Too-Big-To-Fly Woman Dies

“Give me your tired. Your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But don’t bring me a 425-pound, one-legged woman in a wheelchair, even if her home is in the Bronx.

A would-be passenger named Vilma Soltesz died nine days after she was denied boarding on three homeward-bound aircraft departing Budapest and Prague.

“All we wanted was to come back home to get her treatment,” her husband, a solid Staten Island security guard told news sources. From his workaday ferries, Vilma’s husband must be almost able to read those immortal words etched on Lady Liberty.

In a previous blog we discussed airline policies with respect to flying obese passengers – the need for seatbelt extenders, the stipulation that the armrest must go down, often the need for an extra seat, and Air Canada’s humanity in treating obesity as a medical condition. We also mentioned the discomfort imposed on seatmates.

On the way to Budapest, flying on Delta and KLM metal, the Soltesz’s bought two seats for Vilma. In Hungary, kidney disease and diabetes added water weight to her girth. On the way back, KLM in Budapest couldn’t handle her. A spokesperson for KLM reportedly said “it was not physically possible for her to board the aircraft.” But apparently they were already seated when they were told to exit the aircraft. There may have been a seatbelt-extender issue. There may or may not have been an all-you-can-eat of gourmet excuses on the part of KLM.

They were advised to drive five hours to Prague and catch a Delta flight. But there the airline told them the standard-issue plastic wheelchair could not hold Vilma. “We were physically unable to board her on the aircraft,” a Delta spokesperson said. (Am I making this up or are these news reports I’m reading real?)

So now the Solteszes go back to their vacation home in Hungary (hope dies last) and contact their New York-based travel agent who finds an accommodating New York-bound Lufthansa flight. But boarding the aircraft in this age of Curiosity on Mars is apparently not possible, even with help from the local fire department. Finally, the flight captain mercilessly demands the aircraft depart without Vilma. The equation moves again and the unfortunate couple return to Hungary patiently waiting for help. Waiting like some senior woman in her seat until everyone has deplaned. Even a dog gets a warm piece of the sidewalk.

Vilma dies two days later and is now buried in Hungary.

My comment: (You can skip this section, but if I didn’t think this bit was true I’d have never done the post.) This is as powerfully sad a travel story as I’ve ever heard. Yes, there’s a lawsuit in the works. And you bet it’s justified. But I can’t cast blame anywhere. I can’t intuit a size XXXL issue into a size 8 supposition. This is a complex dish with many ingredients, maybe beyond the reach of story. I’ve been on aircraft delayed by a difficult passenger to board and I’ve probably been as big a jerk about it as the next person. In this case, the airlines couldn’t handle the disability. Kidney disease and diabetes, with its sometime consequence of amputation of a limb, is, at times, both genetic and self-imposed by our own obesity. We all need to know our limitations, our strengths and weaknesses. You can’t outrun biology. All I know is life teaches us tolerance if it teaches us anything. I vow to be a better passenger, a more understanding person when it comes to the difficulties of others. RIP Vilma.

Comments (Showing 4 of 4)

  • Zomba at 10:13pm November 27, 2012

    It is sad that this woman passed away, but I find the idea of a lawsuit to be ridiculous. This passenger refused medical treatment in Hungary, and apparantly passed away as the result.

    Delta, KLM, and Lufthansa all appear to have tried to assist this passenger, but they have an obligation to ensure a safe flight for ALL passengers. If Vilma was unable to be secured on the airplane in a way that allowed for safe operation and evacuation, then the airlines have no business allowing her to fly.

    I don’t want to make any value judgements about the passenger, but I believe that ultimate responsibility for her demise belongs to she and her family. Since this appears to be mostly pre-existing issues, she should have ensured that her medical history accompanied her to Hungary. Once it was evident that her condition was deteriorating, she should have sought medical attention rather than hoping to wait it out until arriving back in the US.

  • Powerbird101 at 11:24pm November 27, 2012

    OK so let me get this straight she had a medical condition… went to vacation in her vacation home in Hungary. And couldn’t get a commercial flight out but refused medical treatment in the country she was in. I honestly think there is more to this than meets the eye. I agree mostly with Zomba but also think that it shouldn’t be made into a situation if it does not cause so. The concept is that one shouldn’t be discriminated due to a medical condition but I think also that these airlines could have done a better job of helping her find a way home instead of hiding behind their public relations office.

  • Burj at 1:42am November 28, 2012

    O.K. here is the part I don’t understand…. Delta/KLM FLEW her to Hungary….how could they then claim they were unable to fly her back?! There are A LOT of issues here but the one that hasn’t been addressed is what responsibility does an airline have when they fly someone one direction, but then refuse, or are unable, to fly them back? How long was she in Hungary for? Did her size significantly increase while she was there? While Europeans tend not to be as obese as Americans…have they never transported a large person on an airplane in Europe?!

  • SomeoneWhoDoesTravelSomeTimes at 8:49am November 28, 2012

    It seems the issue is approached differently here than in European media. The reactions in Europe are much less in favor of the woman especially now her husband has filed a $6m lawsuit at all three airlines.

    If all three airlines don’t manage to seat her, I’d say it’s likely that it would be safe to assume that she indeed couldn’t be safely accommodated on the airplane. Also why on earth did they not just visit a hospital in Europe? I read that they didn’t trust hungarian doctors, but it would have been much easier for them to get to Austria or Germany for medical treatment than trying to fit in a plane three times. Also If you have such a medical condition, maybe it would be wise to build your holiday home in a country where you do trust the medical care?

    It’s a sad story, but I don’t see how the airlines are to blame here.

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