Plus-size travelers bring new attention to Southwest Airlines’ ‘customer of size’ policy on TikTok

Recent social media posts have brought new attention to Southwest Airlines' "customer of size" policy.

Recent social media posts have brought new attention to Southwest Airlines’ “customer of size” policy.Kevin Dietsch/Getty ImagesCNN — 

Southwest Airlines’ longstanding “customer of size” policy is generating new chatter, thanks to viral TikTok videos and media coverage surrounding efforts to push other airlines to offer seating policies for passengers who don’t fit comfortably into today’s narrow airline seats.

The policy, which Southwest says has been around for more than 30 years, allows passengers to purchase additional seats before travel and receive a refund of the cost of those extra seats after travel is completed.

Southwest encourages passengers to purchase extra seats in advance to help the airline plan for the number of occupied seats and to “ensure we can accommodate all Customers on the flight for which they purchased a ticket and avoid asking Customers to relinquish their seats for an unplanned accommodation,” the policy says.

Passengers can also speak with a customer service agent at the departure gate without purchasing more space in advance to receive complimentary additional seating.

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A TikTok video posted by user @Kimmystyled, featuring a passenger who asks to use the policy at a departure gate, has been viewed nearly a million times since it was posted in October. Southwest’s policy is unusual among US carriers.

“It should be the industry norm,” the post says. “Flying is public transportation and should be more comfortable and accessible for all people including fat and disabled people.” CNN tried to reach @Kimmystyled but did not immediately hear back.

Many commenters expressed support and thanks to the poster for publicizing the policy while others questioned the free seat. “I think you should get a seat for a lower fee but I am 6’7 and I pay for extra leg room,” wrote one.

An advocate for policy change

Jae'lynn Chaney wants all US carriers to "prioritize the comfort and well-being of ALL passengers."

Jae’lynn Chaney wants all US carriers to “prioritize the comfort and well-being of ALL passengers.”Jacob Ard

Jae’lynn Chaney agrees that the industry needs to be more inclusive of plus-size travelers. Chaney, a plus-size travel expert and content creator based in Vancouver, Washington, started a petition in April calling for a federal mandate requiring all airlines to have “a comprehensive customer-of-size policy that prioritizes the comfort and well-being of ALL passengers.”

Chaney told CNN Travel that the petition has received about 3,000 new signatures this week as recent TikTok videos related to Southwest’s policy have received more attention. About 40,000 signatures had been gathered as of midday Friday.

Chaney said she’s heard countless stories of people “who have stopped traveling because of their fear of how they’re going to be treated because of their size.”

“I still want to see policies like Southwest Airlines’ customer of size policy implemented across the board,” Chaney said, adding that she’s been speaking to US lawmakers’ teams to push for legislation that would require airlines to have customer of size policies.

She said that while some airlines list policies on their websites, Alaska Airlines is the only other US carrier that offers a customer of size policy that comes close to Southwest’s. Alaska requires the purchase of additional seats that are eligible for refunds after travel if all the passenger’s flights departed with an open seat available.

Chaney would like to see something like Canada’s “one person, one fare” requirement, which government documents say applies to passengers who are “functionally disabled by obesity,” passed in the United States.

Minimally, she wants every airline to be required to post a customer of size policy on their website. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean they all need to offer free second seats, but we need to at least have the information to navigate the different airlines,” said Chaney, who is organizing trips and retreats along with her partner tailored to accommodate people in larger bodies and those with mobility challenges.

Chaney said reaction has been mixed to her advocacy.

“I think there’s just a societal perception that fat people don’t deserve to travel,” Chaney said.

“The travel industry has been very, you know, exclusive and not inclusive to us and it’s been a space where we haven’t felt comfortable, and now I’m really trying to change that.”

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