Has this happened to you? The generously-made passenger wedged in the next seat overflows into yours — bad karma. Or, you're sandwiched in a middle seat between co-travellers whose sizes don't match the seat's dimensions — worse karma.
Flying economy class isn't great comfort, but having an extra-large passenger as your neighbour can be misery for both. Having no elbow room and in some cases, no hip room, can be truly tiring on a flight that lasts 11 to 14 hours.
I empathise with large people. In fact, my co-passenger kept apologising for my obvious discomfort. What and who is to blame for this state of affairs? Under-sized seats in tightly-packed aircraft or over-sized passengers who don't fit into the ones offered?
To be fair, some airlines ask passengers of size to pay for an extra seat to avoid encroaching on a co-traveller's space rights. Others add to the fare if you want a seat near the exit door, where there's a seven-inch extra legroom.
Air France offers “passengers with a high body mass” the option of buying a second seat in economy at a 25 per cent discount, reimbursed if the plane isn't full. United gets large passengers to buy an upgrade or extra seat.
When are you deemed a “a flier of substance”? The general agreement is “customers must be able to wear the seatbelt, with one extension if necessary; should be able to bring down both armrests while seated and not significantly encroach upon the adjacent seating space.” Big passengers call all this discriminatory, adding that it's a means to charge more. They want special seats.
Meanwhile, normal-sized passengers, likely to be sandwiched between a window and a super-sized neighbour, are expected to stay patient. Says a frequent flier, asserting he has nothing against king-sized travellers: “If I move to another seat rather than stay pinned in by the bulky neighbour, I lose out on the window seat. If no other seat is available, I am a physical wreck at the end of even a three-hour journey. Isn't this discrimination? Didn't I pay the full amount for my seat? Why not charge a passenger for two seats when he/she takes up more space than the average person?”
It is not a happy situation for well-proportioned fliers at all. They are crushed into seats several sizes smaller, and their bulk allows them no space to lower the food tray. Getting out of those mini-seats is a decidedly painful exercise. And it is awkward and humiliating when a co-passenger asks for transfer to another area.
The issue hit the headlines when a Southwest Airlines flight crew downloaded film director Kevin Smith (“Silent Bob in Clerks”), calling him a “safety risk”.
Smith had paid for two seats, but got cleared for an earlier flight. This one had no two vacant seats together, and the pilot asked him to get off. Smith simply used his Twitter account to get even. “Was I going to roll on a passenger?” he asked. The airline apologized with a gift voucher. Smith tweeted about the episode as “The @SouthwestAir Diet. How it works: you're publicly shamed into a slimmer figure.”
As we get more prosperous, eat better, and grow in volume, we would like airlines to keep pace. We want seats to be larger, would like a few reserved for not-so-slight travellers. As for the trimmer travellers, whose seats — and travel rights — have been encroached on by large passengers, travel veterans have this to say: “Complain. If enough people do so, there will soon be a uniform plan of action.”
Travelling made easy
Airlines can introduce a few large seats to accommodate ‘big' fliers
Travellers can take this as a challenge to get back into shape
Be the change. If you're large, voluntarily buy two tickets for adjacent seats