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What to do if You — or the Person Next to You — is a Passenger of Size on the Plane

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Last week, I came across this provocative article on Quora (“What it’s like to be that fat person sitting next to you on the plane”) and asked our very own Flight Attendant Insider, Carrie A. Trey, to share her thoughts. Here, she explains how you can best deal with this potentially awkward situation, whether you’re the passenger of size or the person sitting next to them.

Long gone are the days of half-empty 747s flying between New York and LA, when passengers milled about in plush piano lounges and sat in economy seats wide enough to comfortably accommodate Catherine the Great and her horse. Nowadays, airlines optimize their business by trying to match frequency with airplane size, which means planes, more often than not, are full. Not only that, today’s economy seats would make even a kindergartener feel pressed for space.

So, while we all like to have a little space next to us when we travel, especially in the way of an empty seat, what happens when that seat is occupied by a “passenger of size” — or, when you are that passenger of size, and there’s someone in that seat who you worry isn’t comfortable?

As a flight attendant, this is a situation that I’ve seen all too often, and one that is increasingly being talked about on social media and in the press. The author of this article on Quora discussed the sense of angst that passengers of size feel as a result of being forced to travel in ever-shrinking seats. This quote from her beautifully written piece poignantly illustrates the feelings that many passengers of size feel when they fly:

In that way, air travel is sadly familiar, a microcosm of what happens so often as a fat person. I am watched  —  and judged harshly  —  as I try —  and fail  —  to fit into a space that was made for someone else. I am always too big, always too much, always unacceptable. I must make myself smaller and smaller, reducing and reducing endlessly, my stubborn body resisting at every turn. Still, I am never quite small enough to make anyone else comfortable.”

As part of the cabin crew, my job, of course, is to keep you safe, but it’s also just as important to me that all of my passengers are comfortable, regardless of their class of travel, mileage-club status, or even size.

So what should you do if you find yourself in this potentially awkward situation? First and foremost, I sincerely hope that your cabin crew possesses enough situational awareness to assist discreetly, without being asked, so that nobody is made to feel uncomfortable, hurt or unwelcome. Shuffling passengers around, like what happens when families get seated separately, is a routine part of our job and this is just one more circumstance in which we might have to do that. Hopefully your crew are on the ball and able to move someone, eliminating the need for anyone else to ask questions that could be potentially embarrassing.

If that doesn’t happen though, there are a few things you can do, regardless of which party you are. Communication is key, so talking to your cabin crew is always a good bet. Keep it discreet and have that chat in the galley — out of earshot of other passengers, so as not to offend anyone or cause someone any further discomfort — and ask if they know of any other available seats you might be able to move to.

Moreover, communicating with your seatmate is also a great solution, especially if there are no other seats available. Getting to know the person next to you adds a human element to the situation, and now the person who was potentially a source of discomfort is someone you know, and therefore less likely to a be a source of frustration, discomfort, or embarrassment. The fact is airplanes are not made with people of size in mind. Rather than fight that, getting to know the person next to you will hopefully alleviate some of the awkwardness, letting you make the best of the situation.

Lastly, you can always wait to get on the plane until the very end of the boarding process. If there are spare seats, you’ll have an idea of where they are and can just grab one, with the hope that nobody else will be getting on the plane behind you.

I realize that these are not life-changing, ground-breaking ideas. Fitting into the flying sardine cans that we now call airplanes is difficult at the best of times — add to the equation the fact that the seats are designed for one specific body type that’s not at all representative of everyone who makes up the “flying public” and you have a situation that can be uncomfortable for all parties involved.

It doesn’t have to be, however. In my opinion, the best thing you can do is communicate both with your crew and the person sitting next to you. If another seat is found, everyone involved ends up with enough space to feel comfortable. If not, at least you’ve started to get to know the person you’re sitting with. At the end of the day, your fellow travelers are humans — people with feelings, stories and baggage (both carry-on and emotional!) — and remembering that will help bring back some of the humanity to air travel that I think we can all agree has more than disappeared as of late.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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