How Big Is Too Big for an Airplane Seat?

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Have you always considered yourself to be ‘too big to fly’? Or have you somehow increased a lot of weight in a short span of time, and you’re afraid you may not be allowed to board a flight anymore? If you said ‘yes’ to one of those questions, there’s a possibility that you doubt you are ‘too big’ for an airplane seat. 

But, the question is, are you really? In gist, No! You’re not too big for an airplane seat. In fact, if you do not fit into one seat, there are multiple options to help you out in your dilemma. Having said that, let us begin with the post.

How big is ‘too big’ for an airplane seat?

If you don’t know this yet, let us bring it to light: airplane seats are getting smaller, and people, on the other hand, larger. According to an Advocacy group Flyer Rights, the average pitch between seats has decreased about 4 inches on average. 

Now that obesity rates have exceeded 35% in nine states of the U.S. and 25% in other 48 states, you can hopefully understand how a decrease in seat space is a problem for plus-sized passengers.

So, it would not be wrong if you (or anyone) ask, “how big is ‘too big’ for an airplane seat?” Generally speaking, as stated by the policies of multiple airline companies drafted for plus-sized passengers, a person is considered ‘too big’ for an airplane seat if:

  • Upon lowering the armrest, they are unable to fit in the space, therefore, encroaching upon the fellow passenger sitting next to them.
  • If there is less than an inch of space between them (their body) and the person sitting next to them.
  • If they are tight-squeezed into a seat with the armrests lowered and can not put on their seat belt. 

Now speaking in context to the different airlines, if you are boarding a business-class flight, say Thai’s 787-9, you will be considered too big for the seat if you have a waist that exceeds the measurement of 56 inches.

A number of people that are about 300 lbs could easily fit in an airplane seat with a little discomfort when the armrests are down. However, it is observed that they don’t necessarily encroach upon the co-passenger. However, if you exceed 400 lbs at a petite height (say 5’4), there is a high chance you will be considered ‘too big’ for an airplane seat. 

Now that you have a general idea of how big is ‘too big’ for an airplane seat, let’s go through the five things that you can do as a passenger of size.

5 things you can do if you’re a passenger of size

Just because you have extra pounds on your body than many other people who take flights or a regular basis does not mean you’re forbidden to fly. A number of passengers of size have the irrational fear that they can not fly simply because they are overweight. This is completely wrong, and you, my friend, can board any flight (as long as you comply with their policies), despite how much you weigh.

Here are 5 things that you can do as a passenger of size to smoothen the process of traveling via flight while also trying to ensure that both you and your fellow passenger do not face any obstructions due to the weight factor.

1. Book the window seat

Although not every airline has the same seat measurements, it is often observed that the window seats are more spacious than the other seats, in any class, be it Economy or business. 

So, if you’re a passenger of size, generally with a weight in the range of 250 lbs – 300 lbs, you can hopefully fly comfortably in a single-window seat. However, as we mentioned before, every airline has its own seat measurement (which is more or less similar to the other), so make sure to check if their window seat is spacious enough.

2. Ask for a seatbelt extender.

If you’ve fit more or less comfortably in your seat but could not get the seatbelt extender across from you to be locked safely, you can ask for a seat belt extender which lengthens the belt, making the whole process easier.

We know it can be embarrassing for plus-sized passengers to ask for a seatbelt extender, while the people around them seem to have gotten the job done with just the seat belt. However, being discreet about it is not a very tough job. When you’re boarding the plane, ask for a seat belt extender to one of the flight attendants subtly, and they will provide it to you as unnoticeably as they can.

If you’ve asked for a seatbelt extender before, you’ll see most cabin crew members are perfectly fine with handing one over to you, that too with sheer subtlety, as if it’s a part of their regular routine (which it undoubtedly is).

3. Buy two tickets for one person.

If you’re traveling on an aircraft that is mostly tight on space, it is best to buy a second seat under your name while making your reservation. With an additional seat, you are exploiting the extended benefits of additional comfort and space. At the same time, you are also saving yourself from some snarky co-passengers who make sure that you know you’re making them uncomfortable in their seats because of tight space. So, buying yourself another ticket also buys you mental peace, which you most definitely would not want to compromise with.

Instead of buying a second ticket, when the airline points out they’ll be unable to fit you in one seat, it is best to go through their airline policy and make a reservation for the second seat accordingly. 

A number of airline companies state that a plus-sized passenger has to buy two seats to be considered eligible to board the flight. Since buying yourself a second ticket follows certain protocols, it is best to get it done earlier.

If you’ve not bought a second ticket for yourself, and it’s later (while boarding) that you find out you can not fit in one seat, you’ll need to buy a second seat at the last minute (which can cost a hefty amount of money). Besides, if there is no seat available, you will probably be restrained from boarding your flight, and you may have to wait until the next flight arrives (wherein there is an empty seat).

A number of airlines, such as Southwest Airlines or Alaska Airlines, give you a full refund for your second seat if there was at least one empty seat after the flight had departed. However, there are terms and conditions applicable on the same, so make sure you read through.

4. Leverage Miles and Points and Fly Business Class

It is a known fact that business class seats are way spacier than those of economy class, so if you are dangling between plus-sized and too-plus sized, you will do just fine in a seat in business class. 

However, we all know how costly business class seats are. So, do we drop the whole idea of enjoying comfort in spacious business class seats? No! We leverage miles and points to upgrade our seats to one of business class. 

5. Do your research before booking a flight.

Your comfort also depends on how good you are at research, which will eventually help you book your airline seat the right way, therefore ensuring both comfort and insurance against embarrassment.

These include knowing the seat belt and seat space measurements for the airline you are traveling with, stalking the seat map for availability, and buying preferred seats with more space, and knowing different airline policies tailored for plus-sized passengers.

  • Different Airline Policies for Passengers of Size

Different airlines tackle this in their ways, but ultimately it boils down to this: if one seat in all its glory- the extension seatbelt as well as lack of armrest, does not fit you, then you will be expected to pay for the space that you take up and purchase two seats. Here are some of the airlines and their specific policies:

Allegiant expects those passengers who cannot lower the armrest to purchase two seats adjacent to one another ahead of time to ensure the availability of seats.

American Airlines, United Airlines, and Spirit Airlines specify that if a passenger’s body extends significantly outside the far end of the armrest, then an additional seat needs to be purchased. If you discover this after boarding but are unable to purchase adjacent seats, the flight allows the purchase of adjacent seats at a later flight without a price hike.

Southwest Airlines approaches the situation considerably and offers additional complementary seating (subject to availability) or offers to fully reimburse the cost of the second seat, which passengers are advised to book in advance to ensure availability. 

Hawaiian Airlines, as well as Frontier Airlines, expect customers who cannot lower both their armrests to purchase two seats before travel. 

Delta Airlines offer seatbelt extensions to passengers of size (but you cannot carry your own). They also recommend purchasing an additional seat or paying for an upgrade such that more seating room is available.

Outside the country, you’ll see that the policies are more accommodating. For instance, Air Canada recognizes obesity as a disability and offers extra seating free of charge within Canada to those who might need it. British Airways does not, however, seem to think so and mandates double seat booking, but Air France offers 25% off on the additional seat. 

To ensure that you are aware of the latest policies, check out the airlines’ websites or call them up before you set out to travel.

Airlines with the Most Seat Space (in Economy Class)

Seat space is considered to be a combination of seat width as well as pitch space (space between your headrest and the one in front), and while it would be rather amazing if all airlines stepped up and took measures to accommodate passengers of size, but for now, we have these airlines who seem to be doing a good enough job for now:

JetBlue tops the list of airlines with the most seating space in the Economy, with a seat width of roughly 18.5 inches on their cheapest seats and a pitch of about 41 inches.

Other flights that offer great seat width include Virgin America (seat width of 18.7 inches and a seat pitch of up to 38 inches)

Hawaiian Airlines’ Airbus 330 has very roomy seating arrangements with up to 18 inches seat width and a pitch of about 32 inches. 

Cathay Pacific provides you with a seat pitch of about 32 inches and has seats that are roughly 18.5 inches wide. 

As far as international flights are concerned, a number of them offer very comfortable seating arrangements when compared to the national average seating sizes. Air Canada, for instance, has seat pitches up to 35 inches and a seat width of 18.5 inches in Economy Class. 


Q. Will a size 24 fit in an airplane seat?

A. On average, most airplanes both within the country and internationally, especially in the economy class, provide a seating space with an average width of about 17-18 inches seat width and about 31 inches pitch. The answer to your question is, yes, you will fit into an airplane seat. You should choose an aisle seat because they offer more space and also request a seatbelt extender ahead of time.

Contact the airlines to know if you can bring your seat extender or if they will have one on board. For specific seat width information for your flight, check out SeatGuru, which provides you detailed information, and also make sure you speak to the airline ahead of time if you have additional concerns. 

Q. Will a size 21 fit in an airplane seat?

A. Ideally, you should have no problem fitting in an airplane seat. It is recommended that you choose a window seat or an aisle seat for your maximum comfort. If you are traveling by economy class, it is advisable to check out your seat width on SeatGuru or by contacting the airline just to ensure that you will have enough space.

You most probably will not be needing a seatbelt extender either (on most flights), but it is good to check with the airlines to see if they have one should you wish to be more comfortable. Here is a tip, look for the roomiest seat while booking your ticket, and you are more than good to go.

Q. Can you bring your own seatbelt extender on the flight?

Most flights use a standard type of seatbelt, so in that aspect, you bringing your own seatbelt extender should not be a problem. However, the actual problem is with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose policies might just prevent you from bringing your own extenders on account of safety concerns.

Since the FAA does not have direct regulation over the manufacture or safety standards of the seatbelt extenders, passenger-owned extenders are most likely not to be allowed inside the flight. It would hence be best to contact the airline and understand their specific policies and also check whether they have extenders on board.  

Q. Where can I find my airline’s seat policy?

A. In general, many airlines list their specific policies and terms on their website, and you are likely to find this under Carriage Contract or similar names, or you will be issued such a contract when you book a flight with the airline which will be sent to you.

Suppose you are not able to find the information before booking the flight on the official website, contact Customer Care and ask them for specific information, which they will then forward to you in writing as well. Remember, policies are never constant and subject to change without public notification, and hence it falls under your responsibilities to constantly check for updates. 

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Author - Willa Carson
Happywayfarer author Willa Carson
Hi, I'm Willa Carson, a passionate traveler who has been exploring the world for 7 years. Whether it's trekking through the Himalayas, exploring ancient ruins in South America, or simply savoring a cup of coffee at a local cafe, I believe that travel has the power to enrich our lives in countless ways. So join me on my journey and let's discover the world together!
Read more about me here.

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