Large Travelers vs. Airlines: Who Will Win?

If you are a normal-sized (or smaller-than-normal-sized) person, you don’t think much about seat space when planning your trip. But the truth is, booking cheap flights can be an ordeal for people who are very tall or obese. So what’s a large person to do?

Government Policies on Large Passengers
FareCompare readers may be surprised to learn that neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor the Transportation Department has much to say about needs of passengers who are very overweight or very tall. FAA safety standards require passengers be able to sit in an airplane seat with both armrests down and their seatbelt fastened. While the FAA has policies on passengers with disabilities, these policies do not specifically address extreme weight or height as a disability.

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Airline Policies on Overweight Passengers
Some passengers don’t meet the criteria above (i.e. they can’t fit into one seat, fasten their seatbelt, and/or put the armrests down). In these cases, most airlines allow obese passengers to move next to a vacant seat if one is available. Alternately, they may put the passenger on the next flight if there are vacant seats. If neither of these are possible, they may make the passenger deplane and buy a second ticket on another flight.

If a very large passenger purchases two tickets in advance and extra seats turn up on their flight, they will be refunded the cost of the extra ticket.

Only Southwest and AirTran have more specific policies on overweight passengers. On these airlines, if a passenger won’t fit in one seat with the armrests down, they must purchase a second ticket.

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Flying While Tall
Being cramped into a plane seat isn’t just uncomfortable when you’re tall. It can also be a health hazard. Tall passengers face higher risk of developing a blood clot when they are crammed into a standard airline seat, particularly on flights lasting longer than two hours. A few extra-tall people have tried bringing a statement signed by their doctor when they check in – in the hopes of snagging a seat with more legroom – but airlines have no obligation to help. Trying to book a precious exit row seat or at least an aisle seat works some of the time, but there are no guarantees.

Tall passengers also run up against airline revenue enhancement from selling exit row and other roomier seats for a premium. If a short passenger pays extra for an exit row seat and refuses to have mercy on a 6-foot-10 passenger by trading seats, there’s really nothing the tall passenger can do.

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A 6-foot-7 Canadian named Malcolm Johnson has asked Air Canada to stop charging tall people extra for seats with extra leg room. A year ago, the Canadian Transportation Agency dismissed Johnson’s complaints, ruling that Johnson didn’t prove that his height was a disability. He is now considering a lawsuit. While there is no legal precedent in Canada concerning tall passengers, a 2008 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Air Canada and WestJet must provide an extra seat free of charge to obese passengers providing a doctor’s certificate confirming their disability.

Who’s Winning?
At the moment, the airlines have the upper hand when it comes to coping with extra large or tall passengers. Policies are enforced unevenly with overweight passengers, and there aren’t any policies addressing the needs of very tall passengers. For now, the only option is to try to make the most of the seating the airlines have available or forego cheap tickets for a roomier first-class seat.


Published: January 26, 2012