Obese Airline Passengers: The Ensuing Debate

You most likely will not want to sit next to this gentleman on your next flight. Photograph ©istockphoto.com by courtyardpix.

You have probably heard this story before more than once on FlyerTalk: a passenger is seated in his economy class seat — only to be unfortunate enough to have a person purportedly weighing 400 pounds to sit next to him. The armrest — a definitive physical boundary between seats — cannot be lowered due to the girth of the morbidly overweight passenger, which encroaches upon the space of your seat for which you paid.
If you happen to be seated next to the window, you may not have ample egress from your row to use the lavatory and therefore may need to limit your intake of beverages during the flight — and the situation could be exacerbated in a regional jet aircraft.
Your options are as follows:
  • Suck it up and endure the entire length of the flight sitting in a fraction of the space in your seat for which you paid — and perhaps demand compensation or sue the airline after the flight has been completed
  • Stand for several hours during the flight
  • Ask the flight attendant if you can change your seat — assuming that one is available if the aircraft is crowded
  • Refuse to accept your seat and request that you switch to a different flight

…and — knowing FlyerTalk members — I would not be surprised to see additional options posted in the Comments section below. In fact, they are welcome.
According to many FlyerTalk members, one solution is for the airline to force the “person of size” — to be politically correct, I suppose — to purchase two economy class seats instead of one.
A woman actually sued Southwest Airlines over their seating policy, claiming that the airline discriminated against her because she was an obese black woman — although I am not sure what the color of her skin had anything to do with anything. The jury apparently agreed, as she reportedly lost the case
…and then there is the story of Kevin Smith, who was allegedly denied boarding onto an aircraft operated by Southwest Airlines for being a “safety risk” due to his size. Smith reportedly received a $100.00 voucher and apologies from representatives of Southwest Airlines.
Some overweight people do not attribute their physique to abundant calorie intake; rather, they cite medical conditions about which they have no control, such as Prader-Willi syndrome, Cushing’s syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, and other diseases and conditions, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Note: if you are a man who is overweight, I would not advise you to claim polycystic ovary syndrome as the cause of your obesity. Your credibility will evaporate with that one.
Anyway, the point is that just because a person is overweight does not mean that that person is automatically a candidate for being handcuffed to a full refrigerator at all times, as there could be a medical condition that justifies the girth of that person…
…and I do not recall meeting a person who is proud of being obese and would not have it any other way — not that those people do not exist. More likely than not, the obese person is probably embarrassed by having to live in a world that seems to be tailored for smaller people.
I would not know about being overweight, as I have never been obese. In fact, quite the opposite: I have a photograph of myself in a rowboat just before my 18th birthday where I was not wearing a shirt — and you could count the ribs on my chest. People would comment about whether my 140-pound body was eating enough — despite the fact that I downed two super-sized burgers, a large fries or onion rings or both, and a beverage from major fast-food chain restaurants in one sitting with no problem…
…and I can still do that today — not that I indulge myself in fast food very often anymore, as I do not particularly care for it. I only eat fast food once in a while these days just out of convenience, or if I have a coupon worth partaking in a trip to a fast-food restaurant. One thing is for certain: I have never had to watch my calories. Thank goodness my metabolism is still going strong.
The point here is that there is no need to launch inane comments or names at another person with regard to their physique — whether that person appears emaciated or rotund…
…but this issue is about fairness. You have a right to use up to all of the space allotted to you in your seat aboard an airplane — but an overweight passenger should be allowed to fly as a passenger if he or she pays for that privilege.
Airlines are not about to widen the widths of their seats, either. In a limited space such as an airplane, each inch is potential profit. Not considering the results of unhappy passengers, the basic theory is that the more customers you can cram into an airplane, the more revenue will be realized — and, perhaps, more profit.
So — what is the solution?
A new policy was announced by Southwest Airlines in November of last year where “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 even third — seat is needed, they will be accommodated with a complimentary additional seat or two.
This sounds like a solution which is worthy of a compromise. Like many passengers, there are overweight customers do not want to — or cannot — spend more money than necessary for an airline ticket. Purchasing a seat theoretically doubles the price of the flight — but then the passenger is practically guaranteed to have two seats available; whereas the policy announced by Southwest Airlines leaves things to chance.
Why not give every passenger the opportunity to purchase more than one seat on a flight, regardless of size? What if a person who is not considered obese wants to have an empty seat next to him or her? Would that not save the airline a few pennies on fuel?
FlyerTalk is littered with dozens of discussions pertaining to this hotly-debated topic — and with no real solution in sight upon which there is universal agreement, so this article is merely the “tip of the iceberg” and not meant to encompass everything associated with this issue. What are your thoughts on obese passengers? Is obesity considered a medical condition or a disability and therefore should be treated as such — or should the airlines charge passengers according to their weight by the pound or kilogram for airfare? Should obese passengers be denied from boarding the aircraft? Do you have any potential solutions which you would like to share? Please let me know, as there will most likely be a follow-up article posted here at The Gate

  1. I was on a HA flight recently where a perspn of size had to be extricated from his sea, by 3 people, in order to get to the lavatory. It litterally took 3 people about 5 minutes to get this passenger standing.

  2. Let’s not kid each other a person of size will pay more, to eat for their clothes,
    It is said a woman will purchase her weight in make up..
    A person of size will spend more in medical expenses, and will make less money in life.
    It is a choice of eating habits, and that extra bite will kill you, diabetes is not a fun thing to have this also includes cancer…
    We need to quit accommodating bad habits in this country, and live responsible.
    We have more cell phone than we have toilets. lose the weight..

  3. A POS needs to pay if they infringe upon someone else’s fair share.
    But at the same time, perhaps they shouldn’t be penalized.
    Perhaps they should pay 150% of their ticket for a vacant adjacent seat.

  4. I can see some type of policy being implemented at some point as more weight on the plane obviously costs the airline more. But let’s consider something else. As a status passenger on a few airlines or even as a card holder these days, you get to check bag/bags free of charge. What happens if I choose not to check any bags? Would that allowance be subtracted from the weight total? After all, people and luggage travel on the same plane. Obviously, if someone is quite obese and can’t fit into 1 seat creates a problem but if a frequent traveler with status, that passenger may get upgraded to First Class domestically and enjoy a wider seat not infringing on anybody else’s personal space. Sometimes, those upgrades don’t process until boarding, so how is that to be handled? If one gets upgraded to First Class and vacates the purchased Economy seat, then problem solved. That individual shouldn’t have to pay anything extra. Furthermore, if things eventually end up weighing in someone’s body figure, how will that be charged? If I can check a bag that goes on the plane for $25 and can weigh as heavy as $50 – if one is forced to pay extra based on current weight, how do you justify paying hundreds of dollars, especially if charging last minute fares, if the extra weight doesn’t travel separately and doesn’t get additional service by the flight attendants? Also, if weight becomes a factor – if someone purchases extra allowance/seat in advance and goes on a diet and potentially weighs less on day of travel, does he/she get a refund?
    I’m all for every passenger being treated equally but bottom line is factoring in weight would open a whole can of worms and will provide anything but fair treatment for everyone involved. Even currently, one might argue that for the same seat on the plane – whether Economy or a premium cabin – different passengers pay different prices, so, how is that fair? I usually purchase deep discount fares – compared to someone who buys last minute, that may be 2-3 times less for same amenities and service. Point is passengers are not being treated equally without bringing body mass into the mix – adding it won’t make things more fair, just more complicated.

  5. Charging people for being overweight is just messy nightmare and will never ever ever fly…
    I often see people boarding a plane with WAY WAY WAY to much carry on luggage and nobody blinks an eyelid. Americans are the worst for excessive cabin baggage by a long shot.. Not that its their fault its just the way US airlines have made it a necessity.
    Airlines should be far more vigilant of that weight walking onboard the aircraft in the form on cabin baggage…
    I have seen slim people complain of having to pay excess luggage yet they are traveling with about 20kg of to much stuff.
    A good solution would be for Airlines to offer reduced rates to purchase a second or third seat. Say 50% for second seat and an additional 25% for a third seat. Those extra seats come with no meals, no drinks, no baggage, no miles, require no check in staff, no loaders, and most of all no people in those seats so no WEIGHT. its a win win.
    Thats my 2 cents worth…

  6. It doesn’t MATTER one bit WHY someone is fat. Bad childhood, bad marriage, bad genes, bad luck, gluttony, DOESN’T MATTER. If you need two seats, or one and a half seats, BUY TWO SEATS. If a fat person can afford a Civic, and walks into a Honda dealership to buy a Civic, and can’t fit in a Civic, does the dealer sell that person an Odyssey for the price of a Civic? NO. If a person walks into a Subway sandwich shop and orders two sandwiches, he pays for two sandwiches. It doesn’t matter if he’s extra hungry because he hasn’t eaten in two days, or if he’s a glutton, if he has a metabolic disorder making his consume more, or if he’s going to donate one sandwich to the homeless guy outside or if he’s got a hungry kid at home he’s going to give the sandwich to. It doesn’t MATTER. He still has to PAY for two sandwiches. If you know you need more than one seat and you don’t buy two contiguous seats, you are commandeering — STEALING — what belongs to the person unlucky enough to book a seat next to you. I think that our all-you-can-eat-one-low-price culture has created some of this problem. People like me who work EVERY DAY to control our weight find ourselves in the position to subsidize the appetites of those who don’t/can’t/won’t control themselves every single time we walk into a buffet, where we pay for more than we need or want so that others can get more than they paid for. Well, it doesn’t work that way on an airplane.

  7. To planettrekker: What would happen in an emergency evacuation? Would that man, who cannot even stand to get to the lav without the assistance of three people, be up and out in time to make way for those around him? What if he’s in an aisle seat and someone else is in the window seat next to him? I’ve been told that the FAA is “trending” this stuff. You should report this to them via an email on their website. This man and those like him is a danger on board any aircraft.

  8. To SleeStack1: Why on earth should someone only have to pay for 1.5 seats if they are making two unsellable? When you buy two sandwiches and only eat 1.5 of them, does Subway give you back half of what you paid for one sandwich?

  9. If you walk on board a plane and see that half your seat has been, or will be, stolen by an obese seatmate, I don’t think YOU ought to be the one inconvenienced by having to take the next flight. That person KNOWS, or SHOULD, or WILL, that they need to buy two seats. THAT person is the one that should be removed from the flight, with no compensation or reward, and put on the stand-by list for the next flight, where they should be charged for the two seats they are taking up. These folks KNOW what they’re doing. Go on any of the “fat acceptance” travel blogs, there are many. These blogs instruct folks as to how to manage (bully) seatmates into wordlessly giving up part of their own seats. They encourage the obese to pervert others’ sense of politeness and/or fear of litigation or being thrown off the plane themselves in order to escape the cost of their own bulk.

  10. 1.) I was on a Delta Airlines flight in First Class, window seat, when an obese passenger sat down next to me. He was easily over 400 pounds. Despite that we were in First Class seats, he took up the entire armrest between the seats and was into my seat space too. I was the one wondering about whether my egress would be jeopardized in the event of an emergency. The flight attendants said nor did anything, waiting for me to complain to them. The flight was cancelled before departure, so it became a moot point.
    2.) I observed another situation in Coach with an obese passenger in an aisle seat. The middle seat passenger asked that the obese passenger be seated somewhere else where two seats were available. The flight attendant said there were no seats available on the plane and told the complaining passenger that Delta would book them on a later flight at no charge. The complaining passenger got off the flight and flew later.

  11. How about having a few special seats available that are one and half times the size of a regular seat. Charge one and a half times the cost of a regular seat. Other people who might like the extra wide seat space: parent and small child/infant or a musician carrying large instrument they do not want to risk checking. Take three seats across and make it a bench type seat with no gaps or armrest in the middle (or a least a cushioned one that folds up and doesn’t jam a person in the back). It could accommodate one very large person, two large people, two parents with several children, two musicians with their instruments, or a combination of above. Or, one very lucky person who can lie down to sleep if no one else is sitting there. In an era where we are limited in the weight of our bags, and charged extra for checked baggage, people who are very large, for whatever reason, need to pony up like the rest of us. Book well in advance to reserve special seating. Or make a large number of three across seats perform double duty. Not rocket science; should be easy enough to design and build.

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