Here's What to Know About Southwest's Viral Plus-Size Traveler Policy

The airline's policy isn't actually new but it is a game changer for travelers of all sizes.

A popular policy from Southwest Airlines that offers up to two free additional seats for plus-size travelers is newly making the rounds on social media after a video showing how to use the policy went viral on TikTok.

While many were not previously aware of Southwest's customer of size policy, it isn't a new one for the airline. "We've had this long-standing policy for more than 30 years designed to meet the seating needs of customers who require more than one seat," a Southwest Airlines spokesperson told Thrillist. The airline also highlighted that the policy is intended to "protect the comfort and safety of everyone onboard."

Below are the details on what the policy is—and isn't—and details on how it works.

How the policy works

If a Southwest passenger needs additional airplane seating because they encroach on any part of a neighboring seat (the armrest is considered the boundary between seats with this policy), they can purchase additional seats ahead of time, then contact the airline for a refund of the cost of the additional seating after travel. This helps notify Southwest that the accommodations are needed and allows them to plan for the number of occupied seats on a flight.

Once at the airport, the passenger receives an extra seat boarding document to place in the reserved extra seating. Those travelers using the policy can then either pre-board or board in their original boarding group, but pre-boarding does offer more options to find seating and get situated. Once onboard, passengers can ask flight crew for a seatbelt extender. After the trip, passengers can simply contact Southwest and they will refund the cost of the additional seating.

If a person chooses not to purchase additional seating in advance, they do have the option of asking a customer service agent at the check-in desk or gate and if they determine an additional seat is needed, the agent will work to accommodate the passenger at no cost.

Does it increase everyone's flight prices?

While Southwest's customer of size policy is meant to keep all passengers safe and comfortable, the recent attention has drawn much outcry online. So we ran a few of the most common complaints voiced on various social media platform comment sections past the airline.

While some travelers worry that the policy will increase flight prices across the board, when asked Southwest assured Thrillist that the "long-standing policy is not related to the cost of airfare." Many commenters were angry that tall or pregnant passengers aren't given the same option, but once again, the guidelines for the policy are based on if a person comfortably fits between armrests while they are down, which is a safety concern.

"If a customer is unable to lower both armrests and/or encroach upon any portion of a seat next to them, they need a second seat for safety reasons," Southwest told us. At the end of the day, flying isn't comfortable for many passengers of all sizes, but everyone deserves to have a safe flight.

Why it matters

So why is a policy like this so important? Because travel should be accessible to all bodies. Although fatness isn't inherently a disability, our society still treats or sees fat people as inferior. The comment section of any story on social media talking about this policy easily proves that. Even the word "fat," which is only a description, has a negative connotation culturally. Southwest Airlines offering accommodations, especially ones that don't negatively affect fellow travelers, is one way a larger corporation is showing that all their customers equally, which should be the bare minimum in treating others with respect.

Overall the policy is making a positive impact for so many plus-size travelers. I would know because I've personally used Southwest's customer of size policy for years for dozens if not more flights. For a long time flying was stressful for me. I would worry about making other passengers uncomfortable if I took up too much space while also worrying about my own safety. And many airlines, although they will be accommodating if you ask and they have the availability to do so, do not have a policy or standard procedure if a passenger doesn't fit comfortably in their seats.

Since discovering Southwest's policy, I fly almost exclusively with the airline when I can. It's given me peace of mind when I travel. I'm able to board early and ask for a seat belt extender and get into a seat so I'm not bumping people in the aisles as I pass through. I'm able to not worry about squishing next to a stranger and making both of us have a more uncomfortable flight. In fact, I've told many passengers of all sizes about the policy and have received positive responses from everyone that it's available (if you can't already tell, I'm a total customer of size, or COS as I call it, fangirl). Because of the policy, I feel empowered to travel and adventure more places.

So the next time you fly Southwest, if you notice a reserved seat ticket in an empty seat you'll know why! And remember, if a policy existing doesn't directly affect you but helps someone else, there's truly no need to get upset, just sit back and enjoy your flight.

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Lisa White is a contributor for Thrillist. Follow her on Instagram.