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

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.

Comments are Closed.
EmilyGuo January 14, 2020

Wow,it's helpful! Hope more awesome contents will be presented. Thanks.

MimiB22 January 12, 2020

Whether or not seats are the same size as in the past, the one thing that is certain is that people ARE wider, in general. I am not oversized, I'm what used to be called average, but today? I might even be on the smaller side. I fit in seats OK, but like all of us, still feel cramped. I can only guess at the discomfort of wider, taller people trying to fit into seats. Having said all this and with respect, very large people who can't fit into seats without encroaching on the seat space of fellow passengers, should be required to make appropriate advance reservations to ensure their comfort and everyone's safety. If the oversize passenger is boarded and seated next to me, I will politely decline to raise the armrest to allow them to use part of my own limited seating space. I will not exchange my advance reserved aisle seat for your middle or window seat. I will tactfully call the FA to deal with uncomfortable situations, if necessary. I'm not going to argue or be nasty. As I said in an earlier comment, I believe that GA should be the first line of seating accommodation if an obviously obese or extremely tall person has not reserved appropriate seating.

jmpaul January 8, 2020

With the 7" wider cabin in the A320 (vs 737) it will be a better experience for all. If added only to the aisle it means the aisle person can lean out a bit more and stay out of the middle seat's space for all to benefit. But I was on the new AA A320LR recently. The seat was wider than any 737 as expected. So at least on AA it seems they have used the extra width well. The wider cabin also make more overhead storage room. I know several frequent fliers who know this "secret" and try to book only the Airbus product.

Worcester January 7, 2020

The new A320s are being delivered with wider aisles not wider seats as being able to load and offload semi sentient self loading freight (passengers) is more profitable than a comfortable experience for the pax

mvoight December 11, 2019

Weero - MOST flights are not on 10 seat across 777s. MOST flights in the US are on Boeing planes that have had the same width for decades. The wider Airbus planes have been around for 20 years.