The weighty matter of oversized passengers by Roger Collis

Moments of truth seem to come more often these days.

Boarding an Easyjet flight from Gatwick the other day, sharp elbows having got me my usual self-satisfied pole position in the aisle seat by the emergency exit, I was girth stricken to find that the seat belt would not quite fasten – comfortably, or even uncomfortably – even stripped down under the twin filing systems in my jacket pockets. Of course, one has to prove that one is lean and fit to sit in these privileged rows. Clever Easyjet. No point in asking for a ‘seat belt extender.’ 

So I retreated to an aisle seat in another row, and just got the thing attached.  God forbid that I should be a candidate for the laterally challenged folk that one sees in every airport concourse – grotesque buffalos wallowing towards the next waterhole.
Coincidentally, perhaps, I am assailed with weighty complaints from fellow travelers who complain that really large passengers ‘invade the space’ of passengers who sit beside them.

Jane Ralls, a reader in Minneapolis, on a Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Detroit, was understandably upset when an ‘extremely large’ man lifted up the armrest, sat down and occupied at least one quarter of her space. It is my experience that armrests must be kept down, at least during take-off and landing. So how can this apply to large passengers who cannot physically fit in a seat unless the armrest is up? What are seat companion rights; to demand a change of seat, or an upgrade if no seats are available? 

Many other readers have asked how people should react when a very heavy passenger spreads over into their space, and what the victims of such an incursion should expect airlines to do about.

Airlines require armrests to be kept down for reasons of safety and comfort during take-off and landing. It follows therefore, that if an exceptionally wide passenger can’t fit into a seat without raising the armrest, they cannot be allowed to travel in that seat; but must either be required to buy a second seat (in which you raise the middle armrest and fasten yourself in the ‘double’ seat with an extra long seatbelt), upgrade if there is space, or offloaded onto a later flight.

Applying this logic (although when did you last see logic applied?) might have helped the husband of Joanna Bastin in Tournon d'Agenais, Lot et Garonne, France, who writes, ‘On a flight from Atlanta to Frankfurt with Lufthansa, my husband was in the middle seat, when an enormous woman sat down on one side of him and raised the armrest to squeeze into the seat; then, to his horror, a second equally large woman did the same thing on the other side. He complained to a cabin attendant who said there was nothing she could do because the flight was full.’

‘I once found an oversize passenger on a flight occupying part of my seat space,’ wrote George Price in Washington, DC. ‘I politely declined to occupy my seat, or take a later flight since the plane was full.   As I recall, the airline got someone to take a later flight in exchange for some free travel.  With obesity a growing problem and airlines jamming more seats into cabins, it is time for all passengers to send carriers a message by insisting on occupying the seats they’ve paid for.’ 

‘British Airways advises anybody who has concerns about seat width to purchase more than one seat, but we do not have a weight limit for passengers,’ says Jay Merritt, at British Airways. ‘Our check-in agents and ground staff keep an eye open for passengers who may have a problem fitting into a seat.  If a passenger cannot utilize a seat safely (armrests must be properly down for take off and landing) alternative arrangements have to be made.   We can provide extensions to seat belts for those who can fit into a seat but cannot be safely secured by the normal seat belt; and special seat belts for anyone who has purchased two seats. Should issues arise on the aircraft, our cabin crew are trained to deal with problems using a common sense approach.’

American Airlines follows a similar policy to Southwest Airlines, requiring ‘very large’ passengers to purchase a second seat.

‘We are sensitive to the needs of both larger passengers and those whose travel experience may be eroded through sharing seat space with them,’ says Richard Hedges, director of corporate communications, Europe and Pacific, at American. ‘Where there are instances of obese passengers whose bodies protrude extensively into an occupied adjacent seat, we may ask that they purchase a second seat at the same price or take a later flight. Passengers who find that their seating space is intruded upon by a fellow passenger, should raise the issue with one of our flight attendants, who will do everything possible to ensure the comfort and safety of both passengers.’  

Understandably, some ‘oversize’ people feel that they are normal, and have a right to the space they need. Leland Stuart in El Paso, Texas: ‘I am 6 feet 7 inches and weigh 260 pounds with a 50-inch chest; I’m not fat, only ‘large.’ To say that I should have to purchase an extra seat seems unfair and discriminatory. I find it difficult to get in and out of a seat; the person in front of me cannot recline their seat as it hits my knees and the person in the next seat is cramped as I take some of their space. Airlines could accommodate large people by making six or eight seats in coach with a little extra room available only to them. There are certainly enough of us to keep the seats occupied.’

‘I’m not particularly tall, but I am wide,’ writes Edward A. O’Neal from Norfolk, Virginia.  ‘On long flights, my wife and I have bought three seats for the two of us; cheaper than business class and nearly as comfortable. We try to get a plane with three seats abreast in the middle – so both of us get an aisle seat with plenty of space between us.   We just have to let the crew know so their head count will match up.’    
Southwest Airlines requires ‘large people’ to purchase a second seat for ‘safety and comfort.’  

United Airlines announced on April 15 that it would charge passengers for a second seat ‘if they are too large for a single one.’ The policy applies to those who cannot fit into a seat with the arm-rests down and with no more than one seatbelt extender.

Such passengers will be ‘re-accommodated next to an empty seat’ if the flight is not full. If it is, they will be asked either to pay for an upgrade to another cabin or to travel on a later flight. On that later flight they will be put next to an empty seat if possible or asked to buy a second seat.

Ryanair says it is now considering how to charge a ‘fat tax’ after more than 30,000 passengers allegedly voted in favor of charging ‘excess weight fees’ for very large passengers. ‘Charge per kg over 130kg (males) and 100kg (females)? Charge per inch for every waist inch over 45ins (males) and 40ins (females)? Or, charge for every point in excess of 40 points on the Body Mass Index (+ 30 points is obese).’

People have pointed out, with crucifying logic, that overweight travelers might be encouraged to lose weight if airlines were to adopt a ‘total weight’ system, whereby the passenger would be weighed along with their baggage. It makes sense if you think that airlines have to compute the total weight of passengers, crew, baggage, meals and fuel in their cost-efficiency calculations.

Belinda Fogg in Tokyo is one of several readers who agree with this idea.  ‘The present system of weight limits for baggage unfairly discriminates against smaller people,’ she writes. ‘On a flight from Auckland to Tokyo, my baggage weighed in at 10 kilograms over the limit; but the carrier waived a $300 excess fee, probably because the plane was only half full.   However, as I weigh only 53 kilograms, if you added 10 kilograms to my body weight I would still be lighter than many of my fellow passengers. Why don’t airlines devise rules whereby they weigh people AND their bags together?’

Bruce Bogin in Paris suggests that airlines ‘should make a total weight standard, for body weight with baggage, and charge for any excess? Say the standard is 275 pounds. Two passengers show up at check-in: A slip of lady weighing 100 pounds, with a couple of bags weighing 225 pounds – total weight, 325 pounds; and a man weighing 300 pounds, with small carry-on bag – total weight, 325 pounds.   Both lady and man are 50 pounds over the limit and should pay an excess baggage charge.’
Let us not forget the plight of tall, thin passengers. M. Massimo in New York writes,

‘I am 6ft 2ins tall with a back problem and cramped seats in economy give me a lot of pain. So is it possible to buy two or three economy seats as an alternative to an expensive business class fare?

British Airways, Continental, Delta Air Lines, and Virgin Atlantic, say they accept such bookings. Sometimes extra wide passengers or carrying musical instruments or paintings, ask for extra seats.

Carol Fitzpatrick in Hartford, Connecticut, strikes a cautionary note: ‘Make sure that the assigned equipment for all flights has armrests that are not fixed in the down position.’ Many families with adjacent seating prearranged have found themselves split up because of such an occurrence.

It is also wise to book directly with the airline and check on the aircraft type. You will have one ticket for all the seats you book. You can check on seating plans and get an advance assignment, online or with your travel agent. Seat pitch, width and angle of recline vary according to which carrier you choose, even with the same aircraft type.

Some seats offer more legroom than others (especially in cattle class). Airline sites are often less than forthcoming. Check with Skytrax Research, www.airlinequality.com, which offers seating tips for 325 airlines. Flatseats.com compares first- and business class ‘lie-flat’ beds and ‘nearly horizontal ‘angled flat-seats. At www.seatguru.com, you can learn which seats you should avoid on many major airlines. The site also has links to seat maps provided by some carriers. Bear in mind that certain seats (such as those in emergency rows) are only allocated at check-in.

Oh, yes, and try to make sure that your seats are pre-assigned – and together. I did hear of one wide-bodied traveler (this is a true story) who found to his chagrin that the two seats he had reserved for himself were on either side of the aisle!

Roger Collis - www.rogercollis.co.uk