extra seat but also to be discreet when confronting passengers.

"We don't want the customer to be embarrassed or offended in any way," she said.

But it's important that all passengers be comfortable on Southwest flights, she said. "If we have a full flight and there's somebody sitting next to [a larger passenger], the other customer becomes upset."

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