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

Aug. 27, 2016
8 min read
What to do if You — or the Person Next to You — is a Passenger of Size on the Plane
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We 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. [This story has been updated February 9, 2018, with information on individual airline policies.]

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.

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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.

As for individual airlines, here are their policies:

Air Canada: Offers extra seats for free to passengers who need multiple seats because they are “disabled by obesity or because they must accommodate another disability.” Passengers who require extra seats must fill out this form prior to departure.

Aeromexico: The airline does not have specific information regarding overweight passengers but under its special needs section, it notes that it offers seats with mobile arm rests for passengers with wheelchairs to move to and from their seats.

Alaska Airlines: Alaska requires passengers to buy extra seats if they can’t fit in a seat with the armrests in the down position.

Allegiant Airlines: Allegiant requires passengers to buy extra seats if they can’t fit in a seat with the armrests in the down position. If a flight is sold out, pasengers who can’t fit in their assigned seat will not be allowed to travel in the interest of safety.

American Airlines: If the passenger requires a seat belt extension and his/her body extends more than one inch beyond the edge of the armrest, that passenger is required to buy an extra seat.

Delta Airlines: If a passenger is unable to sit in his/her seat without encroaching into the next seat while the armrest is down, the passenger is encouraged to ask the an agent to be sat next to an empty seat. It also suggests upgrading to business or first class.

Frontier Airlines: If passengers can’t lower both armrests and/or encroach on other seats they must book two seats.

Hawaiian Airline: Hawaiian offers three options for passengers who can’t fit in their seats: 1) buy two seats in advance, 2) upgrade to business or first class, or 3) call customer service ahead of the flight to find a seat assignment with an adjacent empty seat.

JetBlue: No clear policy on its website.

Southwest Airlines: Passengers who are concerned about not fitting into their seat should meet with the gate agent before their flight and if needed, the passenger will be accommodated with a complimentary additional seat.

Spirit Airlines: No official policy on its website.

United Airlines: United has a strict policy for overweight passengers: if they can’t comfortably fit in one seat, they will be required buy another seat for each leg of their trip. If passengers don’t buy an extra seat ahead of time, they may be required to purchase an extra seat on the day of departure at the rate that’s set for that seat on the same day.

WestJet: The airline deals with overweight passengers on a case-by-case basis. WestJet will offer passengers an extra seat due to disabling obesity or certain medical conditions. A doctor is required to fill out the airline’s medical information form within five days of a trip.

Featured image by Airplane seats. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.