You’re spilling over into my seat, and it’s giving me PTSD

If there was any doubt the airlines are putting profits above the comfort — and in many ways, the safety — of passengers, they’ve been dispelled by recent news.

True, economy seats are smaller and closer together, meals are scarce and not particularly healthy, and the entire experience of flying is so stressful that passengers are even in danger from one another.

But are passengers milking this situation? Maybe.

Complaints about obese passengers are on the rise

Take the case of Australian Michael Anthony Taylor. He apparently flew from Sydney to Los Angeles in a window seat — or at least he was assigned a window seat. Taylor claims that two obese passengers were assigned the other two seats in his row and he spent the majority of the 14-hour flight “crouching, kneeling, bracing or standing.” He further claims that he wasn’t permitted to change seats; his request to sit in a crew seat, in the aisle or in the lavatory was denied; and the conditions he was forced to endure caused back injuries and neck bruising, and worsened his scoliosis.

The total of his suit is in excess of 100,000 Australian dollars ($74,400). Taylor also claims he lost wages as a result of the flight, requires numerous medical treatments, and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. No, I’m not kidding — Taylor claims he suffered so severely from being seated next to two obese people that it caused him to have what the Mayo Clinic defines as, “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”

So it was terrifying to sit next to obese passengers on a long flight, but also claims he isn’t upset with the other passengers — just the airline. 

An injury caused by passenger “spillover”?

It’s not the first time someone has filed suit against an airline claiming injuries caused by sitting next to obese passengers. An Italian lawyer filed suit against Emirates, also in an Australian court, claiming he was forced to suffer a nine-hour flight sitting next to an obese passenger. The “spillover” of the passenger forced him to stand in the aisle or sit in crew seats, but he had no choice but to endure the uncomfortable reduction in seat space during takeoff and landing. The case is still pending.

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Etihad Airways was also subject to a lawsuit by interior designer James Bassos in 2012. He claimed in an Australian court that his seatmate was “grossly overweight” and the encroachment on Bassos’ seat caused him great pain. The case was dismissed because Bassos died before it could be resolved.

According to a study by an international group of researchers called the NCD Risk Factor Collaboration, more than 40 percent of the world’s adults are now considered to be overweight or obese. As seats get smaller and passengers get larger, resulting in more discomfort for both themselves and their seatmates, are we to expect more claims of injury and more of these lawsuits?

Lawsuits from both sides of the seat equation

Seatmates aren’t the only ones suing. In 2012, New Orleans resident Kenlie Tiggeman sued Southwest Airlines, claiming its agent discriminated against and embarrassed her when he told her she was “too fat to fly,” and forced her to buy an additional seat. Tiggeman claimed that she should be told at the time of purchase whether she needs to buy two seats, rather than when she’s checking in for her flight.

The most obvious problem with this claim is that according to multiple studies, the majority of airline tickets are bought online, so neither an agent nor an airline staff member would see a passenger before selling the ticket. And exactly how many people are honest when questioned about their weight by someone who can’t see them? In fact, people aren’t even honest when giving their weight to someone who can see them. Seriously, how many of you gave your real weight to the person making your driver’s license? I know I fudged it a little.

The only times that I’ve ever experienced a situation where honesty was forced was on helicopter rides in Hawaii and in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where the companies actually weigh you before assigning you a seat. I’ve also been on small planes where the pilot needed to redistribute the weight and passengers were asked to move to different seats, but they were neither weighed nor asked about their actual weight — passengers were merely selected by sight.

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Have any airlines developed a policy concerning obese passengers?

Southwest Airlines seems to be the only airline with an actual overweight passenger policy in its contract of carriage:

Customers who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s) may proactively purchase the needed number of seats prior to travel in order to ensure the additional seat(s) is available. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats; width between the armrests measures 17 inches. The purchase of additional seats serves as a notification to Southwest of a special seating need, and allows us to adequately plan for the number of seats that will be occupied on the aircraft. In turn, this helps to ensure we can accommodate all Customers on the flight/aircraft for which they purchased a ticket and avoid asking Customers to relinquish their seats for an unplanned accommodation. Most importantly, it ensures that all Customers onboard have access to safe and comfortable seating. You may contact us for a refund of the cost of additional seating after travel. Customers of size who prefer not to purchase an additional seat in advance have the option of purchasing just one seat and then discussing their seating needs with the Customer Service Agent at their departure gate. If it is determined that a second (or third) seat is needed, they will be accommodated with a complimentary additional seat(s).

Other airlines only seem to require that a passenger who is unable to sit in a seat with the seatbelt fastened will not be allowed to fly. Some airlines also stipulate that only one seatbelt extender can be used, while others have no official regulation.

I understand that passenger A would be annoyed that he could be required to pay more for a ticket to get from Los Angeles to New York than passenger B, but passenger B would also be annoyed if he paid to sit in only half his seat.

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Could a passenger really develop PTSD after one uncomfortable flight? 

That’s the position in which Australian plaintiff Taylor found himself: paying for a seat that he was unable to fully use. He apparently suggested several resolutions that would be acceptable to him, but the crew on board denied them all, leaving him injured and suffering from PTSD.

But Taylor filed his lawsuit 17 months after the flight that allegedly injured him. He waited until a man was dragged off a full flight and settled with United Airlines, a mother had a stroller yanked from her hands and settled with American Airlines, and airline executives were called in front of Congress to answer for the way the companies treat their passengers. Did it take him that long to find someone who would argue his case, or did he decide that all the bad publicity surrounding the airlines made the timing perfect?

No comment from American Airlines

American Airlines was asked for comments on the lawsuit from multiple news agencies, but it declined to comment, saying it had just received notification and had not been able to review the case. We’ll keep an eye on this one and wait to see how it turns out. Regardless of his suspect timing, Taylor’s suit could have implications on how much smaller airlines can make their seats.

And in the meantime, American Airlines also announced it would reduce the legroom in some of the seats in its new Boeing 737 jets by two inches. Three rows of the new aircraft will be affected by this reduction. The remainder of the economy rows will be reduced by one inch, resulting in the addition of more seats on the plane. When you put profits above people, you can expect more problems, more unpleasantness, more fights and more lawsuits.

Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans. Read more of Michelle Bell's articles here.

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