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News >  Business

United adopts tougher seat rules

Larger passengers may have to buy two

Julie Johnsson Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – United Airlines may bump severely overweight passengers from sold-out flights.

Starting Wednesday, passengers who are too large to fit comfortably in a coach seat will be required to buy a second ticket or upgrade to business class, where seats are larger, if United’s flight attendants can’t find two open seats for them.

The Chicago-based carrier said it decided to adopt the tougher policy after receiving more than 700 complaints last year from passengers “who did not have a comfortable flight because the person next to them infringed on their seat,” spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.

Most U.S. airlines spell out similar rules in a legal document called the “contract of carriage” that establishes services and charges for flights, airline analysts said.

Southwest Airlines requires passengers who can’t comfortably lower their armrests to purchase tickets for two adjacent seats. Southwest will refund the cost of the second seat if a flight isn’t sold out.

Although the policy has been on Southwest’s books for a quarter-century, the low-cost carrier faced widespread backlash when it reminded consumers of its standards for larger passengers in 2002, as Southwest switched from plastic boarding cards to electronic tickets.

Southwest still gets plenty of mail on the issue, said spokeswoman Brandy King. But the upset customers are likelier to be passengers who feel they didn’t have enough room on a flight.

Passenger issues of weight and proximity have become more sensitive in recent years as flights have become fuller. But as airlines adopt or toughen policies for obese passengers, some question how they can enforce such measures fairly.

United’s flight attendants, who will have the delicate task of enforcing the new policy, have traditionally sought to accommodate, free of charge, passengers who spill over their seats.

That hasn’t changed.

“We’ll first try to reaccommodate you on another seat on the flight,” Urbanski said. “If the flight is full, and that’s not often the case these days, you’ll be bumped from the flight.”

If this occurs, passengers will be forced to either find a flight with open seating or be required to buy two seats or an upgrade to a class of service with wide seats.

United said it will waive fees it would normally charge for changing travel plans. If seating is not available and a passenger decides not to travel, the ticket will be refunded without any penalty, even if it is a nonrefundable ticket.

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