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Sitting Next to a Passenger of Size? This Guide Can Help

Sitting Next to a Passenger of Size? This Guide Can Help
Jackie Reddy

The FlyerTalk Forum is a pretty big place, so when a particularly good piece of FlyerTalk comes across our desks, we put it on the front page for regular Reports From the Forum. Want to read more? Check out the Reports From the Forum tag, or head to the forum yourself to see what the FlyerTalk is about.

The cabin is a place of close confines and awkward encounters, a place where even experienced passengers struggle to navigate delicate situations. As a case in point, this forum thread: Seated next to a really overweight person–what to do? Here was the situation:

A FlyerTalker was flying United Airlines from Newark to Miami in Economy Plus. Then, says the post’s author:

this REALLY fat person set next to me (in the aisle seat). He was so big that he could not sit in his seat unless the arm-rest was up. He asked me if he could lift it, and I said sure (I had no idea what followed or that he was so big).

Well all of a sudden, he is taking 20-30 percent of my seat. I had to cramp next to my girlfriend just to be there. The fat person (to be fair) asked the [flight attendant] if he could be seated somewhere else, but she said the plane was full and she couldn’t do anything (it was indeed full).

During the flight, my legs “[fell] asleep” because they were pressured so much, so I had to move quite often in the seat to make sure I got the proper circulation. I couldn’t really do anything properly – impossible to sleep in such a position or to use my laptop. Even the tray table could barely be there.

I survived this terrible flight, but I am wondering what you guys would have done. If I experience anything that could cause such a flight again, then I’d rather step out of the aircraft and be rescheduled than go through this again.

1: Should I politely just have refused when the fat person asked whether he may lift the armrest? (if I had done so, there is no way he could sit there, so then maybe this would give HIM      a problem rather than me).

 

2: Given that there is nothing to do and FAs say the flight is full and there is no more extra space, and the fat person does not want to be rescheduled, should I then demand to be taken      off the plane with my girlfriend and rescheduled? Would UNITED accommodate this for both of us?

 

3: Is it at all legal to be seated like that? In case of an emergency, there is no way that our row could evacuate quickly because of the fat person.

 

4: How would you guys handle it? Would you really make a big thing out of it and not accept what I have been through, or would you just try to survive it?

What’s the Right Way to Handle This Awkward Situation?

The FlyerTalk forum is a great place to go if you have questions, especially awkward ones. The first lesson from the frequent fliers in the FlyerTalk Forum? The most tactful terminology is “person of size” or POS.

What Do You Do?

The second lesson? Act quickly. If your seatmate is making you uncomfortable, for any reason, it’s important to speak up before the plane has departed. Since the person of size was too large for their seat, they should have purchased a second, which the flight attendant could point out. But, as was quickly pointed out, “Once the door is closed and the aircraft is full, there are no options.”

And, while this passengers’ seatmate was encroaching on a considerable amount of their space, how can you tell when you’re entitled to ask for help from the flight attendant, or when your seatmate is well within their rights to sit there? It depends on your airlines’ rules which, it may pay to browse before you fly. Here’s United Airlines’ extra seating rules for example:

A customer is required to purchase an additional seat or upgrade if they do not meet one of the following criteria:

  • The customer must be able to properly attach, buckle and wear the seat belt, with one extension if necessary, whenever the seatbelt sign is illuminated or as instructed by a crew member.*
  • The customer must be able to remain seated with the seat armrest(s) down for the entirety of the flight.
  • The customer must not significantly encroach upon the adjacent seating space. See our seat maps.
  • United will not board a customer who declines to purchase a ticket for an additional seat or upgrade for each leg of their itinerary when required.

What Do You Say?

The most tactful language that’s most likely to elicit help from your flight attendant? Simply say something along the lines of “I can’t safely fit in my seat.” Framing it as a safety issue, which it can be in the case of an emergency deplaning, will encourage a prompt solution to the problem.

One helpful suggestion for a non-confrontational course of action: “I probably would have (quietly, calmly, and out of earshot of the customer of size) informed a  [flight attendant] that the [passenger] sitting next to me seemed unable to fit in the seat with the armrest down. Then I would have just stayed out of the way (e.g., in the back of the plane), while the [flight attendant]… dealt with things. I would not “make a big thing out of it”, but that rule exists for a reason (as you found out) and it’s okay to politely ask the [flight attendant] to handle it.”

Or, suggests another FlyerTalker, a straight forward conversation could be the best course of action and you should try saying to your seatmate, “hey man, you’re a big guy, let’s ask the FA if there’s an empty middle seat somewhere.” I can assure you that he’s aware of the discomfort he’s causing and I find that polite honesty is the best way to go with a stranger. Airports in general need more of it.

Shouldn’t the Flight Attendant Say Something?

Flight attendants are people too, and just because you feel that they should say something, it doesn’t mean that you can depend on them to make that judgment call. Here’s one awkward situation that required a self-imposed solution: “I was in [aisle] seat and needed to sit sideways due to his upper body and shoulder. It was a few other passengers nearby telling me to call [the flight attendant] to deal with it. The first [flight attendant] came and pretended she saw nothing wrong until the 2nd [flight attendant] came telling me about the seat belt and armrest rules.

“The guy clearly was experienced so he then sucked it in to buckle the belt but his upper body was still on my side past the arm rest. [The flight attendant] said there’s nothing they could do since he just accomplished it. I wasn’t going to take this long flight like this so I requested to be removed and take the next flight which is the next morning. By rule, I should take care of my own hotel but the GA offered it since I asked nicely. I was not happy but I do know this was probably the only thing they could do per the rule.”

Do You Have to Lift the Armrest?

No. Says one FlyerTalker, “I’ve always politely declined requests from anyone to put up the armrest, POS or not.”

A Few Words From Another Point of View

Space is an increasing problem on planes, as the odds of scoring an empty middle seat get lower, and the seats themselves get more narrow. More people than ever before are having to navigate cramped seat quarters.

Says one FlyerTalker, “as a POS I know most of the tricks. I always book aisle seats, and always raise the aisle armrest. I can fit in a 17″ seat, although my shoulders are definitely not built for it. If the aisle armrest doesn’t come up, I’ll tend to raise the center armrest a few inches or so, depending on the plane.”

A Quick Hack for Dealing With Cramped Quarters

“A tip for all… Many United Airlines aircraft allow the outside aisle armrest to be lifted via a ‘secret’ button or latch, usually on the underside of the armrest towards the back. Better that the POS spill out into the aisle then into your seat. And then if this intrusion into the aisle presents a problem, the FA will readily handle it.” United Airlines isn’t the only carrier that features aisle armrests with a secret release button. But, not all aircraft have them.

If you’re open to talking to your seatmate, pointing the button out to them may fix the problem of more room, or attract the attention of the flight attendant if you’re unwilling to converse with the flight attendant yourself.

Do you have a special method of dealing with uncomfortable passenger interactions like these? Let us know in the forum thread.

View Comments (27)

27 Comments

  1. Dr.Ells

    November 7, 2019 at 11:04 pm

    This author often submits useful and well-written articles. Very helpful for unseasoned travellers (such as my skinny, but 6 foot, 5 inch husband!).

  2. kimikoftokyo

    kimikoftokyo

    November 8, 2019 at 4:43 am

    I’m not only hippy but I have weight on me. The seats are smart regardless of size. If anything airlines are doing these things on purpose. I pay way too much to be uncomfortable and people laying on you and taking their shoes off just to name a few and other things are on my list on top of me trying to fit in the seat. If anything I get business but people going out their way to be rude is a no for me. Bad enough people are rude about everything else. Arm rest. Hey we can share. I’m so nice you can lay on me. There are good people in the world who embrace each other.

  3. chavala

    November 8, 2019 at 6:03 am

    Q: May I lift the armrest?
    A: NO

    Pretty simple IMO

  4. MimiB22

    November 8, 2019 at 6:13 am

    Passengers of size who don’t reserve a large enough seat or two seats, should not expect FAs and passengers to accommodate their girth to the detriment of their comfort and safety. Large people know they can’t fit in regular cramped seats and shouldn’t depend on getting an empty seat next to theirs or requiring row mates to raise armrests. Many of these POS are hoping they’ll get bumped to a larger seat or an empty middle seat will be found and they’ll get moved to an adjacent one. If it doesn’t happen, this leads to unfortunate situations.

    I believe it’s up to gate agents to take a POS aside prior to boarding and explain [discretely] that passengers who require it needed to purchase adequate seating space and may be denied boarding if they haven’t. This policy needs to be spelled out at the time of booking so they’re forewarned.

  5. gay

    November 8, 2019 at 6:29 am

    Calling an obese person a POS does not sound very nice.

  6. AndreaNewEngland

    November 8, 2019 at 7:07 am

    First of all, everyone is a ‘person of size.’ I am a size 2. Euphemisms don’t help anyone, and besides, I’ve read articles by people who embrace the word fat. On top of that, POS already has a very uncomplimentary meaning. As in, he’s a real piece of s…

  7. m44

    November 8, 2019 at 8:27 am

    The airline is making things difficult. The greed is the problem. The seats in in the 1980’s were wider, and the POS problem was much lesser. In the past there were 2+3 seats. In the same space now there are 3+3, and isle is not even a hip wide for many normally sized.
    This POS person has the right to travel, and the airline should provide human seating for all of us. Simply speaking the airline should provide the second seat for free and the POS should have the right to request such accomodation.
    After all this is the real human condition and most of the time it probably is qualified as a disability – i.e. protected by the law.
    Unless they start selling tickets based on pax weight – just like luggage?

  8. RedeyeDog

    November 8, 2019 at 9:06 am

    This is or should be an airline responsibility. Our luggage must conform to size and weight and shape specifications. It’s the airlines which are shrinking the size of seats, they should take responsibility for identifying those times which large people are too large!

    Publish the requirements online. Make clear to online purchasers of fares that if they exceed their standards, they will be issued and charged a second seat or taken off the flight in standby status or given a voucher for a future flight.

    This should NEVER become a passenger ordeal to deal with! A person is either too big or they are not. Again, the airlines need to take responsibility for it. That said, nothing has been mentioned about people who are large but they fit in their seat just fine.

    Then there are those who are just assholes, who feel that since they are smaller, they should be able to access more of the arm rest than you! Let’s face it people all have different dimensions and arms will line up on the arm rest differently, regardless of size. People just have to learn how to share, instead of becoming self righteous!

    It’s happened to me. I got on late and had to accept a middle seat and the guy next to me was livid when I put my arm on the armrest. I tried to talk to him and he immediately put on his headphones and pushed the stewardess button overhead.

    He was obviously upset, but I’ll never know why. The stewardess nor the airline never said a word to me. I’m one of those people who are in that donut hole, I guess. Large but not encroaching into the adjacent space but filling my space completely.

    Personally, unless you purchase first class, I think all of it is moot if the airlines just take control of the issue, which they are responsible for creating!

  9. kkua

    November 8, 2019 at 9:37 am

    Sit uncomfortably during take-off, landing and bumpy phases of flight. But right as soon as the beverage cart comes rolling past you, make a dash to the aft lavatories and hang out there. Just politely ask permission from the crew if it’s OK to loiter around there. They will understand when they see your predicament.

  10. Superjeff

    November 8, 2019 at 9:56 am

    I had the same issue flying PHL-DFW on an American 738. The guy next to me was over 400 lbs (about 190 kg). He was actually a very nice guy, very apologetic, and unfortunately had a connection at DFW from the 3 1/2 hour flight from PHL to a 4 1/2 hour flight to Calgary. I really felt sorry for him.

    That said, the FA’s took pity on me and I ended up[ standing in the galley for most of the flight, and then had to sit down (middle seat, of course) for the last half hour while we descended and landed. Not sure how you handle this situation but it wasn’t fun either for me or the heavy guy.

  11. John Aldeborgh

    November 8, 2019 at 11:02 am

    It’s not about weight, it’s about footprint. I don’t understand why the airlines are the problem or why, as a customer, I need to accept something other than what I paid for, a full seat, not part of a seat. The airlines do have rules as noted in the article, if a passenger is so large he violates the rules then he must accept the consequences as we all must. No one is being singled out, we are all subject to the same boundary conditions. There are larger seats, I’m sorry but they cost more because they consume more area on the plane. Again, it’s not about weight, it’s about footprint. A coach seat has a much smaller footprint than a first class or business class seat. This is just like carry-on luggage, you are limited by the physical size of the bag. I don’t think I’ve seen US airline checking the weight of carry-on bags, but they all have gages (everywhere) to confirm compliance for the size of the bag.

  12. AAguy1979

    November 8, 2019 at 11:29 am

    @m44 – Most of us lament that 777s have gone from 9 to 10 abreast but, to my knowledge, 737s or A320s were never 3-2 seating. I’m not aware of any planes that have gone from 5 abreast to 6. What aircraft were you referring to?

  13. jmpaul

    November 8, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    EWR on UAL is likely a 737. That is part of the problem. If you can, book an A320, the cabin is more than a half foot wider.

  14. Global321

    November 8, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    @gay

    I believe POS in this reference is meant to mean “person of size”, not a derogatory remark.

    @Jackie… I am pretty certain there is an FAA rule that says all armrests on hew a/c need to raise.

  15. jmpaul

    November 8, 2019 at 2:53 pm

    To AAguy: 3-2 was the DC9/MD80. The cabin was narrower than 737 but with 5 across the seats were wider than any 737, closer in width per seat to the modern 6 abreast A320. You’re correct that these planes never (at least in major lines) had 3-3.

  16. Loren Pechtel

    November 8, 2019 at 2:54 pm

    3-2 seating? The only time I’ve ever seen 3-2 seating was on a train–and I’ve been flying for more than 40 years. The seats are shrinking front to back, not side to side. It’s not shrinking seats, it’s growing fat.

  17. jmpaul

    November 8, 2019 at 2:55 pm

    The add to the above comment: The new A220 is also 3-2, with the widest seats of any narrow body today.

  18. ConnieDee

    November 8, 2019 at 4:23 pm

    Good advice here. There was one time when I’m glad I didn’t say anything; in fact I wish I had been friendlier. As we were landing I found out that the POS was a teenager flying for the first time. (In general I have found that it’s easier to tolerate the physical closeness to someone larger, or someone you’re going to “spend the night with” on an overseas flight if you get to know them)

  19. DeltaFlyer123

    November 8, 2019 at 6:32 pm

    Regarding M44’s comment that seats were wider in the 1980’s, it may surprise people that the Boeing 707, 727, 737, and 757 share the same fuselage width, and coach always had 3+3 seating on those aircraft.
    Only the DC-9 and its successors had 2+3 seating in coach, but they had a narrower fuselage. The only airplane I can think of that really had wider seats was the BAe 146, with the high wings, 4 engines and 2+3 seating in a cabin wider than the DC-9, but not quite wide as the 707’s.
    The first 3+3 airplane that had a wider fuselage (and seats) was the A320 Introduced in 1989. But they had almost years of other peoples’ experience on which to base their design.

  20. EqualOpp

    November 9, 2019 at 2:58 am

    Complained post-trip. Got my fee I paid for Premium Economy (Alaska Air) refunded as a credit.

    In retrospect – they should have refunded me the award miles I used too! But I didn’t ask for that.

    Granted this large person doesn’t sound quite as bad as the article…but still was oozing out into my seat – and their arms encroaching on my upper body space.

    The irony – Asian carriers often give more space – but with most people are smaller. In America – it’s the reverse. Stupid!

  21. ksandness

    November 9, 2019 at 6:42 am

    Three-two seating was the norm when I first started flying as a teenager in 1967. It was great. Parents on the two-seat side, my two siblings and I on the three-seat side. We took turns sitting in the window seat, but even the middle seat didn’t feel cramped. I don’t remember when the changeover to three-three seating occurred, because there were a few years in there when I didn’t fly.

  22. Allanf

    November 9, 2019 at 10:58 am

    @Loren – 3-2 Seating was the norm for coach, at least on NWA jets for many years. Can’t remember which aircraft – probably DC-9 but others too. The two seats were A & B in each row. We tried hard to get and A and B seat together when traveling with a friend in coach, and especially with a family member or significant other – you could sit together and no problem if you infringed a bit on each other’s space.

  23. arcticflier

    November 9, 2019 at 2:07 pm

    Having grown up in a Spanish-speaking region of the Globe and being a “pudgy” child, my nickname was “Gordito”.

    I loved it.

    I continue to carry a few extra pounds as an adult but most of us who reside above the Arctic Circle do.

    I consider descriptors such as “Person of Size” offensive. Its quite condescending if you think about it.

    Nor do I like the PC term “LatinX”. Thankfully, I was not raised PC nor do I self-identify as such today.

  24. Gizzabreak

    November 10, 2019 at 10:20 am

    @gay
    Brilliant sense of humour. Unfortunately a little too esoteric so far.

  25. Gizzabreak

    November 10, 2019 at 10:30 am

    POS accept they may have to buy bigger cars, bigger clothes, more food, etc,etc. Below average size’s expect no refund when their size results in their using less of mostly everything. Ergo, small and average sized shouldn’t be expected to (involuntarily) subsidize POS.

  26. c502cid

    November 10, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    Unless it’s a 14 hour flight, I make do for the flight next to the pos. They know what is going on, and you can be a cool about it or a dick. I’d sure rather sit next to a pos then the perfectly manicured know it on on flyertalk who stinks with bad bo, or the chatty kettle with bad breath.

  27. sydunipete

    November 11, 2019 at 5:05 pm

    I too am a person of size – but in another dimension. I’m 6’4″ or 192cms but I’m slim enough to fit width-wise into my seat without problem.

    But because of my height I have to buy an exit row or business class to ensure a comfortable flight for me and the person who would otherwise be in front of my long knees. Why should people of size in the other dimension be any different?

    Sorry but not sorry.

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