On buying an extra seat

This item appears on page 14 of the November 2009 issue.

I’m writing in response to the news item “Passengers of Size Pay Double” (July ’09, pg. 23), on United Airlines.

Before I started flying in business class in my older years, I found that when my wife and I booked bargain fares in economy class, buying a third seat was far less costly than flying in the forward cabin, yet it provided significantly increased comfort, especially on long flights.

United calls it EXST (extra seat), and for a long time they would not offer mileage credit for it. A couple of years ago that policy changed, and now the EXST is linked to my account and I earn miles for both seats.

If one springs for Economy Plus in addition to the extra seat, the available space is actually quite generous and you are always assured of having the empty seat next to you. With two travelers flying together, that premium is actually pretty modest and occupying three seats is still spacious.

There are, of course, some possible problems. On a flight to Europe years ago, my travel agent booked me seats B and C, not realizing that in that particular aircraft, with a 2-4-2 seating plan, seat C was across the aisle from seat B. Fortunately, the flight attendants were able to reassign my seat so that I would have the use of two contiguous seats.

The other unforeseen circumstance involved a flight to Europe at the beginning of Gulf War I. Here is Klatt with his extra seat in a 747, but there were only two other passengers in the entire rear cabin. I would have had my choice of five seats in a row anywhere. At least, I helped out United on that trip!

Being six foot three and on the portly side, I will say that I have absolutely no problem if airlines want to charge for extra space or extra weight. If the fanny does not fit between the two armrests, you should expect to buy either a larger seat up forward or an extra seat in the rear cabin. It seems like a no-brainer to me.

To say what United says, that the extra seat will be provided at no charge only if there are any empty seats, does not seem like a workable policy to me, because until check-in time there is no way of telling whether a flight may become fully booked or even overbooked. Imagine the hassle if a person buys the extra seat but it turns out that there are some empty seats on the plane and the person should thus get a refund.

Some people feel that they deserve to occupy two seats while paying for just one of them. I consider this grossly unfair to the airline. And if a portly passenger somehow manages to squeeze into a single economy seat, I pity the poor fellow who is seated next to him and into whose paid-for seat he expands.

In the end, it is really our own fault, with our insistence on flying on the cheap, no matter what. Since deregulation, the general public’s insistence on flying as cheaply as possible has resulted in the airlines’ having to squeeze the maximum number of seats into their aircraft.


Berkeley, CA