Too Fat to Fly: Overweight Passengers and the "One Seat-or-Two" Airline Option

The topic of overweight travelers – whether you call them obese, too-fat-to-fly or use the favorite airline euphemism (“passengers of size”) – is a hot-button issue for travelers, ranking right up there with pets on planes and screaming kids on planes.

Then earlier this year, oversized travelers caught a break in the form of an unusual defender: a Hollywood writer/director.

The Hollywood “Fat Guy”

No, the saga of Kevin Smith (“Mallrats”, “Chasing Amy”, Zack and Miri Make a Porno”) did not really change anything, but for once, the dilemma of overweight passengers got an airing.

Actually, Smith gave it a pretty fair “ranting” in the form of Twitter messages directed to Southwest Airlines and what he felt were its unfair air travel policies for those deemed “too fat to fly”.

Booted from the Plane

Southwest pulled Smith from his plane and told him he had to buy another seat. Smith exploded, and I can see why:

  • Smith was already seated on the plane with bag stowed
  • He was not told before entering the plane that he’d need a second seat
  • He was publicly humiliated in front of a plane load of passengers

Southwest is not the only airline that has done something like this, and Smith is not the only “victim” – but he is the only one with 1.6 million followers on Twitter, so he managed to shine a little light on the problem. Make that a lot of light – and heat – and fireworks.

How Fat is Too Fat?

Here is the real problem:

  • How fat is too fat?
  • Who makes the call on what is too fat?

No time for delicacy here: some overweight people have compact body types, and some have excess tissue that spills over into the seat beside them.

Southwest’s “Fat” Policy

At Southwest, this is the definition of being “too fat” for a single seat:

“The armrest is the definitive gauge for a Customer of size. It serves as the boundary between seats and measures 17 inches in width.”

Seems pretty straightforward. And director Kevin Smith, a big guy by his own admission, could do this and buckle up with no problem. But then the Southwest Airlines passenger of size policy continues by stating the following:

“Customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who compromise any portion of adjacent seating should proactively book the number of seats needed prior to travel.”

Checkout other airline “passenger of size” policies (or lack thereof) in this post I did a few months ago on why I don’t these these policies work.

Confused? Who wouldn’t be. And I can see where flight attendants and gate agents would be confused as well.

To add to the fun, Kevin Smith has purchased two seats in the past, apparently for his own comfort – and not because anyone ever told him to.

The Big Gamble

Meanwhile, there are plenty of non-famous folks who fly again and again with no problems reserving a single seat – and then, out of the blue – that same passenger is told to buy two airline seats.

What’s unfair about these passenger-of-size rules is, people are being asked to gamble. They can proactively buy two seats – paying twice the price – only to discover that maybe they didn’t need to. Or, they can buy one seat only to be told they need two – and learn that there is no second seat on their flight, and they’ll have to wait for a later plane that may have one.

One other thing: it’s also unfair that someone sitting next to a “passenger of size” doesn’t get full use of his or her seat due to the “overflow” from the big person next to you – that’s understood, and that’s why airlines have these policies in the first place. And yes, it would be nice if all of us who need to would go on a diet. But to tell someone, “lose weight” doesn’t really help if they have to get on a plane tomorrow.

Idea: If You Fit, You Fly

My suggestion – and this is not an original thought, I saw it on another site’s comments section:

Make the airlines put a section of three airline seats in a curtained-off or partitioned area near every airport gate, and ask customers to see if they can fit. It’s sort of like using one of those metal templates to insure your carryon is the proper size.

It could save everyone a lot of time, trouble – and embarrassment.

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Published: May 19, 2010