Passengers of size present a challenge for seatmates and airlines
It’s true, Americans are getting larger and airline seats are shrinking. So confrontations between passengers of size and their fellow travelers are inevitable.
The average American man weighs 15 pounds more than he did 20 years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the average American woman weighs 16.2 pounds more.
The average seat pitch, a rough measure of legroom, has dropped from 35 inches in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. And the average width has shriveled from 18 inches to about 16.5 inches.
Airlines are more sensitive to territorial seat skirmishes than ever. But air travelers have developed their own tricks, too. They might save you from being squeezed on your next trip.
What airlines do with big passengers
Oversize airline passengers fall into two broad categories. Some travelers can’t fit into the seats because of their hip size. Others are too tall to contort into an economy-class seat with limited legroom. The ones that generate the most complaints, perhaps unfairly, are the ones who spread into the next seat.
That’s what happened to 73-year-old Sam Cristol. He found himself seated next to a 6-foot-7, 500-pound passenger on a 5.5-hour JetBlue flight from Fort Lauderdale to San Francisco.
“This guy looked like an NFL lineman,” says Cristol, a food broker from Lake Worth, Florida. “He took up half my seat. My other half was in the aisle while I had to hold on to the seat in front of me.”
JetBlue offers seat belt extenders for oversize airline passengers on its site but is otherwise silent on its passengers-of-size policy. Other airlines require large travelers to buy two seats.
Crewmembers try to fix these onboard confrontations before takeoff. For example, a flight attendant would have tried to re-seat a passenger like Cristol. But unfortunately, it was a completely full flight. He also might have asked to trade seats with a smaller passenger, but that wasn’t an option either.
What passengers are doing about oversize airline passengers
So beyond the usual advice – change seats, try to persuade a smaller passenger to take your place, beg for an upgrade – what do you do?
A little kindness would probably take you a long way, says Casey Gardonio-Foat, a small business owner from St. Louis.
“Have empathy for the larger person,” she says. “Remember, they are likely more uncomfortable than you are. That’s because of shrinking airline seats and because of bias and routinely awful treatment of larger people in American society.”
Suzanne Dixon, a dietitian from Portland, Oregon, agrees that being nice can make the trip more survivable.
“When I’m seated next to a large passenger, I greet them with a smile,” she says. “No matter how much of a squeeze, a positive and nonjudgmental attitude is important.”
A polite request can help, too. On Stacy Caprio’s last flight, her seatmate took over her armrest and encroached into her personal space. “I asked him, ‘Could we please each keep our arms inside our own seats?’” says Caprio, who works for a Canadian coupon website. “He grunted but then mostly complied, which made the flight much more pleasant for me.”
Official Passengers of Size policies
American Airlines: American Airlines has a clear-cut policy concerning larger passengers. If a customer extends “more than 1 inch beyond the outermost edge of the armrest and a seat belt extension is needed, another seat is required.” The person of size must pay for the additional seat.
Delta Air Lines: Delta encourages passengers who are unable to fit in the standard seat (17.2″ width) to consider purchasing an additional seat or “upgrade to business class.”
United Airlines: United has a strict passengers of size policy. If a customer is unable to fit in their own seat with the arm rest down without encroaching on the neighboring seat, the passenger must purchase an additional seat. If the traveler has not purchased the additional seat ahead of time, they will be charged a walk-up rate (some of the most expensive tickets available).
Southwest Airlines: Southwest has some of the most friendly policies concerning passengers who need extra space. The airline encourages all travelers who believe they may need an extra seat to call ahead and reserve one. This enables the airline to “adequately plan for the number of seats that will be occupied on the flight.” At the completion of the journey, the passenger may apply for a refund of the extra seat.
What are your rights as a passenger of size or their seatmate?
Fly later. If you’re seated next to a passenger of size who can’t fit into one seat and your schedule is flexible, ask a flight attendant if you can take the next flight. If there’s room on the next plane, you might be better off traveling later.
Know your legal rights. Unfortunately, you don’t really have that many. The contract of carriage, the legal contract between you and the airline, does not say you have a right to a full seat. Generally, the crew’s attitude is that if you can sit in the seat and use your seat belt, you’re good to go.
Know what to expect when you complain. As a practical matter, airlines will apologize and maybe offer a voucher for your discomfort. Discreetly take pictures of the incursion and send them with your complaint. If the airline doesn’t respond appropriately, consider asking a third party for help with your case, such as Elliott advocacy.
Check your airline’s policies before you book. With few exceptions, every airline has its own “passengers of size” policy. Make sure to check your preferred airline’s policies before you book your ticket.
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher’s articles here.