Spirit Airlines tells passenger who can’t fit into seat to stand

Katie Anderson’s son, Brooks, is 6′ 7″. The average economy class seat “pitch” on a Spirit Airlines Airbus A321 — the distance between seats on an aircraft — is between 30 and 31 inches, hardly enough room for a big guy.

When he flew between Chicago and Fort Myers, Fla., before Christmas, he squeezed his XL frame into one of Spirit’s tiny seats for takeoff, but was asked to stand for more than two hours, according to his mother.

Says Anderson,

They would not give him a bulkhead or exit row seat. He does not fit in a regular seat. His height prohibits this.

He is not overweight. It wouldn’t help to have two seats like an overweight person. This is more like a handicap. He can’t lose height.

Asking a passenger to stand for the whole flight is highly unusual, but not illegal.

Anderson wanted to know what she could do to make her son’s return flight more bearable. She sent a brief, polite email to Spirit, and I also contacted the airline on her son’s behalf.

The response from the airline? Nothing.

Both of us tried several times, and were either met with canned responses from Spirit’s outsourced call center or complete radio silence.

Anderson is exasperated.

It really is crazy. What if they had turbulence or other issues? I’m surprised it was allowed, let alone required of him. He’s dreading the possibility of a return in the same conditions.

(Anderson’s claim that her son was “required” to stand is contradicted by Brooks, told reporters today that he asked for permission to stand during the flight.)

Related story:   How to make United Airlines keep its promises

While Federal Aviation Administration rules require passengers to be seated with their seatbelts fastened during takeoff and landing, the agency strongly suggests passengers remain seated for their entire flight because of the possibility of turbulence.

In nonfatal airline accidents, in-flight turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to airline passengers and flight attendants. Every year, approximately 58 people in the United States are injured by turbulence while not wearing their seat belts.

From 1980 through 2008, U.S. air carriers had 234 turbulence accidents, resulting in 298 serious injuries and three fatalities.

No question, Spirit was putting Anderson’s son in harm’s way by requiring him to stand most of the flight.

And I agree with Anderson that standing on flights is a very bad idea. I have my own reasons.

So what should Spirit have done? A flight attendant should have offered to switch Anderson’s son to a bulkhead or emergency exit row, which typically has more legroom. Failing that, the crew should have tried to upgrade him into a premium seat, which has 36 inches of seat pitch. (By the way, that used to be the standard seat pitch before airline deregulation.)

That might have cost Spirit a little revenue, but it would have generated a lot of goodwill.

Is height a disability? Is weight a disability? Should airlines be required to accommodate passengers who are extra-tall or extra-heavy the same way they are currently required to accommodate people with other disabilities?

Spirit apparently thinks it shouldn’t.

Update (12/30): There’s been a lively debate about this case, and I’m grateful to all of you who have participated.

Related story:   Vampire bugs ruined my honeymoon

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating this incident. Anderson is also filing a grievance with the Transportation Department.

Anderson reports that the flight back to Chicago was far better for her son.

When we got to the counter we told the story of the flight down. A gentleman next to us checking in offered Brooks his first class seat.

The woman behind the counter looked a bit stunned at that offer and said that wouldn’t be necessary, they would be able to find him a seat in the exit row.

(Actually we were all stunned by his offer, but it must have been obvious to him that Brooks’ height is an issue.) It was interesting that they couldn’t do that on the way down.

Nice of Spirit to take care of Brooks on his return flight.

One more thing: I’ve been covering the airline industry since 1989, and in that time, the industry-standard seat pitch has been roughly 32 inches. So Spirit’s 30 to 31 inches are between an inch and two inches short, by my calculations.

There is no definitive authority on this issue, so to those who think I’m wrong, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. But I’ve decided to move the debate down here, since it’s distracting some readers from the point of this story, which is that a passenger couldn’t find a place to comfortably sit on a plane.

Thank you, again, for the helpful comments.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • Houchil

    The airlines know that people do not come in the same size therefore, there should be some accommodation in seating people who sizes or heights are above average.

    Seats should be provided in a particular row or rows for people who need special seating by placing either two larger chairs in these rows and removing the overhead for taller people instead of the three or four row/rows chairs that are positioned together with overheads. 

    When making your reservation, there should be a question asking passengers if they would need special seating during their travel.  Once the  airlines is informed or the needed seating from a particular passenger, there should be no problem in seating them.  And if you cannot accommodate then, they should be call per phone or send a letter informaing them of the problem you are having in seating them on your airlines.

    And addressing the man who stood for seven hours during his trip, his seat was not the seat the overweight man sat on, therefore, he should not have brought attention to the man who might have felt bad being overweight and now he has to be enbarrassad by a standing passenger who was to be seated next to him.

    The airline shouldn’t reward him any refund or special discount for his standing because he was out of control.  If it was the overweight man that stood, he has to talk to his lawyer or settle with the airline for one year free travel within the United States.

    Happy Holiday

  • Dave

    I am 6’6″ and fly often; seating comfort is important to me. I get a little more room on the aisle as I can put my feet out when the carts aren’t out.
    However my best choice is to fly an airline that allows me to choose my seat location such as exit row.
    I also try to qualify for elite level so that I get opportunities for upgrade; my wife is 5’4” so doesn’t care all that much about upgrades. 

  • crella

    Asking for a roomier seat at the gate is waiting too long. Exit row and bulkhead seats are ‘premium’ or ‘preferred’ seating which costs a little extra and which people take pains to book for themselves online. Someone who is 6’7″ needs to plan ahead, and book appropriate seating.

  • magatha1

    I remember a very tall man standing years ago on a flight from Anchorage to Chicago while some very short people were sitting in the bulkhead and emergency exit seats.  Height may not be a disability un the ADA, but what about some basic human consideration?  My husband is 6″5 and we always buy the exta leg room seats when available.  At least it’s something.

  • Fred Kuipers

    “It wouldn’t help to have two seats like an overweight person.”

    Spirit: Pitch 28.0″, width 17.5″
    Luxury Airline (Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy): Pitch 38″, width 21″

    3rd grade math, Pythagorean Theorem, tells us:
    Maximum angled pitch of 1 spirit seat= sqrt(28^2+17.5^2) = 33″
    Maximum angled pitch of Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy = 43.4″
    Maximum angled pitch of 2 spirit seats = sqrt(28^2+35^2) = 44.8″

    1. Purchase two seats.
    2. Sit at an angle.
    3. 10 extra inches-better than luxury airline premium economy seat.
    Problem solved.


  • Ronald Hoel

    I am a normal size person. I was on a flight some time ago and had a window seat in a three seat row. A heavy person was assigned the seat next to me and when he sat down, he promptly raised the armrest between our seats and sat down. His body protruded into my seat to the extent that I was pressed up against the side of the airplane. I was being squeezed. I had to leave my seat and ask for another one. Fortunately I found another in the back of the plane that did not recline at all. But it was better than nothing. It was either that or get off the airplane. Something is not right here.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.