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United gets strict on ‘seatmates of size’

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Effective today, United Airlines has a new official policy that affects “seatmates of size” and those passengers seated near them.

The airline’s policy — posted on United’s Web site — states that if a passenger cannot fit into a single seat, buckle their seatbelt with an additional seatbelt extension, or put the seat’s armrest down, the airline will ask that passenger to pay for an extra seat or stay behind.

Spokesperson Robin Urbanski Janikowski, meanwhile, said the airline will first attempt to take measures to avoid the extra charge. “If there is another seat on the airplane that is next to an empty seat, we will re-accommodate our guest in that seat and there is no charge,” she wrote in an e-mail message.

Until the company’s posted policy reflects Urbanski Janikowski’s message, passengers — large and small — should consider printing and carrying both the policy and the spokesperson’s statements with them when they go to the airport.

The airline’s policy applies to tickets purchased on or after March 4, 2009, for travel on or after today, April 15.

Citing “the comfort and well-being of all customers aboard United flights,” the policy states passengers meeting “one or more of these criteria” must either purchase a ticket for an additional seat or purchase an upgrade to a cabin with larger seats.

A customer who falls into any of these categories who decides not to upgrade or purchase a second seat may be denied boarding.

While Southwest and other airlines have had similar policies on their books for some time, not all airlines are as cut-and-dry about how they enforce those policies when a passenger needs some extra space.

American Airlines, for example, reserves the right to charge passengers for a second ticket, but does so only if it can find no other solution, such as re-seating the passenger next to an empty seat at no extra charge.

“If a flight is not full, our flight attendants may be able to change passenger seat assignments in order to more comfortably accommodate all passengers,” said American spokesperson Andrea Huguely.

Second seat, same fare?

According to United’s new policy, if it is determined that a passenger is required to purchase an additional seat, then “the fare for that seat will be the same as the fare paid for the original seat … even if the additional ticket is purchased on the day of departure, when fares are normally higher.”

However, if there are no additional seats open or if an upgraded seat is not available, then the passenger will have to wait until the next flight or until a flight with adequate seating become available. If no seats are available or if a passenger decides not to fly, then United will refund the price of the ticket without penalties.

One upside of the new policy? Those purchasing a second seat will gain that extra baggage allowance. However, because carry-on baggage policies are determined by the Transportation Security Administration, not the airline, the per-passenger carry-on restrictions remain the same no matter how many seats a single passenger ends up occupying.

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