Should Tall People Be Entitled to Complimentary Upgrades, or Required to Stand During Flight?

Chris Elliott writes about a man who was asked to stand onboard a Spirit Airlines flight, or so he says.

The man is apparently 6′ 7″ and that’s just pretty tall to be suffering a coach seat.

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, which is well below the industry standard and hardly enough room for a big guy.

Except, no, that isn’t well below the industry standard. Industry standard for coach seating is 31 inch pitch (distance from seat back to seat back). So some seats on Spirit may be an inch shy and others equivalent to industry standard, but certainly not ‘well below.’ (And according to Spirit, seating on the A321 does have industry average 31 inch pitch.)

Now, according to SeatGuru the average pitch on one of Spirit’s other aircraft, the Airbus A320, has only 28″ pitch in coach. It would be fair to say that’s well below industry average. But it’s not fair or correct for Elliott to say that the Airbus A321 is.

Now I’m second to no one in my belief that it’s just a downright silly decision to fly Spirit. I don’t think I’ve ever had a positive thing to say about the airline, or can even really think of one.

But in this case, the criticism really seems to miss the mark.

Someone who is too tall to sit in a coach seat shouldn’t buy a coach seat. Elliott thinks they should have been given an exit row or bulkhead seat. Spirit charges for advance seat assignments, which can be paid for during the booking process. They specifically advertise more legroom starting at $25. This customer, well aware of their height, should have purchased additional legroom.

The passenger’s wife says that “this is more like a handicap” so presumably she thinks he should be given those seats for free.

The flight attendants suggested he stand, but nowhere is it suggested that he was actually ‘required’ to stand as the column suggests. That’s a reasonable suggestion for when the seat belt sign is off, and of course for during flight and not for takeoff or landing. Elliott acknowleges it’s legal, I think it was quite customer friendly, some flight attendants might argue that he should have to remain seated ‘for security’ reasons. Instead, they were trying to help him cope with the standard seats he chose to purchase.

If he’s got ‘a handicap’ (and I’ve never heard of height as a protected class), then he should be well aware of the challenges and investigate and plan accordingly. Here it seems the $25 for extra legroom would make meaningful sense. And I don’t blame Spirit.

Now, the airline isn’t the most helpful. Eliiott says that he and the passenger have emailed the airline and not gotten useful answers. Though it seems to me that the useful answers are on the airline’s website, under seating policies, and they should ask about buying up to seats with more legroom (which can be done during the booking processs, or at this point at the airport for the return flight if those seats are still available).

Instead, here’s what Elliott believes:

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.

Of course, it’s not clear that those seats were unoccupied. And Spirit charges for those seats. I believe the passenger should have planned ahead and been willing to pay for them. Normally I suggest flying another airline, because Spirit just isn’t worth its cheap fares, but on the whole they would have faced the same challenges elsewhere.

What do you think, should tall people receive priority for complimentary upgrades, as Elliott seems to think?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I believe you are being overly harsh towards tall people.

    Airlines discriminate towards taller passengers by having seats that must be payed extra for. This is no extra luxury for the tall person but an average sized seat to him or her.

    Tell me why you think we should pay more?

  2. Tall men already get the best jobs, the best women and the best treatment wherever they go. Our ability to fit on public transport systems is the one thing us small men have over them. Don’t take that away from us!

  3. Larry,
    You are a genuine knucklehead. Just because your small doesn’t mean you have a smaller brain, maybe It does in your case. You obviously envious of tall people. Grow a brain you Dickhead!

  4. Being tall isn’t a choice. They already have accomodating seats on the plane. What they have is bad policy where they put a 5 foot woman in a seat with extra legroom then claim that there’s no seat for you as a 6′ 10″ individual. Easy problem to fix if they cared to.

  5. I actually agree with 10. Martin’s comment about shorter people being given priority at concerts and theatres. As a tall person I always try to head to the sides and back of a venue as my view is still often clear but I’m not blocking other people either.

    I believe airlines should better consider the varied heights of customers and the need for leg room. Besides the tall person themselves, no one else wants knees pressing into the back of their chair either.

  6. @Jared 34: To your $27 advertised “fare” you need to add the $55 that the average person shells in fees (see their financials). They’re a bit of a scam for the average passenger.

  7. 6’9″ ringing in with my 2 cents. Flying is a nightmare. On a standard pitch seat, My knees are entirely pressed against the seat ahead of me. On one flight I asked to be moved, but was told there were no other available seats. A few minutes later, the elderly woman sitting in front of me tried to recline her seat and with my knees in the way, could not. In fact it caused some serious pain in my knees. So the woman complained and said I must be using the seat jammer (device made infamous this year as it uses the joing in the seat and makes it so they can’t recline). The flight attendant said that she could be accomodated and was moved to a different seat where she could recline. I was given no compensation, no empathy, and sore knees for 3 weeks.
    I constantly get last minute assignments for work that require I travel to some remote parts of the country (I’ve been called on Sunday and been told to report the next morning); I don’t get time to plan my seat, if I am fortunate enough to pay extra money for the same amount of comfort everyone else enjoys, how is that not discrimination? Otherwise, I am cramped, miserable, and a menace to other passengers wanting to recline.

  8. Im 6’8″ im a musician i travel often for work, i consider myself lucky to be travelling the world making a living touring with several bands. Although i still have to be careful about money if i want to really make a living of it.

    In the 90’s I used to be automatically offered an exit row and never asked to pay for it. I think they use to care about it and to care about confort of passengers sitting in front of tall person.. Cause yeah, there s no way the person in the front seat will be able to incline their seat.

    Then I guess after 911 “incident” air business became harder to be profitable and then every reason became a good reason to charge more money.

    Today is march 11 and only in the last 4 months i ve spend almost 800 $ in upgrades and that is only to get an exit row. That was on 6 flights . This is a lot of money for me. I do it anyways cause there is no other ways and aslo ” I heard that in Canada”, 60% of these fees will be taxe deductible. Anyone heard about it?

    I will have answers soon , taxes season is approaching.

    Of course i could use sleeping pills and pass out for entire flight but i guess a sleeping giant is nt always a good thing for anybody, and can even become a dangerous situation in the case of an emergency. What do you think?

    Thx for hearing me


  9. 6’7″ checking in here. Quite literally sitting on a flight right now googling to see if I can get a seat where my legs don’t get crushed by the person in front of me. Paying more because of my natural stature doesn’t seem right considering the accommodation of other people’s natural occurring restraints (not to mention those seats are not always available to buy even if you wanted to). I don’t consider my height a handicap but, in this situation, it’s something that needs a bit of accomadation and it doesn’t seem unreasonable for an airline to take that into consideration with seats.

  10. 6′ 8″ just few to Europe with my son (also 6′ 8″) on Iberia and spent most of the flight standing in the back. Flight attendents (about 5′ 5″) were not very understanding and one was downright rude asking us bluntly to sit down!

    upgrades were a heck of a lot more then $50, or we would have gone for it, believe me!

    I’m for tall people getting first choice of bulkhead and exit seats!

  11. 7’0″ person here. I always asked for bulkhead seating/emergency row seating at the counter the day of flight, but usually they would take one look at me and automatically assign it. It’s only in the past 8-9 years that the airlines started charging for the “extra leg room” because of the economy tanking and cut backs. It used to be free, first come/first serve after you purchased your ticket. “Extra leg room” = “normal leg room” for us tall people, it’s not an upgrade, it’s a requirement. So why should we pay extra for it especially since we have zero control over it? The last time I flew (around 2011) they tried to charge me, but with me towering over her and explaining my point, she understood and thankfully hooked me up. It really should be considered a handicap, at least while on the plane and maybe make it only for people 6’6″ and over? Standing up is a ridiculous workaround, then you would be hunched over the whole flight.

  12. 6’6″ and just flew today, got to the airport early to get one of the few spare exit row seats that you can get here in Australia for $0. Get to my connecting flight and bumped to standard seating for a flight staff member who was no more than 5’4″. When you are mid 50’s you don’t bend as easily as when you were young and really paying for it now.

  13. 6′ 2″ guy here. I’m ok with paying a bit extra for more legroom, doesn’t bother me to do so one bit. BUT now with the new Basic Economy (which costs the same as normal economy did) you do NOT even have the option to pay money for extra leg room!!!

  14. Way on earth (or heaven) should a tall person pay more than a smaller person to have the same rate of comfort I am 6 ft 5 in, but must of my length is from my legs. On a normal economy seat my knees are always pressed against the seat in front of me and on longer flights my knees hurts for 3-4 days after the flight.

    In my passport my height is given and I think it is the same in other countries, so why not say from airlines that when it is stated in your passport that you are above 190 cm you are entitled to an emegency exit row at least.

    It is very frustrating to see a smaller person sitting in an emergency exit seat and have tons of space and knowing that the same person would have at least 10-20 cm between the persons knees and the seat in front if them in a normal seat.

    All it takes from airlines would be a little bit more focus on comfort in stead of focus on money.

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