Obese Airline Passengers: The Debate Continues in 2019

A passenger reportedly charged a fellow passenger $150.00 for taking up a third of his seat space aboard an airplane due to his being obese — despite attempts by the large passenger to squeeze himself into his own seat as much as possible.

Obese Airline Passengers: The Debate Continues in 2019

Whether that incident actually occurred or not is not the point. Rather, the debate over obese passengers aboard airplanes is as controversial as ever.

“Most people don’t know it but you can actually buy yourself two seats in coach if you wish”, according to this article written by Gary Leff of View From The Wing in response to this discussion which was posted on Reddit — and has since been closed. “Southwest Airlines actually has the most favorable policy because passengers of size are supposed to, but as long as there are empty seats left on the flight the second seat cost will be refunded to them. They don’t define passengers of size so this is a trick anyone in theory could use.”

Reddit user BigBawluh posted in the aforementioned discussion, “I told the guy, ‘Look, I’ll put up with this if you give me $150 — that’s half the cost of this flight and that would compensate me enough for the circumstances.’”

The obese passenger “instantly agrees, pulls out cash and pays me. He even told me he appreciated it.”

Was this a good deal for all parties concerned — or did BigBawluh take advantage of the situation as well as the obese passenger?

Air Travel From the Point of View of an Obese Person

“Everyone is uncomfortable in airplanes. They’re designed to fit as many people as possible , which doesn’t lead to comfortable seats for anyone. Flying is costly, uncomfortable, stressful. Bags get heavy; flights get canceled; relationships get strained. No one is having a good time. And at the peak of all that stress  —  boarding the plane —  the person my fellow passengers see is me. Rather than being a compatriot, stuck in the same frustrating, uncomfortable situation, I become a scapegoat for all that frustration. I become an effigy of every slight they’ll face, a symbol of every inconsiderate passenger, every unwelcome reclined seat, every oversold flight.”

That statement is from an unidentified person known only as Your Fat Friend who wrote this impassioned article pertaining to air travel from the point of view of an obese person for Vox back on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

Obesity: A Controversy For Years

As seats seen to continue to shrink aboard commercial airplanes in the attempt to squeeze more passengers — and, thus, more revenue — out of every flight, the controversy of obese passengers invading the space of fellow seat mates only becomes more prevalent…

…and, of course, confrontations and lawsuits follow.

“Flyer Stephen Prosser is suing British Airways for being seated next to an obese passenger on a flight more than two years ago, claiming it left him injured”, according to this article written by Sara M Moniuszko for USA TODAY. The lawsuit was filed by Prosser — who is 51 years old — in November of 2018.

Then there was this discussion as posted by FlyerTalk member joshuamillman on Saturday, August 30, 2014, which has since been closed to further discussion:

Sorry if I seem irate but I just spent the last 1.25hrs literally CRUSHED on a USAir flight. It was one of those small regional death trap lear jet planes with 2 rows on each side of the aisle. If you are only 5′ tall you still need to duck to walk through.

I have the aisle seat and a man 6’3″ and Id estimate at least 300lbs is next to me in the window. How he even got in the seat without smearing soap all over himself is beyond me. I dont even think the seat belt got around his stomach. He took up his seat and 60% of my seat and was also crushed up against the seat in front of him. I would even go so far as to say that size person should be prohibited on that size airplane. I actually spent the majority of the flight sitting on the toilet as it was more comfortable!

Im in line now at customer service to see if I can get a refund of sorts. Im sick of these hippos on these airplanes. They know how big they are and should be required to buy 2 seats.

Although I do not condone the use of the word hippos to describe obese airline passengers, that last line caused me to wonder: you would most likely not allow me as your seat mate to use half of the space in your seat to place my belongings. Why would you tolerate having me take up half the space of the seat for which you paid simply because I was obese?

Looking at this from the other perspective, would you willingly pay full fare knowing you would have the use of only half of your seat? Would you do it if the airfare was only half of what you would typically pay?

With airlines attempting to cram more passengers onto airplanes in order to literally squeeze more revenue from each flight, there is no relief to this issue anytime soon — for either obese people or tall people…

…but tall people usually cannot infringe upon the space of another passenger — unless they recline, of course; and as you most likely by now know from the news last week, seat recline aboard an airplane is also a controversial issue.

An article written by me pertaining to the debate over airline passengers who are obese was originally written on Friday, March 22, 2013; and it continues to be a contentious topic. I am not obese; but what exactly are the rights which obese people have? Should they receive special dispensation simply because they are unable to fit in the seats in which they are assigned? Should they purchase a seat in the premium class cabin or two seats in the economy class cabin? Like others, obese people should not have to deal with discrimination — right?

The Experience of Vilma Soltesz

It is not as easy as that, unfortunately. Vilma Soltesz — who was 56 years old, weighed 425 pounds, had only one leg and used a wheelchair — died in October of 2012 from kidney failure after allegedly being denied boarding an aircraft at the airports in Budapest, Prague and Frankfurt while attempting to return to her home in New York, according to her husband Janos.

Holly Ostrov Ronai — who is an attorney and co-founder of the law firm of Ronai & Ronai, LLP, which was hired by Janos Soltesz seeking 5.7 million dollars in damages from three airlines — stated that what is “quite telling is that Mr. Soltesz had a tiny little Suzuki car and was forced to drive his wife from the Budapest airport to the airport in Prague. He got Vilma into his tiny little car all by himself, yet the airlines couldn’t manage to get Vilma into a huge aircraft.”

The case was reportedly filed on Monday, June 2, 2014 with Richard J. Sullivan assigned as the presiding judge of this case at New York Southern District Court in the Bronx. Even though court documents show that Janos Soltesz — who is the husband of Vilma Soltesz — quietly settled a lawsuit with Delta Air Lines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Lufthansa back in August of 2014, did the three airlines all discriminate against Vilma Soltesz simply because she was considered too obese? Did her estate have a case in the first place?

Although I have written several articles over the years at The Gate pertaining to overweight passengers, back on Sunday, March 24, 2013, I first reported in this article on Bharat P. Bhatta of Fjordane University College in Norway suggesting three possible methods of airlines implementing a policy of charging:

  1. A straightforward price per kilogram or pound
  2. A fixed low fare with heavier passengers paying a surcharge and lighter passengers being offered a discount
  3. Divided passengers into three groups — heavy, normal and light — and have them be charged accordingly

At Least One Airline Which Charged Passengers By Their Weight

Curiously, 2013 was reportedly the same year that Samoa Air started charging its passengers based on how much they weigh and became the first airline to do so:

A world first: The “Samoa Air System” of pay by weight ‘Pay only for what you weigh’!

Welcome to the fairest system for payment of carriage of anything by air. The world is now aware that charging by weight is the fairest way of paying for carriage. Whether its people, baggage, freight or anything which we might want tot take or consign by air.

At Samoa Air we will do our best to ensure that every passenger is afforded the same level of comfort and travel throughout their flying experience. We want to bring back Air Travel as an enjoyable experience, where you, and your baggage will always travel together. No more excess fee’s are charged and no more discrimination, because as we know: A kilo is a kilo is a kilo!

The Sky’s the Limit!

Samoa Air — not to be confused with Samoa Airways — no longer exists, as it ceased operations in 2015.

This initially may sound like a good idea in terms of pure logic — you weigh more, you pay more — but could this lead to discriminatory practices by employees of airlines? What if the passenger has a medical condition which prevents him or her from being able to lose weight or girth through typical means, such as a diet or exercise? Perhaps certain passengers with known physical ailments might be targeting next by the airlines to avoid having to deal with a medical emergency aboard the aircraft during a flight — or consider excluding passengers with mental issues, passengers of a certain age, or passengers with certain acknowledged beliefs and ideals.

Also, does this potential ancillary fee pave the way for possible abuse by the airline? What if fuel prices decrease significantly? Will the airline lower ticket prices as a result? Fat chance — pun intended.

This does not even address the issue of whether or not obese passengers will be able to have two seats in which to sit if they do indeed pay more. While it is certainly better than attempting to squeeze 500 pounds of human into a single seat, I cannot imagine that straddling two seats with a raised armrest pressing against your back would be all that comfortable. Should the airline not only provide two seats if the overweight passenger pays for them, but also some sort of removable or adjustable alteration to help increase the comfort of sitting in two seats simultaneously?

Despite its potential drawbacks, I suppose this proposal still beats the alternative of being denied boarding an aircraft altogether primarily because of weight or girth.

It can also possibly fend off lawsuits: for example, Shawn Coomer of Miles to Memories reported in this article that James Bassos — a passenger from Australia who sued Etihad Airways because he was reportedly hurt after sitting next to an obese passenger on a flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney back in 2011 — claimed he had to “contort and twist” to avoid the obese neighbor who he said coughed and “expelled fluid from his mouth.”

Not long after that lawsuit seemingly pervaded throughout the media, Katie Hopkins — a television personality in Great Britain — expressed her opinion that overweight passengers should absolutely be subject to hefty fines during a preview of an episode of her show, If Katie Hopkins Ruled the World.

Summary

Speaking of the United Kingdom, the only way I know of passengers currently being charged by the pound is if their purchased their airfare in countries such as the United Kingdom — but I digress once again; so please pardon me.

Although obese passengers could add weight to the aircraft — thereby theoretically increasing fuel costs for the airline — the real issue is the rights of passengers who are forced to suffer being seated next to a passenger whose girth infringes upon the space for which they paid. I know that I like to be as comfortable as possible when I am seated aboard an aircraft — and I want all of the space for which I paid to be available to me at all times.

I really do not believe that is asking for too much.

Perhaps I am “mixing apples with oranges” here; but if the airlines had adopted a revenue model with which frequent flier loyalty program miles and elite level status will be based on money spent by passengers on airline tickets as well as by distance flown, then would this policy of charging passengers by weight instead of a flat airfare — assuming that passengers paid the same price for the same class of airfare, of course — also make sense?

Even more importantly, could charging passengers by their weight be a way to avoid the experience endured by joshuamillman? A representative of US Airways reportedly advised joshuamillman — who was ultimately given a gift certificate worth $100.00 towards future travel as compensation — to say something before the airplane door is closed; but that could mean humiliating the overweight person, which is something joshuamillman is apparently loathe to do.

Could charging passengers by their weight in and of itself be considered discriminatory? One might believe that it could be an incentive for someone to lose weight prior to a scheduled flight — but that automatically assumes that the person is in control of how much he or she weighs. There are people who are obese for medical reasons and not merely because they consume food with too many calories…

…but does charging a fellow passenger for occupying part of a seat which he or she did not pay — if it actually happened — create a dangerous precedent which could obfuscate other aforementioned possible solutions?

What do you believe is a possible mutually beneficial solution to this ongoing debate?

Photograph by FatM1ke, which is used under the Creative Commons 3.0 license and is found here.

4 thoughts on “Obese Airline Passengers: The Debate Continues in 2019”

  1. Azamaraal says:

    There is no medical condition that FORCES people to be obese
    .
    Every pound of weight costs a flight a certain price. The lower the takeoff weight the lower the fuel cost.

    Ticket prices should be based on total weight (person+checked luggage + carry on).

    Water to my house is metered any I pay for what I use. If I refuse to allow a water usage meter I am charged a very high price or am cut off.

    It a public utility can charge a fee based on cost (usage) then an airline has the same right as established in law.

    Charge by the pound = problem solved.

    And I would finally lose those 10 extra kilos

  2. priscilla says:

    In the time when the seats are getting increasingly narrower, the airline should clearly state who will and who will not fit into those terrible seats and have a clear policy regarding the issue. You simply can’t and should not fit more than 250 lbs of weight into those seats. The way Southwest deals with it is exemplary and customer friendly – but customer friendly is too much to ask from the airline industry these days
    IT is on the airlines to deal with this situation.
    I think they should implement the same system they have for the carryons; they don’t allow the carryon larger than certain size on the plane. They should reserve the right to do the same with the passenger of a large size.
    – for example the notification ” if you are a wider then certain number of inches – you will not fit in the seat and may not be able to travel ” should appear at the time or purchasing of the ticket and there should be an option provided to purchase two tickets. If the obese person buys only one ticket – he would be at risk of denied boarding if there are no empty seats on the plane. If there are empty seats, the fee for an extra seat should be refunded just like Southwest does.

  3. Azamaraal says:

    Last I heard Alaska Airlines had the policy that if a person cannot fit between the two armrests then they have to purchase two seats. If the flight flies with even one seat empty then the second seat price is refunded. Seems fair to me. But I’d rather get charged by the pound.

  4. Just do not touch me and I don’t care how fat you are. But do not touch me.

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