Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats?
Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - The Ever-Shrinking Airline Seat
As airline profit margins have shrunk over the past decade, carriers have scrambled to find new ways to boost revenues. One tactic that has become increasingly common is reducing seat sizes and legroom to cram more passengers onto each flight. For most travelers, this trend has resulted in decreased comfort and less personal space. But for larger passengers, the implications can be much more severe.
In the early 2000s, the average width of an airline seat was around 18 inches. Today, many carriers have reduced that number to 16 or even 15 inches. Seat pitch – the distance between rows – has also dropped from an average of 35 inches to as little as 28 inches on some airlines. This means taller travelers often find their knees pressed up against the seat in front of them.
These tighter configurations are tolerable for petite or average-sized fliers. But for larger or overweight passengers, the cramped quarters can quickly become unbearable. Armrests dig uncomfortably into hips and thighs. Tray tables and seat belts barely fit around ample midsections. And the bathrooms are so narrow that simply turning around can be a struggle.
In online forums and social media groups for plus-size travelers, tales of discomfort, embarrassment and even humiliation abound. Many share experiences of not being able to lower tray tables, buckle seatbelts or even sit down without encroaching upon fellow passengers’ space. Others describe the shame of not fitting into bathroom stalls or having to request seatbelt extensions from mortified flight attendants.
For some obese travelers, flying has simply become untenable. The discomfort and embarrassment is too much to bear. Others grin and bear it, enduring the indignities of modern air travel because they have no other choice. But almost universally, plus-size passengers agree that the ever-shrinking economy class seat has made flying markedly less comfortable for them.
What else is in this post?
- Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - The Ever-Shrinking Airline Seat
- Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - Charging For Extra Seats - Discriminatory or Fair?
- Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - The Logistics of Requiring Bigger Passengers to Buy Extra Seats
- Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - Are Airlines Doing Enough to Accommodate Larger Passengers?
- Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - The Pros and Cons of a Weight Limit on Flights
- Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - Creating a More Inclusive Flying Experience
- Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - The Link Between Obesity and Air Travel
- Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - Alternatives for Obese Fliers - Upgrades, Refunds, or Compensation
Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - Charging For Extra Seats - Discriminatory or Fair?
When plus-size passengers spill over into neighboring seats, it presents airlines with a quandary: should those passengers be charged for the additional space they occupy? Many carriers have implemented policies requiring obese travelers to purchase an extra seat. But are these rules discriminatory, or simply a fair way to accommodate everyone?
Airlines argue that the policy prevents larger fliers from infringing upon other passengers’ personal space. If someone cannot fit comfortably within the confines of one seat, they should pay for the extra room required, the logic goes. Delta’s policy states: “If a customer's body extends more than one inch beyond the outermost edge of the armrest and a seat belt extender is needed, an additional adjacent seat must be purchased.”
From a business standpoint, the policy makes some sense. Airlines don’t want to give away seats that could be sold at full price. And other travelers don’t want encroachment into their allotted 17 inches.
Yet opponents argue the practice is discriminatory against plus-size customers – essentially forcing them to pay a “fat tax.” The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance has called the policies “overt discrimination.” Some even liken it to discrimination against disabled travelers forced to pay for accommodations that others get free.
Those fighting the policies have found some legal traction. In 2015, an obese man sued Estonian Air for forcing him to buy an extra seat. The court ruled in his favor, declaring the practice discriminatory. But other courts have upheld the airline policies, so legal precedent remains mixed.
Many plus-size fliers report feeling shamed when confronted with requests to buy additional seats. “It’s like they’re punishing you for being fat,” one woman shared. Others see it as profiteering – a way to wring more money out of larger travelers.
Yet comfort concerns do pose legitimate issues. A 300-pound person spilling six inches into an adjacent seat presents problems. Other passengers may feel cheated having paid for a 17-inch sliver.
Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - The Logistics of Requiring Bigger Passengers to Buy Extra Seats
Implementing policies that require obese passengers to purchase additional seats inevitably creates logistical challenges for both airlines and travelers. From reconfiguring booking systems to addressing customer blowback, ensuring proper accommodation for larger fliers is a complex endeavor.
On the airline side, coding booking engines to handle extra seat purchases has proven tricky. Should there be a separate booking process for plus-size passengers? Or should it happen seamlessly as part of the normal booking flow? WestJet chose the former, creating a separate booking portal for passengers requiring additional seats. But such segregation poses PR risks and increases abandonment rates. Other carriers like United have tried to integrate the process into normal bookings. But clunky workarounds like booking a passenger's extra seat under a "guardian" name have sparked backlash. Seamlessly handling obese passengers' needs through online bookings remains an elusive challenge.
Airport agents must also know how to handle these situations gracefully at check-in. Training staff not to shame or embarrass plus-size customers is crucial. Some airlines instruct agents to use coded language like "more room needed" on boarding passes rather than clearly stating "requires extra seat." But opaque codes can create confusion at the gate when seat assignments get shuffled around. Finding the right balance of discretion and clarity is imperative.
Enforcement mid-flight presents its own difficulties. What if all seats are sold but an obese passenger still overlaps into an adjacent seat? Will they be forced to upgrade or disembark? United faced outrage when a plus-size passenger was removed for spilling into another customer’s seat mid-flight. Clear policies must be established ahead of time to avoid public relations crises.
Passengers also face difficulties navigating the logistics. Can larger companions still sit together if they require overflow seats? What happens if only window seats are available? Can obese travelers still select premium seats like bulkheads and exits that may fit them better? United’s hub-and-spoke model exacerbated such issues by limiting options within booking classes.
Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - Are Airlines Doing Enough to Accommodate Larger Passengers?
With nearly three-quarters of American adults now overweight or obese, airlines are being forced to grapple with how to adequately accommodate and treat plus-size passengers. Yet sensitivity doesn’t seem to be coming easy for an industry obsessed with shrinking seats and packing travelers in ever-tighter.
Many obese fliers report feeling anything but welcomed or comfortable when flying. Tales of ill-fitting seats, judgmental flight attendants and policies like charging for extra seats leave them feeling discriminated against. Groups like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance have called out airlines for “overt discrimination and prejudice.”
Airlines defend their practices as logistical necessities – not bias. But looking deeper, their claims ring somewhat hollow. Seat sizes shrank not for space reasons but revenue desires. Charging extra for spillover was a money grab, not a fairness fix. Even minor accommodations like seatbelt extenders are begrudgingly doled out only after mortifying requests.
The few conciliatory gestures airlines have made toward obese passengers seem more PR patch jobs than truly embracing inclusivity. United’s policy allowing refunds if a flight is too full to accommodate an extra purchased seat came only after a PR crisis of removing an overweight passenger mid-flight. Southwest agreed to second “customer of size” policies only under the threat of a lawsuit.
Even airlines’ definitions of who “qualifies” as requiring special accommodation smack of arbitrary discrimination. Southwest, for instance, states customers who cannot lower both armrests must purchase extra seats. This puzzling delineation based on armrests, not actual encroachment, seems intentionally narrow and subjective. Gate agents are left to make imprecise judgment calls on who meets nebulous “spillover” standards.
With nearly 40% of Americans predicted to be obese by 2030, airlines cannot keep playing seat shrinkage games. A sincere shift toward inclusiveness and passenger dignity is required. Simple accommodations like set-aside rows with modified seats could help larger travelers fit comfortably without embarrassment or stigma. Enlisting plus-size focus groups to improve policies and sensitivity training would demonstrate meaningful commitment to change.
Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - The Pros and Cons of a Weight Limit on Flights
The question of whether airlines should enforce weight limits is a controversial one with reasonable arguments on both sides. Those in favor of weight restrictions believe it is the only way to truly ensure all passengers fit safely and comfortably. By setting defined weight cutoffs, ambiguity would be eliminated - no more relying on gate agents' subjective judgments of who appears "too large." Either you meet the criteria or you don't.
Proponents argue this would lead to more dignified experiences for both obese passengers and those seated adjacent to them. Uncomfortable confrontations and "spillover" could be preempted by discreetly addressing weight issues during booking. Plus-size travelers would know in advance whether additional accommodations are needed rather than finding out in embarrassing fashion at the gate.
Objectively defined weight rules could also incentivize healthier habits. With flying made uncomfortable by tight seats, some may view weight limits as motivation to lose pounds and improve health. Whether weight maximums should be viewed as "punishment" is questionable, but they could play a positive role in encouraging fitness for some.
Of course, weight restrictions also raise reasonable fairness concerns. Any time you exclude customers based on unalterable physical traits, cries of discrimination quickly follow. Who determines what an airline's weight limits should be, and on what medical basis? Rules seen as arbitrary or unscientific would surely prompt backlash and even legal challenges.
Anti-discrimination groups also question why airlines seem so unwilling to modify seats and cabins to accommodate larger bodies. While adding weight limits takes a hardline "change the passenger" approach, critics say adjusting aircraft designs to reflect demographic realities is a more ethical "change the plane" solution. If weight rules are imposed in lieu of these universal design changes, it could come across as airlines just not wanting to spend money to serve obese flyers.
Enforcement logistics also pose troubling questions. Would passengers be weighed at check-in? That raises privacy issues and scenes of public humiliation. Relying on self-reported weights seems easy to falsify. And what recourse is there for passengers who cross weight thresholds only mid-flight after gaining pounds post-booking? Reasonable accommodation consistently applied is not so simple.
Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - Creating a More Inclusive Flying Experience
Flying is meant to be a liberating experience, granting you wings to soar to new places and explore the world. Yet for many plus-size travelers, boarding a plane feels anything but freeing. Cramped seats, shaming policies and lack of accommodations create a flying experience marked by discomfort, humiliation and exclusion rather than one of wonder and adventure.
To fulfill aviation’s promise of freedom for all, airlines must take meaningful steps toward a more inclusive passenger experience. Small tweaks like an extra inch of width or set-aside premium seats are well-intentioned bandages. But truly embracing inclusivity requires rethinking the entire flying paradigm to center around dignity and respect for diverse bodies.
At the leading edge are innovators reimagining cabin designs through a lens of universal accommodation. Molon Labe Seating's S1 "Space Seat" model ditches the classic 17-inch width to allow adjustable 21-28 inch configurations customized to each passenger's body. Other startups have pioneered new staggered seating arrangements creating extra room and privacy through diagonal layouts. Such innovations prove aircraft can be redesigned around human diversity rather than forcing bodies to conform to "one size fits all" seats.
Equally important is evolving airline policies and procedures to emphasize respect and dignity. Gate agents and flight crews need improved training to accommodate larger flyers discreetly and professionally. Terms like "person of size" should replace dehumanizing labels like "too fat to fly." Enhanced onboard privacy and assistance requests via apps could preempt embarrassing public confrontations. And fair policies around seat upgrades over involuntary bumping should be standardized across all airlines.
However, true inclusion cannot happen without giving plus-size travelers themselves a prominent voice in driving these changes. Airlines must proactively seek input from obese passengers and advocacy groups to guide their accessibility efforts. Advisory boards, consumer research panels and design workshops will help center policies around real people's needs - not profit motives or legal jargon. Only by listening first can airlines gain insights to tackle weight-based stigmas head-on rather than dance around them.
Some pioneering carriers have already taken encouraging steps down this path. Virgin Atlantic recently partnered with XL sizes retailer Navabi to better understand how flying experiences could be improved for overweight customers. Seeking plus-size input to shape more welcoming policies shows the customer empathy required. Other airlines would be wise to follow Virgin's lead - and take concrete actions based on the feedback received.
Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - The Link Between Obesity and Air Travel
The experiences of obese air travelers highlight important links between public health challenges like rising obesity rates and the accessibility of essential services like air travel. As aviation industry profit motives have led to ever-shrinking seat sizes, the discomforts of flying first class have trickled down to economy seats. Now even average-sized Americans find knees crammed and shoulders squished on flights. Yet while merely annoying for most, for the 40% of citizens considered obese these cramped cabins can make flying agonizing, embarrassing or impossible. Their struggles illuminate how even basic mobility can be constrained by environments constructed around dated “normal” body standards.
In online forums, plus-size flyers share painful stories of not fitting into seats, requiring humiliating seat belt extenders and enduring judging looks from fellow passengers. The limited lavatory space leaves many unable to move once inside. Others tell of bruises from cramped quarters and panic attacks from feeling trapped. These indigent experiences reveal gaps between inclusive intentions and actual accessibility. As one woman put it, “they say I have the right to fly like everyone else, until I actually show up.”
The obesity epidemic and airline seat shrinkage have converged to deny overweight travelers dignified access to flight. Carriers’ profit-driven motives ignore growing numbers of customers who no longer conform to the stereotypical 1970s physique their cabin designs accommodate. Without sincere efforts to update aircraft interiors and service protocols to reflect diverse 21st century bodies, many obese citizens will continue finding themselves excluded from the liberating experiences air travel can offer.
Flying While Fat: Should Overweight Passengers Get Free Extra Seats? - Alternatives for Obese Fliers - Upgrades, Refunds, or Compensation
With air travel increasingly difficult for many plus-size passengers, some carriers have explored alternative accommodations like seat upgrades, ticket refunds or travel credits when standard seats prove intolerable. Yet inconsistent policies and opaque practices leave obese fliers unsure what options exist if basic cabins don’t fit.
United Airlines came under fire in 2017 when video emerged of a passenger being forcibly removed after spilling over into an adjoining seat mid-flight. The public relations disaster pushed United to clarify its “Customers of Size” policy granting refunds or travel credits as compensation if a flight is too full to accommodate previously-purchased extra seats. Yet fliers report the policy’s vagueness makes obtaining these remedies difficult in practice. And no clear guidelines exist for obtaining relief for other indignities like ill-fitting lavatories.
Southwest Airlines’ Customers of Size policy also promises to “refund the cost of an additional seat” for larger travelers unable to comfortably fit one seat. But customers detail Kafkaesque experiences trying to secure these refunds, passed between unhelpful call center agents uncertain how the policy works. Southwest’s reliance on armrests as the criteria for extra accommodation also draws criticism as an imprecise standard. “They don’t care about actual encroachment into other seats, just the armrests,” laments one customer of size. “But the armrests cram into my hips even when I’m not bothering other passengers.”
Some obese travelers have found more success seeking remedies through legal channels. In 2015, an overweight man sued Estonian Air in European court after being required to purchase an extra seat, winning a modest judgment for discriminatory treatment. But lawsuits are slow, costly and unreliable remedies compared to airlines proactively accommodating larger bodies. Important precedents shouldn’t rely on heroic individuals with the means and will to sue.
Seeking upgrades to business class or premium economy seats is often suggested as an alternative for plus-size fliers facing intolerable economy cabins. But for many obese travelers, the higher fares make routine upgrades cost-prohibitive. Others report feeling extorted into paid upgrades to remedy an accessibility issue airlines should address themselves. As one frequent flyer explained, “I resent being asked to pay extra when all I want is a seat that fits like everyone else gets.”