Fact: No subject on this site is more incendiary — none — than overweight air travelers.
Also a fact: On my last road trip, I gained a few pounds. Well, more than a few. So now I’m not just a tall guy, I’m also a big guy. My next flight is going to be a squeeze unless I start dieting now.
If you’re a subscriber to our daily email newsletter, you’ve had a front row seat to the lively discussion about personal space. (If you’re not, it’s really worth signing up for now. We have lots of newsletter-only content that you’re missing.)
Every discussion about XL passengers inevitably boils down to one simple question: Should we charge more for people who weigh more? After all, many passengers enthusiastically embrace the philosophy of “pay more, get more.” Why not be consistent?
We’ll get there in a minute, but first, let me set up the discussion. It started with a letter to the editor from reader Joan Grey:
On a recent flight, I sat next to a male who was extremely large, as in big framed, like a rugby player, rather than being overweight. In fact judging by his bulging muscles, he might have been extremely fit.
Still, I think he should have purchased business class considering his size.
During the entire flight, he hogged the armrest, and poked me with his elbows when eating as he just didn’t have enough space for his body.
I also suffered that problem of being hit by the meals trolley and people walking up and down the aisles as I was squashed in the side of my seat.
I can’t understand why people aren’t complaining more about this issue. After all, I purchased a seat and expected to be able to occupy 100% of it, not have to move over to accommodate some large passenger who couldn’t be bothered purchasing a seat big enough for himself.
That prompted the following response from reader Melissa Goodrich:
I sat on a Delta flight from ATL-AUS, 5 rows from the front in Economy, aisle seat which I selected the moment I bought the ticket 4 months out.
An extremely fat man (400 lbs? more? I have no idea- he was either a potential round-the-world cruise ship buffet line champion eater or had a severe metabolic disorder) with mobility problems and wheezing, sat next to me in the middle seat.
His largish wife occupied the window seat. They had traded one seat on a different row so they could sit together already.
They were nice, clean looking people. But when the wife asked if I would trade my aisle seat for the middle seat, I declined, nicely, saying I couldn’t. I like the aisle and am not comfortable with the middle seat … and don’t really like the window seat either, which she did not offer.
The man was all over my space, shoulder, elbows, thighs, calves; he couldn’t help it. He would have barely fit in a first or business class seat either. The two times he got up to use the facilities, he struggled.
I spent a lot of time standing in the back of the plane by the galley. This made the flight attendants nervous, as the governor of Texas was on the flight in economy and his aides took up much of the first couple of rows.
Seats and space are too small for the modern overweight American- the percentage of fat people is increasing while the airlines prefer to look the other way and the economy passenger suffers. Watch the incoming on a Southwest plane – the experienced passenger will go to a seat sitting next to a normal person rather than take chances with an empty row.
And that, in turn, prompted the following response from reader Kristin Rosmorduc, who writes:
I am a petite woman who also books my seats right when I book my flight. I am a frequent business traveler and know to do that. However, I believe I had a schedule change and ended up in a window rather than my customary aisle seat on a flight from Atlanta to Washington Dulles.
A very large man was assigned to the middle seat and he definitely encroached on my seat so that I had to sit twisted towards the window the whole flight. I have a bad back and I was in pain the whole time and had to visit my chiropractor when I got home.
That man had no business in that seat! And from a safety standpoint, if we were to crash, he would not have been able to easily let alone quickly dislodge himself and I would have also been stuck.
I found myself grateful that I am petite and nimble because I could crawl over the seat in front of me if I had to. The flight attendants looked at me with pity but the flight was full and there was no open seat to move me or that man.
I didn’t say anything in front of him to not hurt his feelings but I did stop and complain to the purser when I left. She told me to complain to Delta customer service which I did. All I was given was a $50 voucher.
They should have had to pay for pain and suffering. To add insult to injury, the man ate junk and drank multiple cokes the whole flight. I work out and eat right, that is a whole separate subject. But, airlines should not allow large people in economy for safety reasons alone.
I know they don’t like to offend certain types of people but either they increase the size of their seats and/or require heavy people to buy two or buy business class for safety reasons alone not to mention the huge inconvenience and stress these situations cause other passengers. The extra weight cramming one heavy person in a seat must also cause fuel costs to rise too.
To me this is an issue that passenger rights groups should take up and get the industry to address. Perhaps that would ease the PR concerns of the airlines she trying to deal with these situations on an ad hoc basis?
By the way, the debate isn’t over. We have another letter to the editor that will publish tomorrow. Apparently, someone took offense to the latest letter.
We could be nuanced about this, but why bother? As a big and tall guy, I think I have a little license to ask the tough questions. It’s not a matter of whether people should pay more to fly when they’re bigger than the average seat size. I think it’s a question of should they be allowed to fly at all?
I mean, this can’t be safe.
Should there be a weight limit for air travel? If so, what should it be? 400 pounds? 600 pounds? Unable to fit into the seat?
Is weight a disability? (Honestly, as I sit here, I’m inclined to think it is.) How far should we go to protect the feelings of other passengers? Is being sensitive more important than being safe?
I have a lot of sympathy for the one-third of Americans who are obese. Losing weight is easier said than done. There’s also no evidence that an overweight passenger has caused any kind of airline disaster, ever. But that doesn’t mean it will never happen.