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Read this Before Using Southwest’s Customer of Size Policy 💙❤️💛

Southwest’s customer of size policy is a size-inclusive rule that allows passengers in larger bodies to have two seats on any Southwest flight at no extra charge. This policy helps large travelers fly more safely, 1 and allows passengers (in bodies large and small!) more comfort in flight. Recently, I interviewed a Southwest Airlines employee about their Customer of Size policy and tried it myself on a short flight between Hawaiian islands.

In this article, I share

A wing of a southwest jet as seen from the seat of a customer of size.


What it’s Like: My First Time as a Plus Size Traveler Using a Free Extra Seat on Southwest

The first time I used Southwest’s customer size policy was on a short island-hopping flight in the Hawaiian Islands for my birthday trip in December 2021.

Since I’d already read up on Southwest’s policy for plus-size travelers, I knew that I had two options for getting a free extra seat:

1. 💺💺 Paying for two seats in advance and getting a refund at the airport, or

2. 💺 Taking the risk of purchasing just one seat and requesting a free additional seat from a gate agent (these seats are only available if a flight isn’t fully booked).

To be on the safe side, since I expected my flight would be crowded, I went ahead and forked over the extra cash upfront for a second seat on the short flight.

Using Southwest’s customer of size policy was easy and non-stigmatizing. Unlike the discomfort of asking for a seatbelt extension, taking advantage of the customer of size policy is easy and discrete.

The hardest part about using Southwest’s customer of size policy

The hardest part about using Southwest’s customer size policy is that Southwest Airlines mostly leaves it up to the passenger to ensure no one sits in the empty seat. According to their policyCustomers who have secured more than one seat must be an active participant in preserving his/her additional seat.”

In my experience, few people want the middle seat on an airplane, and many fewer are willing to take the middle seat on a row occupied by a fat person. Thankfully, by placing the small card in my spare seat, putting on my headphones, and ignoring boarding passengers, I didn’t have to actively defend my extra seat.

how to use Southwest’s customer size policy

Here’s how to use this policy if you need a little extra room to fly safely:

1. Purchase 2 Seats during booking (optional)

Paying in advance for two seats while you are booking your tickets guarantees that you’ll have two seats. The second will be – eventually – refunded. Alternately, you can purchase one seat through Southwest’s check out and, if your flight isn’t full, you can have a second seat assigned for free at the airport. However, if your flight has 225 seats and 224 other passengers purchase tickets, you won’t be able to use the passenger of size policy to get an extra seat.

After you’ve purchased your tickets, you don’t need to do anything else between confirming your flight and arriving at the airport.

2. Go to your gate and check-in with the gate agent

Do not wait until the last minute to approach the gate agent. In my experience using Southwest’s customer of size policy, the gate agents are extraordinarily friendly and accommodating in helping passengers discreetly navigate this process.

The Southwest gate agent will:

  • 💰 Refund your second ticket back to your payment source (if the gate is bustling you may need to call their customer service after your flight to have this refund processed)
  • 🎫 Give you a boarding pass-sized slip of paper called the “Seat Reserved Document.” What wasn’t explained to me, but I learned from southwest.com, is that this second piece of paper is meant to be placed in the empty seat next to you to inform other passengers that the seat is unavailable. While it’s not printed boldly if anybody gives you trouble about the seat, this piece of paper clearly states that the second seat belongs to you.

3. Board Early

In another smart move on Southwest’s part, customers of size are permitted to board with the earliest boarding groups. To me, this is just smart business that creates a better experience for everyone. By boarding early, I don’t have to squish between rows of filled seats, and everyone is more comfortable. When later boarding groups begin filing onto the plane, my luggage is stowed, and I’m settled in my window seat out of the way.

4. Place your Seat Reserved Document in the Spare Seat

Obviously, your extra seat is the seat directly next to you- I mean that’s the whole point! 😸 Once you find your seat, place the Seat Reserved Document (it looks like an extra boarding pass) prominently and deliberately in the middle of the seat next to you. If someone begins eyeing that seat as the plane fills, the card may do the work of maintaining that empty seat, so you don’t have to defend it.

If someone begins to sit in the seat next to you, you can inform them “the seat is taken” or, if that doesn’t work, I’ve “purchased a second seat.” If they don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge your refusal, don’t hesitate to call a flight attendant to help.

5. Stretch your body throughout your flight

Economy seats are not made for people like us. The discomfort and lack of freedom of movement that disproportionally affects large bodies can result in health problems (which, because of medical bias towards people in large bodies, often may not be diagnosed or treated properly 2 ).

For this reason and so many others, it’s essential to use that extra space to do stretches every hour. Even simple stretching during a flight can significantly reduce the risk of blood clots. 1

6. Enjoy your flight and consider deplaning last

By the time we arrive at our destination, we’re all ready to jump out of our seats and sprint off the plane. If you’ve taken advantage of Southwest customer size policy, though, consider letting others get off the plane first. Of course, by the time your seat row is ready to deplane, there aren’t bodies in front of you to squish past, but deplaning last can be a courtesy to other travelers whom you skipped in front of for boarding.

7. If needed, call Southwest’s customers service

If you weren’t able to get a refund at the airport, you’ll need to call or send an online message to the Southwest Customer Service Center to arrange for the price of the second ticket to be refunded back to your payment source. Generally, Southwest Airlines’ customer service is easy to deal with and has very short hold times, making this part of using Southwest’s customer of size policy even easier.

Wb air travel planes parked sunset

How to know if you qualify for Southwest’s customer of size policy (a.k.a. “am I fat enough to Get a Free Extra Seat?”)

Thankfully, there are no size police on Southwest flights. If they meet the criteria below, passengers can opt into this program as they see fit. Southwest’s official policy states the extra seat is available to “Customers who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat.”

Some travelers might expect that needing a seatbelt extender is the metric for who can use the customer of size policy, however, Southwest has other measures:

You can use the Southwest customer of size policy if you meet either of these criteria:

  1. Any body part extends into a second seat. 3
  2. You are unable to (with reasonable comfort) lower both armrests. 4

Every single body is different, though, and neither of these means that your body is comfortable (or even safe) squished into a single seat- so listen to your body, practice mindful travel, and use your best judgment.

Personally, airplane seatbelts have always buckled for me. And with enough hunching, my broad shoulders don’t extend past the seat divider. However, I’m acutely aware of how being stuck in a small seat in a low-oxygen environment increases the health risks of flying.

Since big people are not able to stretch our legs in the way that smaller bodies are allowed to in an economy seat, this can put us at an increased risk of deep vein thrombosis. 5

For this reason, I choose to take advantage of Southwest’s customer of size policy. I love that this policy honors the agency of travelers and our ability to determine what’s best for our bodies while also honoring the needs and comfort of fellow travelers.

Tips for using Southwest customer size policy:

1. Understand the policy

Like so many things in life, it’s your responsibility to understand the customer of size policy and how to use it. You may have a brand new gate agent or trainee flight attendant. Make sure you understand the policy so you can explain it if necessary.

2. Don’t feel self-conscious

Your body has different needs- that’s ok! It deserves care and safety.

Fat people are constantly told that we should not take up space, but our bodies deserve to exist without pain and suffering caused by facilities designed for thin bodies. We have every right to take up space – especially when Southwest has extended the space to us at no charge.

Claim your second seat with confidence, tell the gate agent you want to use the customer of size policy without shame, and let your body take up space.

3. Care for your body in flight

Researchers are clear that squishing into a seat and staying there, unmoving, increases the health risks of flying. 6 You’ve probably heard the advice to drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol before flying, which is excellent advice, but here’s what passengers of size need to do with that extra seat:

A. Stow your under-seat bag under the extra seat, not yours

One simple way passengers can reduce the risk of blood clots is to not store carry-on bags under the seat in front of them. 6 Instead, leave that space free for flexing and stretching your legs. Store your carry-on in the adjacent storage.

B. Use your extra space to do stretches

Once you’re settled in your seat, create a silent, vibrating alarm on your phone that reminds you to stretch every 45 to 60 minutes. Rocking your feet back and forth or extending your legs in front of you into the space under the seat in front can help you arrive safely and more comfortably.

First-class vs. buying an additional seat for plus-size travelers

It will probably come as no surprise that I prefer to fly business or first class as a plus-size traveler rather than purchase an extra seat in economy. When money isn’t an issue, it’s first-class all the way for more generous seats for my body, more legroom, and the ability to prop my legs up on a footrest. They don’t call travel related lower leg blood clots “economy class syndrome” for nothing 7 – first-class isn’t just more comfortable it’s safer.

On airlines other than Southwest, it’s often cheaper to fly first-class than it is to purchase two side-by-side economy class seats. However, Southwest’s inclusive customer size policy (and the fact that their flights don’t even have a first-class section!) make this decision easy when taking a short domestic flight.

When it makes sense to fly first-class Instead

If you have a flight over four hours, the risk of DVT increases significantly –, and that’s especially true for those of us in larger bodies or over the age of 40. 8 If you have a very long flight or many risk factors, simply having an additional economy seat and a bit of room to stretch your lower legs might be more comfortable, but not significantly decrease this risk.

While I’m a huge fan of Southwest and particularly of their customer size policy, if the price difference isn’t staggering, I personally find the upgrade to first class on another airline preferable to having two seats on Southwest. However, for short flights like intra-island hopping in Hawaii or visiting family in Dallas, I wouldn’t dream of booking for first-class for these easy short flights.

how I learned about Southwest customer of size policy

When we rang in the new year in 2020, I was excited to be moving into a new chapter of life. And then, we all know what happened next. The following months saw me move from my tiny apartment into a house shared by friends and colleagues I’d made during my graduate school training to be a therapist. There, in that house full of eating disorder-focused therapists and dietitians, I had the delight of quarantining with a team of HAES, food positive, social justice-oriented friends, and professional colleagues.

During my time in this shared house, I worked with people who work with people every day struggling with the challenges of living in larger bodies or the (often legitimate) fear of living in larger bodies, and the disordered eating that occasionally accompanies that fear. While we were soaking in the house’s shared hot tub- a respite from all things 2020 – one of my roommates mentioned Southwest’s customer of size policy.

My ears perked up, “customer of size policy? I asked. They then explained how Southwest Airlines, a budget airline that will cut costs anywhere and everywhere to stay profitable in a market where most airlines aren’t, offer a free extra seat to plus-size passengers. Incredulous, I asked more. They continued on to tell me that even if a flight is fully booked and there are no seats left, as long as a customer of size booked that extra seat in advance, they are guaranteed not to have someone sit next to them on a Southwest flight- all for free.

After learning this, even though we were still in quarantine, I resolved to give Southwest Airline’s customer-of-size policy a real-life trial as soon as I could safely and reasonably fly again.

The Passenger of Size Policies of Other major Airlines:

Delta’s Customer of Size Policy

Delta Airlines has no policy in place ensuring passengers in larger bodies and seat-adjacent smaller bodied fellow travelers can travel with reasonable comfort and safety. Rather, Delta’s policy is that “Delta has the right to charge for all seats occupied.” in other words, if passengers of size flying on Delta don’t pay double, they may be billed double without consent.

United’s Customer of Size Policy

The least inclusive of all airlines’ policies that I’ve researched, United Airlines has no policy in place to ensure that customers with larger bodies can travel safely. Rather, their fatphobic policy prioritizes the comfort of thin passengers over the safety of plus-size travelers.

In order to avoid being required to purchase a second seat on United, as a customer of size you must be able to:

  • buckle and wear the seat belt with one extension,
  • be able to remain sitting with the seat armrest(s) down for the duration of the journey,
  • and (not or) you must not “significantly encroach upon the adjacent seat” – a particularly unhelpfully vague standard.

This, despite the fact that FAA permits seatbelt repairs and replacements that can significantly shorten a “standard” seat belt, makes United’s policy troublesome.

Alaska Airline’s Customer of Size Policy

Alaska Airlines, unlike most airlines in 2022, acknowledges the existence and dignity of people in larger bodies by publishing a Customer of Size Policy. However, their accommodations are limited: Alaska states that a second seat purchase is required for “any customer who cannot comfortably fit within one seat with the armrests in the down position,” however there is a chance of having an extra seat provided:

“If all Alaska Airlines flights in each direction departed with an open seat available, you will be eligible for a refund of the second seat.” In other words, if you can’t fit in a seat that international researchers agree is too small for health and safety of travelers, you’ll be required to pay for an extra seat on every Alaska flight you take. Only if every single leg of your travel in both directions has open seats available will you be eligible for any refund of the cost of the extra seat needed to fly safely.

Final Thoughts

More and more travelers are catching on to Southwest’s inclusive Customer of Size policy. Although I regularly see passengers larger than me squeezing into full rows on Southwest flights, I hope this article will help inform more travelers about options that can help all bodies travel with greater comfort and safety.

If you’ve recently taken a flight and encountered a policy either accommodating or marginalizing a larger body, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.

Sources

  1. Tsikouras, P., Anthoulaki, X., Deftereou, T., Chalkidou, A., Bothou, A., Gaitatzi, F., … & Nikolettos, N. (2020). Vein Thrombosis Risk in Women and Travel. In Tourism. IntechOpen. [][]
  2. Lawrence J. Cheskin, MD, Scott Kahan, MD, MPH, and Gail Geller, ScD, MHS. (2010) American Medical Association Journal of Ethics. Virtual Mentor. 2010;12(4):258-262. doi: 10.1001/virtualmentor.2010.12.4.ccas1-1004. []
  3. Southwest’s official policy []
  4. Southwest’s official policy FAQ []
  5. Cannegieter, S. C., Doggen, C. J. M., van Houwelingen, H. C., & Rosendaal, F. R. (2006). Travel-related venous thrombosis: results from a large population-based case control study (MEGA study)PLoS medicine3(8), e307. []
  6. Tsikouras, P., Anthoulaki, X., Deftereou, T., Chalkidou, A., Bothou, A., Gaitatzi, F., … & Nikolettos, N. (2020). Vein Thrombosis Risk in Women and Travel. In Tourism. IntechOpen. [][]
  7. Porta, J., Saco-Ledo, G., & Cabañas, M. D. (2019). The ergonomics of airplane seats: The problem with economy classInternational Journal of Industrial Ergonomics69, 90-95. []
  8. Şabanoğlu, C. (2021). The secret enemy during a flight: Economy class syndromeAnatolian Journal of Cardiology25(Suppl 1), S13. []