Do Overweight Passengers Deserve a Bigger Seat on a Plane?

Passenger forced to stand for a seven-hour airline flight - Elliott Report

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.

Her problem is widespread. Nearly 42% of the U.S. adult population is obese. But it’s hardly new. Passengers have been complaining about large seatmates since planes started carrying people. 

What is new is an idea taking hold among some passengers: XL 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 (though because of my height, not my weight), 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 have not kept up with Americans’ expanding waistlines.
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.

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, treating body size as a disability worthy of protection. 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 larger passengers stay home — and many have.

“People in bigger bodies deserve the same ability to travel as thinner people,” says 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.”

But the idea that being overweight is a disability 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.

Kathleen Panek, who describes herself as a “former wide load,” says the idea of giving oversize passengers a free seat is a nonstarter for her.

“Part of my wide load was my choice of what I ate and did,” says Panek, who owns a bed and breakfast in Shinnston, West Virginia. “I understand there are many who have medical or genetic reasons for their girth. But as a business owner, I understand there must be a profit to be able to remain in business.”

By the way, medical professionals now recognize obesity as a disease rather than a lifestyle choice. I’m not a doctor, but I imagine a fair number of airline passengers would disagree with that diagnosis.

Here are the options

So what should we do about XL 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.

Is this how to solve the problem of overweight passengers?

There are two issues here. One is America’s embarrassing obesity epidemic, which is far beyond the scope of a travel column. But clearly, we can’t talk about a solution to oversize airline passengers until we have a reasonable conversation about health. Simply demanding the airlines adopt a body-positive attitude is treating the symptom instead of searching for a cure.

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.

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