Obese Airline Passengers: The Debate Continues

“Sorry if I seem irate but I just spent the last 1.25hrs literally CRUSHED on a USAir flight”, posted FlyerTalk member joshuamillman. “It was one of those small regional death trap lear jet planes with 2 rows on each side of the aisle. If you are only 5′ tall you still need to duck to walk through.

Obese Airline Passengers: The Debate Continues

“I have the aisle seat and a man 6’3″ and Id estimate at least 300lbs is next to me in the window. How he even got in the seat without smearing soap all over himself is beyond me. I dont even think the seat belt got around his stomach. He took up his seat and 60% of my seat and was also crushed up against the seat in front of him. I would even go so far as to say that size person should be prohibited on that size airplane. I actually spent the majority of the flight sitting on the toilet as it was more comfortable!

“Im in line now at customer service to see if I can get a refund of sorts. Im sick of these hippos on these airplanes. They know how big they are and should be required to buy 2 seats.”

Although I do not condone the use of the word hippos to describe obese airline passengers, that last line caused me to wonder: you would most likely not allow me as your seat mate to use half of the space in your seat to place my belongings. Why would you tolerate having me take up half the space of the seat for which you paid simply because I was obese?

Looking at this from the other perspective, would you willingly pay full fare knowing you would have the use of only half of your seat? Would you do it if the airfare was only half of what you would typically pay?

With airlines attempting to cram more passengers onto airplanes in order to literally squeeze more revenue from each flight, there is no relief to this issue anytime soon — for either obese people or tall people…

…but tall people usually cannot infringe upon the space of another passenger — unless they recline, of course; and as you most likely by now know from the news last week, seat recline aboard an airplane is also a controversial issue.

An article written by me pertaining to the debate over airline passengers who are obese was originally written on March 22, 2013; and it continues to be a contentious topic. I am not obese; but what exactly are the rights which obese people have? Should they receive special dispensation simply because they are unable to fit in the seats in which they are assigned? Should they purchase a seat in the premium class cabin or two seats in the economy class cabin? Like others, obese people should not have to deal with discrimination — right?

It is not as easy as that, unfortunately. Vilma Soltesz — who was 56 years old, weighed 425 pounds, had only one leg and used a wheelchair — died in October of 2012 from kidney failure after allegedly being denied boarding an aircraft at the airports in Budapest, Prague and Frankfurt while attempting to return to her home in New York, according to her husband Janos.

Holly Ostrov Ronai — an attorney and co-founder of the law firm of Ronai & Ronai, LLP, which was hired by Janos Soltesz seeking 5.7 million dollars in damages from three airlines — stated that what is “quite telling is that Mr. Soltesz had a tiny little Suzuki car and was forced to drive his wife from the Budapest airport to the airport in Prague. He got Vilma into his tiny little car all by himself, yet the airlines couldn’t manage to get Vilma into a huge aircraft.”

The case was reportedly filed on June 2, 2014 with Richard J. Sullivan assigned as the presiding judge of this case at New York Southern District Court in the Bronx. There has been no outcome reported about this case at this time.

Did Delta Air Lines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Lufthansa all discriminate against Vilma Soltesz simply because she was considered too obese? Does her estate have a case?

One solution which had been offered last year was charging passengers by weight using one three possible methods:

  • A straightforward price per kilogram or pound
  • A fixed low fare with heavier passengers paying a surcharge and lighter passengers being offered a discount
  • Divided passengers into three groups — heavy, normal and light — and have them be charged accordingly


Perhaps I am “mixing apples with oranges” here; but if United Airlines and Delta Air Lines are adopting a revenue model where frequent flier loyalty program miles and elite level status will be based on money spent by passengers on airline tickets as well as by distance flown, then would this policy of charging passengers by weight instead of a flat airfare — assuming that passengers paid the same price for the same class of airfare, of course — also make sense?

Even more importantly, could charging passengers by their weight be a way to avoid the experience endured by joshuamillman? A representative of US Airways reportedly advised joshuamillman — who was ultimately given a gift certificate worth $100.00 towards future travel as compensation — to say something before the airplane door is closed; but that could mean humiliating the overweight person, which is something joshuamillman is apparently loathe to do.

Could charging passengers by their weight in and of itself be considered discriminatory? One might believe that it could be an incentive for someone to lose weight prior to a scheduled flight — but that automatically assumes that the person is in control of how much he or she weighs. There are people who are obese for medical reasons and not merely because they consume food with too many calories.

What do you believe is a possible mutually beneficial solution to this debate?

  1. I am 6’5″ and slim. I have had some absolutely brutal experiences in tiny seats on small airplanes. Too bad for me. Air travel is a privilege, not a right. If you infringe upon another’s space, it is your responsibility to remedy the situation.

  2. I would see a logistical and PR nightmare for the airlines.

    Would sex be taken into account since females are normally lighter for given height, otherwise it is discriminatory by sex? If you’re really concerned about seat encroachment should it be done by waist measurement rather than weight, otherwise it is preferential to short people?

    Forget about lighter fliers getting a discount. That won’t happen. It would just be an ADDED revenue for the airline.

    Personally I’ve preferred sitting beside some larger people rather than some of the demanding a-holes I’ve been stuck beside.

  3. I had one of these fatties sit next to me on a flight about two years ago. His seat acted like a funnel pushing his blubber up and over the arm rests, spilling into the aisle and window seats. A cellulite tsunami per se.
    On top of this, someone had apparently stolen the sleeves from his shirt that last fit him in 1991. 2.5 hours of fat hairy arms and belly blubber invading my space was just about enough to send me over the edge.

  4. I am obese. I am also aware of my surroundings enough to know if I’m traveling along I’ll use points or something to be in a premium cabin to be in a larger seat. If I have to be in coach, I try my hardest then to fly with a friend who won’t mind that I’ll need to be in their space a little bit. But we are friends so they don’t mind so much. It is, however, ALWAYS a little humiliating that no matter what cabin and no matter what flight, I need to ask for a seatbelt extender. But, it is what it is. I’m not rich and I don’t have a private jet, so I have to do what I need to do to get where I’m going.

    But I understand that it’s hard to sit next to a fat guy on a plane. I think it’s a little silly of this guy to complain to get $$$ from the airline, though. Does that mean I can complain and get $$$ from the airline when there’s a crying baby on board? Or when I have to sit next to a smelly guy who decides it’s ok not to wear deodorant? It just seems like everyone wants something to complain about, but they feel they need to get something out of it.

    Trust me, the fat guy knows he’s fat and he’s not happy about being squished into that tiny little seat next to you either.

  5. I spent 15hrs squeezed next to an obese, sweaty gentleman from DXB to SFO. He occupied about 50% of my seat. I pretty much sat in his armpit half of that time as he was quite tall as well and slept with his arms above his shoulders. There were 3 of us in our party, and we had 3 of the 4 middle row seats. It was a full flight in economy. I repeatedly requested the crew to perhaps find him a business class seat (of which there were many empty ones). Every single time I made that request, they asked my whether we had tickets for all three of us??? or told me that they cannot upgrade “us” to business class – even though I never asked them to upgrade us. I finally have up. On the plus side, that was my final flight on long haul economy, and it made future domestic flights a walk in the park no matter how bad the experience!

  6. A strong case could be made that being obese is a disability. As such, it must be reasonably accommodated by the airlines. If the airlines charged per kilogram that would be fair and equitable. But they choose not to. They charge per passenger. Therefore, it is their responsibility to transport a passenger whether it is a small child or an obese individual.

    Accommodating persons with disabilities always cost additional to the provider of service. As a society we have decided that such accommodation is what we want to provide our people. And airline should provide an extra large seat simply as an accommodation for this disability.

    The party at fault is the airline, not the passenger. The airline needs to reasonably accommodate persons with disabilities so that those accommodations do not infringe upon the rights of other passengers.

    1. Unfortunately, Dave, the airlines treat seating aboard their airplanes literally as a “one size fits all” solution; but you are correct that by law, airlines must accommodate people who fall under the legal definition of disabled and that it costs more money to do so.

      I agree that the airlines should be more proactive — but at what cost?

      1. When accommodating a disability cost is not really a factor under the law. Costco and Walmart must provide motorized vehicles to overweight passengers who cannot walk from one side of their store to the other. Bathrooms must be fitted, swimming pools must have lifts, parking lots must have assessable spaces. Under the law, providing an extra few inches to obese persons would clearly be considered a reasonable accommodation.

        If you choose to think that the law is not a good one because you don’t personally benefit from it let me point out that the airlines have consistently made seats smaller and smaller. The latest round of dream liner seats 17 1/2 inches in width: this is a new all-time record for narrowness. The dream liner was intended to have it across eating and now it is being outfitted nine across.

        I am not a base. I know some who are. It is not their choice. They are not obese because they eat too much. Let’s not illlegally discriminate against them because of our own personal biases.

        I have no problem with the airlines providing a limited number of extra width seats. The cost would be negligible. Persons with other disabilities would likely benefit as well.

        1. …and people who are not overweight in any way, shape or form might want to pay more for those seats with extra width.

          Thank you for your response, Dave. You have put a lot of thought into your well-reasoned comment — which includes an idea airlines might want to consider.

        2. It’s not discrimination due to “personal biases,” it is “discrimination” due to decreased neighboring passenger comfort and increased airline operating costs.

    2. What a crock! How about this: if fatness is suddenly declared a ‘disability’, I am going to eat myself humongous, quit paid work forever, get on disability, and then me and my bag of potato chips are going to plop in front of the tv every day and do nothing except play Call of Duty. Maybe I can even get a free live-in caregiver to feed me. I sure hope she’s a cutie.

      The vast majority of people who are fat are fat because they stuff themselves. The second that kind of behavior starts getting rewarded becomes the same second everyone should start to game the system. I am definitely “on board” for that.

  7. All airlines should follow Southwest Airlines policy of customer of size. I have been using the policy for years. I purchase a extra seat at the lowest published price, if the plan does not oversell and no one is refused boarding I get a 100% refund. I purposely try and fly southwest because of thier very fair policy.

  8. let,s judge the obese because a greedy airline does not account for a very diverse society. All airlines should have seats available for larger passengers. we should have regulations that require them to do so.

    1. I do not disagree with you, Debra — and obese people should not be judged…

      …but then what about other people whose physical attributes are beyond what is typical for an average human being, such as an extremely tall person? Should there be regulations for them as well?

  9. The problem starts with airlines pretending that their coach seating is sized for humans. It’s the big lie. And every year they cram everyone closer and tighter together. When people with 29″ inseams have to sit with their knees touching tge seat in front of them, there’s a problem. When you don’t have enough room to read a book, let alone eat a meal, there’s a problem.

    Frankly the airlines are borderline frauds in calling coach class “seating”. It’s meat storage. Comfort? Ha, you didn’t actually think you were paying for that!

  10. How about a standard sized seat near the check in counter (in a curtained off booth even)- just as one has to place a carry on in a bin to prove it fits, sit in the chair to prove you fit. If not, buy another.

    1. That is an interesting idea, Brewer1056. Of course, the walk to the booth would need to be as inconspicuous as well for privacy reasons, I would think…

  11. I think the disability argument is a bit of a stretch. Once you’ve opened Pandora’s box citing that “disability”, the airlines are then open to other “disabilities”. Over 6’1″ tall? Disabled. Under 5′ tall? Disabled. Anorexic? Disabled. I am no fan of the airlines, yet I am dependent upon them to get me where I need to be 45+ weeks a year. Those of us that are different have challenges we face regularly…you take the good with the bad.
    One size does not fit all. Being litigious about it forces the service provider into an impossible position.

  12. We need to treat the obesity issue like carry on luggage. If you don’t fit into the test rack you either buy a double seat or you don’t board. Sort of like requiring people to check their oversized stuff. And if seats aren’t available you may not make your flight. I’m not skinny but I’m not big, either. I do have a curved spine that makes any flight painful. I’ve been squished sideways by bigger, I.e., obese people to the point that my spine was so twisted I could barely walk off the plane. The most absurd big person I encountered was a huge woman who flowed entirely over my seat and got angry because I was going to crush her voluminous pleated skirt if I sat down. I just said, “it’s my seat, you have your own, there,” pointing to her big lap.

  13. At the ticket gate there is a device where you can place your suitcase in to see if it fits the standards for carryon luggage. Maybe have a sample seat available for someone to measure thems selves to see if they fit. I know this is brutal but if you can’t fit in the seat, you must purchase another?
    Or, the dimensions are well-publicized on airline websites for exactly how large your carryon bag can be. Can passenger size not be treated the same way? A passenger could be spared public humiliation by sitting at home and measuring their ‘spread’ according g to airline seat capacity.
    If there is general knowledge of the exact width of seats on airlines, then at least the public is informed about how much they will overlap into another person’s space.
    I have a lot of empathy for anyone who is larger who is traveling on an airplane but I have also endured some pretty excruciating flights because my already small seat allotment was infringed upon.
    Maybe not charge by the pound but by how wide your ‘bottom spread’ measures ?

  14. What a bunch of ridiculous whiners. Screaming children, sneezing germ factories, laptop junkies, those who lean back all they way on a twenty minute flight and plane delayers-welcome to airline travel. OK, I’m a big guy but I fit in the seat and seat belt. I fly SWA and always try to get a low boarding number so that I am ensconced in my aisle seat when the late boarders need to find a middle seat and they get stuck with me. If I get stuck in a middle seat I cross my arms so that I am not using either of the arm rest and my seat mates always use both arm rest as if they owned them. I’ve flown three big guys abreast like some sort of human turducken. So what. SW used to offer an A,B, or C boarding pass, I suggest an F or an S for fat or skinny and the only rule is you can’t sit next to the same letter. But if I wanted to surcharge someone it would be prima donnas like you. The middle seat is waiting and I am saving a big juicy fart just for you.

  15. It’s sadly amusing to hear people argue that being obese is not a disability and that these people should be penalized. I am not obese. But I have HR responsibilities and know a bit of the law.

    All disabilities must be accommodated if federal facilities are utilized in any way. All of them. Every one and of every type. That IS the law. If you only speak Cambodian the airport must provide a free translator for you because Limited English Profficiency (LEP) is a well accepted disability under the law.

    We are a society that believes in equality, opportunity, freedom, and compassion. That is why disability laws exist.

    This debate boarders on hatred and I find rather distasteful. It is at least a bit ignorant of the rights of disabled persons.

    Let me offer a simple solution: if just ONE ROW of an airplane was fitted with five seats across instead of six then the airline would have five seats for obese people. About 3% of the seating would now accommodate obese people. The total cost to the airline would be a single seat…which would have no actual cost unless it was a sold-out flight. This is the very definition of a Reasonable Accommodation as the law intended. It is also the ethical solution. I hope we might all agree it is a good answer that the airlines could implement quickly.

    For those concerned that this will simply let every disorder become a disability I can only point out that we got there more than a decade ago. If you are Muslim an airline will gladly provide a Halal meal…not because they are nice but because that is the law.

    Fortunately, there is a very simple, practical, humane, and cheap answer for this clearly irksome issue.

  16. Instead of 5 across, how about 4? The seats should also have more leg room too, to accommodate people with a height disability. Then there will be plenty of room for all. We’ll call it First Class.

  17. A “disability” should only be an impairment beyond the control of the human. If someone just keeps eating (without a medical condition), that’s NOT a disability. Why should the world suffer because of people who can’t act as responsible adults ? I’m all in favor of forcing them to buy 2 seats (or at least, 1.5 seats).

    For those pretentious holier-than-thou out there, let’s sandwich them in the middle between 2 whales for a 16 hour flight to Asia and see what they say afterwards.

    1. “A ‘disability’ should only be an impairment beyond the control of the human.”

      I agree with that statement wholeheartedly, patricia; but one problem is that there are people who intentionally abuse that term — especially when they allegedly attempt to cheat the system.

      One example is where people pass their pets off as service animals or emotional support animals to save money on transporting them — or, at least, to not subject them to the cargo area of the airplane.

      I certainly cannot tell at first glance who is obese due to legitimate medical reasons beyond his or her control versus someone who can empower himself or herself to take measures to improve his or her health. Can you?

  18. Then, we have a basic misunderstanding of why most people are obease. That is, many think it is because they choose to eat too much. This prejudice is logical, but wrong. (Scientifically speaking.)

    Obease people cannot become normal size by simply eating less. The mechanisms of obesity are beyond personal choice, and self-control. They are complex and relate to many things from addictive processed sugar to, well, it’s quire complicated and utterly irrelevant under the law. The fact is that by definition under the Americans with Disabilities Act they are disabled. Keep this for perspective: a person who CHOOSES not to be able to speak English is also protected by the ADA as being disabled (LEP disability.)

    The average American is obese by world standards. Should airplane seats be sized for the average person worldwide? Would the average American be happy about being forced to buy premium “fat-priced seats”? You, dear reader, are probably obsesse when viewed across the human race.

    Don’t be selfish, and show compassion. It wis easy and cheap to provide a larger seat to the few obease. I expect that more than a few pregnant moms would appreciate this option, too.

    Providing one special row, with one fewer seat, would have an unmeasurably small cost and is a reasonable accommodation.

    Southwest Airline’s solution is also a good one: only charge for an extra seat if the airplane was a sell-out and if they could have sold the seat. It’s a decent, humane, compromise.

  19. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/10/04/fructose-on-us-obesity-rates.aspx


    if it were genetics you would not see this rapid increase in the 70’s or 90’s and then in 00’s. .. and major changes based on cultural norms (ie. china, Japanese, french, Canadian even uk, etc. a regular growth spirit based on market preferences (tastes ,ie diets, etc) so when the market changes in such rapid stages, any industry needs to adjust, supply and demand! if the airlines do not change their system which were developed almost 80 years ago, they will lose market share. but since this is airline travel is not a necessity, but a luxury, it just means fewer flyers. which are better for the remaining people. already some airlines are testing passenger full weight (person + luggage) as a means to manage this. once one major airlines test such a system, it won’t be long before others will adopt it. they will find marketing ways to address the language around it, and avoid issues of discrimination.

    if you have every tried to buy any empty seat beside you, you know how difficult the airline makes it. southwest is doing better at allowing you to do these things. the company that i work for has filed patents to make it easier to do.(filed almost 4 years ago)

    working on a start up that is trying to change the way airlines do their seating. i know its very difficult to change these things, but there have been the most innovation in the airline seating arrangement then ever in the last 80 years!

    would be nice to hear you views on statsistical trends, and not just on opinions.

  20. It’s very simple

    It the standard safety belt does not fit your waist, you should be required to buy to seats!!!

    Problem solved, no discrimination. It either fit’s or it doesn’t. Just like we have to measure our luggage to make sure it fits and weighs a specific amount….

  21. So what about broad shouldered people? Should they be required to buy an extra seat? I flew coach to Istanbul (luckily was only a 1 hour flight). The guy next to me was over 6′ and must have been a body builder; his biceps were literally the width of my head (I slouched in my seat & took a sneaky side picture, because I had never seen anything like that before). Super, super sweet guy who was sitting in the middle seat, next to his equally muscular friend. If we were going solely by weight, he’d probably have been too heavy. He was extremely apologetic but there was literally no way, even with his arms crossed, to protrude about 2 inches into my “space”.

    Now, Im not giant but Im certainly not a tiny thing. I turned sideways and crammed myself against the wall so he could at least use the armrest (the middle spot is just brutal, for anyone). I can fasten the seat-belt, Im 5’6”, and most of my weight is in my stomach but not the sides. I always make sure to get a window seat so I can lean against that, and never touch the armrest unless the person next to me has at least an inch inside it & hasnt tried to use it for an hour or so. Do I know Im overweight? Of course. Do I make every effort, to the detriment of my own comfort to stick to ”my side” or buy a higher class seat? Absolutely. Would I be absolutely furious if they made me jump on a luggage scale? You bet your butt. Im sorry many of you guys have had to sit next to complete jerks. It’s almost the same as if someone was wearing perfume that was completely overwhelming, or stunk so much you were gagging, or brought on their own kimchee to munch on? It sucks, it really does, but it’s the airlines fault for for lowering economy to the point where the taxes are 3x what the actual fare is, and then needing to cram so many people in just to make a profit. The “premium economy” (domestic) are ridiculous too – for usually double the price, you get an extra 3″ of leg room – great for tall people, useless for wide people. The average american woman is 165# & size 16. The average European woman is 140# & size 10. Should americans have to pay extra to fly on european/asian based airlines because we’re taller and heavier than the rest of the world? The rest of the world probably thinks we should!

    1. I cannot argue with what you wrote, Jane.

      The problem is that we are confined for hours to a finite space from which there is no exit during a flight — something which is typically unnatural in most other aspects of our lives — and some people tend to simply lose their decorum and manners.

      All it takes for better civility is to be more tolerant of each other. Indifferent parents of screaming babies; people who spill into the seats of other people and invade their space; offensive aromas and odors — all of that and more contribute to the potential misery of a flight experience…

      …but to be weighed on a scale would potentially feel degrading. I am not sure that the excess weight of some people is significant enough with regard to fuel consumption and other factors which would cause an airplane to be less efficient and therefore warrant potential humiliation.

      Airlines are indeed guilty of cramming as many seats into airplanes as humanly possible…

  22. This happened to me once with a real monster (>400lbs) next to me; I saw him coming and put the arm rest down and left it down.
    He couldn’t fit in the seat and they had to move him.

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