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Plus-size flying: Tips for a more comfortable flight from a "passenger of size"

Jan. 30, 2020
15 min read
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional information. It was originally published on Oct. 27, 2019.

Flying while overweight can be uncomfortable, not just for the plus-size passenger but sometimes also for seatmates and aircraft crew who might need to reinforce certain rules and safety procedures.

As a frequent traveler and someone who's been both heavier and lighter than I am today, I have experienced flying at different weights and sizes. I know from firsthand experience how just 20 or 30 pounds can make a difference in comfort on an aircraft. And I've seen how the attitudes — and patience — of the people around you differ depending on your weight.

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And, sometimes, it may just feel like you’re being singled out because of your size. Last week, three Auckland women of size were denied boarding when staff from Thai Airways explained they were too large to sit in the business-class seats they’d booked.

While I’m sure that was a painful and embarrassing experience, the airline was not singling them out. On this particular aircraft (likely Thai’s 787-9), the business-class seats the family purchased were equipped with seat belts that have airbags. This type of restraint cannot be used by anyone with a waist over 56 inches.

It’s incredibly unfortunate this information wasn’t clearly communicated in advance to the passengers but, once at the airport, the airline could not break this safety rule. The women could fly in economy because the seats did not include airbags, and so the airline could provide seat belt extenders to ensure safe travel for their passengers.

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A rule like this can blindside someone when they least expect it. According to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System study, "Adult obesity rates now exceed 35% in nine [U.S.] states, 30% in 31 states and 25% in 48 states.” So, we’ll likely hear more about these types of issues in the future.

That’s why any passenger of size, like me, has to do more research and due diligence when booking travel.

Over the years, I've accumulated some handy tips that ensure my flight will be comfortable and that my seatmate won't have an issue sharing space with me. You can read a flight attendant's advice for passenger of size here, but here's what you need to know, as well as my tips from an actual passenger of size.

What to know as a passenger of size

When it comes to air travel, the term "passenger of size" is used for anyone who's overweight or too large to potentially occupy one seat on an aircraft. Many airlines have rules that require a larger passenger to pay for a second seat if he or she can't comfortably fit in one seat with or without a seat belt extender. Contact your airline for the most up-to-date rules.

Generally speaking, the armrests must be lowered and you need to fit in that space without encroaching significantly — usually 1 inch or more — on the person or people sitting next to you. Fair enough. At my current weight, I don't encroach on anyone else's space, but it can be a tight squeeze and a bit uncomfortable sometimes with the armrests lowered.

Tips for traveling as a passenger of size

Be aware of aircraft type and seat width

I need to be more aware of the seats themselves on the particular aircraft I fly. I need to know exactly which seats I fit comfortably into and whether or not I may need a seat belt extender.

For example, there's an American Airlines route I often fly where there are several flights per day but on different aircraft types. I could fly an Embraer RJ-175 or ERJ-145, an Airbus A320 or Boeing 737, or a Canadair RJ900. Here's how the seat width compares on those aircraft, according to data published at American's website.

AircraftMain Cabin
Seat Width
Main Cabin Extra
Seat Width
First Class
Seat Width
Seat Configuration
Embraer ERJ-1451717N/A1—2
Embraer ERJ-17518.2—19.3 inches18.2—19.3 inches19.9 inches1—2 in First Class
2—2 in Main Cabin
Canadair RJ90016.55—17.33 inches16.55—17.33 inches19.6—19.7 inches1—2 in First Class
2—2 in Main Cabin
Airbus A32016.5—18 inches16.5—18 inches21 inches2—2 in First Class
3—3 in Main Cabin
Boeing 737-80015.9—17.3 inches15.9—17.3 inches20.4—21 inches2—2 in First Class
3—3 in Main Cabin

As you can see from the above chart, it's not enough to know which airline I'm flying. I need to know the aircraft type and then look up the seat width (which is usually easily found at the airline's website or Seatguru).

Out of the choices above, I'm best off on the ERJ-175 if flying Main Cabin. It's got the best seat width, which is 2 inches more than the Boeing 738 provides in Main Cabin. If I'm flying first class, however, the Airbus A320, with a 21-inch seat width, is my best option, followed closely by the Boeing 737-800.

Make flight purchases based on seat configuration

Aircraft type is important. But, I also take into consideration the seating configuration of the airplane. Knowing the configuration helps me determine which seats may provide me — and any potential seatmate — with the most comfortable flight.

It often can be most comfortable to fly in the single seat aisle of a 1—2-configured aircraft. The ERJ-145 above fits that bill in Main Cabin or first class in either the ERJ-175 or Canadair RJ900.

The below image is the seat configuration of an American Airlines Embraer ERJ-145 operated by Envoy Air. On a small, cramped plane like this one, a passenger of size may be better off selecting an A seat with no seatmate. Seat width is 17 inches.

If an A seat isn't available, a passenger of size would have to decide if he or she wanted to buy tickets for two side-by-side seats (B and C) or pick a different flight or aircraft that might have roomier seats.

This is the seat configuration of an American Airlines Embraer ERJ-145 operated by Envoy Air. On a small, cramped plane like this one, a passenger of size is best off selecting an A seat with no seatmate. (Image courtesy of American Airlines)
An American Airlines Embraer ERJ-145 operated by Envoy Air. (Image courtesy of American Airlines)

Understand that seat width can be a wild card

As a passenger of size, I need to understand that there really are no standards. Different types of aircraft have different seat widths and seat belt lengths. Aircraft substitutions are made all the time, and despite my best efforts to book the best flight, it may not actually work out that way on the day of travel.

I can fit just fine into one seat but feel squished or need a seat belt extender on a different aircraft in the same airline's fleet. That was the case for me when I flew on five different aircraft across three airlines and needed a seat belt extender on two of those flights: the American Airlines Embraer ERJ-145 pictured above and an Austrian Airlines Boeing 767-300. I fit just fine on an Austrian Airlines A320, United 787-10 and United ERJ175. All seats were in business class.

Check seat belt length before buying a ticket

Most airlines have several different types of aircraft and it's possible the seat width and seat belt length differ on each of them. Whenever possible, I try to determine the seat belt length for the airline I'm flying. Most airlines post this information on their websites or you can reach out to customer service by phone or through a direct message on social media.

Here's seat belt length info collected from the airlines:

AirlineSeat Belt LengthSeat Belt Extender Length
Alaska Airlines46 inches25 inches
Allegiant33.7 inches25 inches
American Airlines45 to 47 inchesnot specified by the airline but appears to be 25 inches
Delta40 to 45 inchesnot specified by the airline but appears to be 25 inches
Hawaiian Airlines51 inches (42 inches for bulkhead seats)not specified by the airline but appears to be 25 inches
JetBlue45 inches25 inches
Southwest39 inches24 inches
United Airlines39 inches25 inches

If you have no idea which seat belt length works for you, do a little test at home. Take a soft tape measure (like the type you'd use when sewing). Sit on a relatively firm chair and not something like a cushy sofa you'll sink into. Measure from the back left of the seat cushion (where your body meets it) to the back right — stretching the tape measure over your hips and stomach. That will give you an idea of how many inches of seat belt you'll need on the aircraft.

Ask for a seat belt extender

I know it's not fun, but when you board an aircraft and you need a seat belt extender, ask the flight attendant for one. No one's ever judged me for that and most cabin crew members are discreet about it. Wearing a seat belt is for your safety as well as the safety of everyone around you. It is folly to fly without wearing a seat belt.

This is a good example of someone that fits fine within his own seat, but needs a seat belt extender to comfortably and safely fly on this aircraft. (Photo by MediaProduction/Getty Images)

It's also possible to purchase a seat belt extender. The Federal Aviation Administration does not want you to do that, though. This is part of a memo they distributed to airlines back in 2012 when seat belt extenders first started to flood the consumer marketplace:

Purpose: This InFO (Information to Operators) serves to inform operators that seat belt extenders marketed to the public as Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved should not be permitted for use.
Background: Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) parts 91, § 91.107; 121, § 121.311; and 135, § 135.128 require a seat belt secured about each passenger during specified phases of flight. Seat belts and extenders provided by the airlines are inspected and maintained under each of the airline's FAA-accepted Continuous Airworthiness Maintenance Program (CAMP).
Discussion: Operators should be aware that seat belt extenders are being marketed to the public for their personal use while traveling. These extenders are marketed as “FAA PMA approved.” Some are categorized as specific to each airline and others are sold under the heading “Universal, adjustable & FAA-safe” and are sold “for use on all airlines.” While these extenders may have a label that indicates they are FAA-approved and conform to TSO-C22g, they are not inspected and maintained under each airline's FAA-accepted CAMP and should not be used. In order to support compliance with 14 CFR sections regarding the use of seat belts, assigned crew members should be aware of the possibility that passengers may attempt to use these extenders while on board their aircraft."

I agree that the best option is using the airline's own equipment. However, I do have my own seat belt extender (which looks and feels exactly like what's handed out on the aircraft) and carry it in my carry-on in case an aircraft doesn't have enough extenders to go around. This has not happened to me yet, but as I mentioned in another post, I'm a planner and I'd rather be prepared than asked to leave the aircraft due to a lack of an essential piece of safety gear.

Most seat belt extenders are universal. Southwest aircraft uses a different type of seat belt mechanism so its extenders are custom (but you can still find those for sale online, too).

One other thing to note: Some airlines that use inflatable seat belts on their aircraft may not let you use a seat belt extender in those particular seats.

Buy preferred seats or stalk the seat map

If you're not overweight, you've never had to endure the eye rolls and huffing/puffing of a seatmate that is aggravated that he/she must occupy space with you. While seatmates of "passengers of size" may not be thrilled with their seating assignment, I can guarantee that the overweight person isn't too happy about it, either. No one wants to feel badly about themselves, right?

Not long ago, I was on a JetBlue flight. I had paid for an Even More Space seat — which I do on every flight. If it's a short flight, it's a good chance to end up with an empty seat next to you. My success rate using this strategy is usually really high. Not only do I buy the Even More Space seat but I continually check the seat map leading up to the journey. You should always do this too. As long as your fare allows free seat assignments, you can change your seat as many times as you need to in order to try to keep an empty seat next to you.

On this particular JetBlue flight, the map continued to show an empty seat next to me even just a few hours before the flight. When I boarded, however, someone sat next to me and let me know his unhappiness by shifting his body every two seconds and continually pushing against the armrest between us. Once we were in flight, I looked at the other Even More Space seats and saw that an entire row was empty. I asked the flight attendant if I could change seats, which was no problem.

Leverage elite status or pay for business class

I never really thought too much about it before but my weight — and my desire for the most comfortable flights — is probably partly why I chased airline elite status when I first "discovered" the world of miles and points. I value elite status upgrades since sitting in a business-class seat usually solves the space issue (at least for me at my weight). And, my airport isn't a major market, so my upgrade success rate is usually pretty good. When it's really important to me, I just buy (or redeem miles for) a seat in the business-class cabin.

At the beginning of this story I mentioned the recent situation on Thai Airways where several women were barred from sitting in the business-class seats they purchased due to the use of seat belts with airbags. It's important to note that not every business-class seat has a seat belt airbag. In fact, only Thai's Boeing 787-9 has that type of restraint. But, you can also sometimes find that type of belt in economy bulkhead rows or other locations.

In the case of Thai Airways, it notes the use of seat belt airbags and passenger size restrictions on its seat maps. But, you may not want to rely on seat maps. Making a quick call to ask about any restrictions on the seat you've chosen is the best way to avoid a problem while boarding.

Buy a second seat

On very tight aircraft flying a busy route, it can be worth it to buy a second seat. That additional seat provides you physical comfort and peace of mind. When buying yourself a second ticket, it's easiest to just call the airline to make the reservation since the naming on that second ticket has to follow certain airline protocols. Note that some airlines, like Alaska, will refund what you paid for the second seat if the aircraft departs with an empty seat on it.

It's best to buy an extra seat in advance. If you wait until you board the aircraft and there's an issue, there may not be two available seats next to each other or the cost for a last-minute seat may be exorbitant. (That said, I've seen flight attendants do their best to move passengers around the cabin to ensure everyone's comfort.)

I've talked with other passengers of size who purchase two seats and sometimes they get frequent flyer miles for the second seat — but usually only after reaching out to the airline after the flight.

Related: Credit cards that help you earn airline elite status faster

Bottom line

Plenty of Americans carry a few more pounds than is ideal, which can make flying on certain aircraft less than comfortable. But with a bit of preplanning and research on your aircraft options and potential seat configurations, you should be able to manage the issue.

Featured image by Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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