Why tall passengers hate air travel, and what they’re doing about it

Tall passengers hate flying.

Jim Fox dreads flying.

With good reason. At 6-feet-10, the former NBA player has to squeeze himself into economy class seats, which isn’t always possible.

On a recent flight from Phoenix to London, he wedged himself into the seat for takeoff and landing. “The rest of the time, I had to sit in the jump seat in the back of the plane,” he remembers. The jump seats, usually located in the forward and rear of the aircraft, are normally used by flight attendants and have ample legroom because there are no seats in front of them.

“The seats weren’t always this small,” remembers Fox, who began playing professional basketball in 1967, a full decade before airline deregulation.

Tall passengers are finding less and less legroom

He’s right. The average seat pitch, a rough measure of legroom, has shrunk from 35 inches when Fox started flying in the late 1960s to about 31 inches today. While some of the reductions are partially the result of new seat technologies that allow for thinner seats, the amount of personal room has also dwindled dramatically.

In a world of disappearing space on aircraft, tall passengers are coping by avoiding air travel, paying more for their seats or honing their negotiation skills. But a long-term solution may need to involve thoughtful government oversight or at least a joint effort by the airline industry to help its tall passengers.

Rarely does an airline announce it will pull the seats closer together. Instead, it touts an “improvement.” For example, British Airways announced earlier this year that it would lock some of its economy class seats in place in 2018 to compete with discount carriers and keep fares low. That also removed the ability of taller passengers to carve out a little more personal space for their knees. JetBlue Airways, which has the most legroom in economy class among the major domestic airlines, announced an overhaul of its cabins last year that, by the way, would reduce its legroom by two inches, to just 32 inches.

Tall passengers are understandably furious

Ed Harrison, a technology marketing executive from Boston, stands 6-foot-6, and his approach can be summed up in just a few words: “I hate airline travel with a passion.”

Harrison’s strategies include switching to the train, particularly for short trips to New York or Washington. (Amtrak’s coach seats offer a more generous 39 inches of seat pitch.) Or he just avoids air travel entirely.

Economy Plus seating can save the day

Danny Genung, who is the same height as Harrison, can’t skip air travel. That’s because he’s a travel agent for a Travel Leaders Group-affiliated agency in Redlands, Calif., and must fly overseas several times a year for business. He’s grateful for the “Economy Plus” sections, which offer only slightly less legroom — roughly 35 inches of seat pitch — than standard economy seats did before airline deregulation. “Many people complained when airlines started selling these seats,” he says. “But I thought I won the lottery.”

Problem is, getting into those seats isn’t always possible. At Thai Airways, for example, premium economy class bookings account for 37 percent of U.S. reservations. Thai may be an outlier, since it doesn’t have a reputation for scrunching passengers into its economy class seats. On some long-haul flights, it offers a generous 34 inches of seat pitch. All of which makes that percentage remarkable. More than one-third of its passengers still try to upgrade to better seats.

On domestic flights, it’s not just the premium economy class seats that are full, but also the previously non-premium seats preferred by tall passengers, such as seats in exit rows and bulkhead rows. Tall passengers say they have resorted to negotiating for more room when buying it isn’t possible.

The exit row option

“Exit rows used to be free and easy to get, but more and more airlines now seem to categorize exit rows as ‘premium’ seats that require additional payments,” recalls John Kelley, the CEO of a Boston technology company, and who at 6-feet-3 doesn’t quite fit into a standard economy class seat. So he tries to talk his way into one.

“I always approach gate agents and kindly ask if there’s an opportunity to be seated in an exit row,” he says. In one out of every four attempts, he says, the ticket agent will look up at him and say, “Okay.”

The struggles of tall passengers raise interesting questions. Do they deserve special protections when they fly? Tallness isn’t considered a disability under federal law, so airlines aren’t required to offer special accommodations to these large passengers. If they do, however, then what about the wider passengers who can’t fit into standard economy class seats? That discussion opens a Pandora’s box and threatens to make air travel, America’s most class-conscious experience, even more segregated.

Sympathy from a tall guy

As a tall guy, I’m sympathetic to these passengers. I’ve experienced the indignities of flying while tall: bruised knees from bumping up against the seat in front of me; having my legs run over by a meal cart; bumping my head against the too-low overhead compartment. And then hearing airlines and their defenders claiming I “asked” for this torture because I wanted a low fare. At least the airlines generously offer a roomier business-class seat for a few thousand dollars more.

But Fox, the former NBA player, says enough is enough. “I never asked for a smaller seat,” he says. “I don’t think paying a lower fare means you’re asking for a small seat. That makes no sense.” He suggests airlines need to establish better internal rules for dealing with big guys like him. If airlines continue to move their seats closer together, “They have to have some policy in place for the tall passengers.”

Until then, there’s always the harsh glare of negative publicity. Consider what happened last year when American Airlines announced it would reduce the seat pitch from 30 inches to a bone-crushing 29 inches on three rows in its new Boeing 737 Max planes to fit 170 seats on the aircraft. It reversed course after passengers complained.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend