On a recent flight from Phoenix to London, Gerri Hether found herself seated next to an overweight passenger — so overweight that he couldn’t fit into his seat.
“His fat rolls flowed over the armrest into my seat and onto me,” says Hether, a retired nurse from Mesa, Ariz. “I don’t know how he even managed to get into the seat.”
Appeals to the crew were pointless because it was a full flight. So for the next 10 hours, Hether leaned against her husband in her economy class seat as the oversize passenger invaded her personal space.
Hether says the plus-size passenger was apologetic, and she understands that he could not control the seat size. But maybe it was her airline, not the passenger, who should have been apologizing, she says. The seats are too small.
Her problem is widespread, but it’s hardly new. Passengers have been complaining about larger seatmates since planes started carrying people.
What is gaining momentum is the idea that overweight passengers deserve a second seat. And they shouldn’t have to pay for it because their weight is a disability. As someone who struggles to fit into an economy-class seat (because of my height), I feel their pain. But getting to a solution will require a difficult conversation.
What are airline policies for passengers who need more room?
The current policies for airline passengers who need more room, whether it’s for you or your pet, have not kept up.
- American Airlines suggests that passengers who need more room purchase an extra seat at the time of booking. If you don’t, you can ask an airport agent to find out if two adjacent seats are available.
- Delta Air Lines does not require passengers to buy an extra seat. But if a passenger encroaches on another passenger, the airline may either move you to a different location or make you take the next flight.
- Southwest Airlines effectively gives overweight passengers a second seat at no extra charge. You have to pay for the second seat but will get a refund after the flight.
- United Airlines requires that you purchase a second seat if you need it, and will sell it to you at the same price as the first seat. If you need an extra seat on the day of your flight but haven’t reserved it, you may have to buy it at a more expensive rate.
Bottom line: Passengers who need more room have to pay for it on most U.S. air carriers.
Why overweight passengers deserve more room
Plus-size travel blogger Jae’lynn Chaney brought this issue to the attention of the flying public with an online petition that asked the Federal Aviation Administration to change its rules to protect overweight passengers. The petition called on the agency to provide alternative seating arrangements, larger seats, and other size-accessible accommodations “to ensure that all passengers can have a safe, comfortable, and enjoyable flying experience.”
Chaney’s requests are thoughtful, and she makes several valid points about the current state of air travel. Economy class seats are small, and they seem to be getting smaller. Plus-size travelers face discrimination and scorn by other passengers, who themselves can sometimes barely fit into their seats. It is enough to make some passengers stay home — and many have.
“People in bigger bodies deserve the same ability to travel as thinner people,” said Lindley Ashline, a frequent traveler and body acceptance activist. “When we consider some bodies less worthy than others, we start blaming those less-worthy bodies for the way that they’re mistreated, rather than blaming the people doing the mistreating.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has been listening to passengers like Chaney. Last year, it solicited comments on a proposed rule to create a minimum seat size.
But the suggestion that overweight passengers deserve special treatment doesn’t sit well with some airline passengers.
Is obesity a disability? Some passengers disagree
Air travelers have mixed feelings about giving large passengers an extra seat.
“Obesity is not a disability,” says TV producer and frequent traveler Mark Anthony DiBello. “It’s a choice.”
He says flight crews are plenty accommodating already. On several occasions, he’s been seated next to a large passenger. Every time, the crew members told him he would have to remain in his seat and dismissed his complaints about a lack of space.
“I was made to be the one who felt shamed and excluded for daring to feel uncomfortable,” he recalls.
By the way, medical professionals now recognize obesity as a disease rather than a lifestyle choice.
Kathleen Panek, a former plus-size passenger herself, says the idea of giving oversize passengers a bigger seat is a nonstarter for her.
“I understand there are many who have medical or genetic reasons for their girth,” says Panek, who owns a bed and breakfast in Shinnston, West Virginia. “But as a business owner, I understand there must be a profit to be able to remain in business.”
Here are the options for plus-size travelers
So what should we do about overweight travelers trying to squeeze into a tiny economy class seat? Here are the choices:
Pay by the pound. Some passengers say the most equitable way to accommodate all passengers would be to set their ticket price based on weight, as you would for cargo. “That’s the fairest solution,” says Rory Briski, an airline consultant from Bellevue, Wash. He says Samoa Air tried that a decade ago, and passengers liked it. Unfortunately, the airline ceased operations a few years later.
Buy a second seat. Many airlines allow you to book a second seat so that you have enough room. “That seems more appropriate,” says Mitch Krayton, a travel advisor from Denver who is no stranger to second seats. As someone who used to weigh more than 350 pounds, he often struggled to fit into a regular economy-class seat. “I had to ask for a belt extender, and I would ask if the armrest could be raised to provide a bit more room,” he recalls.
Give them a free seat. That’s the solution embraced by Southwest Airlines and by the Canadian government, which in 2008 introduced a rule called One-Person-One-Fare, which required that anyone “functionally disabled by obesity” be given an extra seat at no charge on certain flights within Canada.
But who are we kidding? None of these solutions will fix the real problems. (Related: What to do when your lie-flat seat doesn’t lie flat.)
Is this how to solve the problem of overweight passengers?
There are two issues here. One is America’s obesity epidemic, which is far beyond the scope of a travel column. But clearly, we can’t talk about a solution to accommodating plus-size airline passengers until we also address body sizes in a meaningful and respectful way. Simply demanding the airlines adopt a body-positive attitude is not enough.
What else? Well, no matter how you feel about whether larger airline passengers deserve a second seat, there’s agreement among most passengers that airlines are not blameless. They continue to move their seats closer together to fit more passengers on a plane. The FAA is supposed to issue a rule on minimum seat sizes any day now. It can’t happen soon enough.
Your thoughts, please
I’m aware that this is a radioactive topic, and I’d be lying if I said this story had fewer revisions than the average Jackie Collins novel. But that’s not going to stop us from having a civilized debate on plus-size passengers.