When Elisabeth Haas took her window seat on an American Airlines flight from Orlando to Dallas earlier this year, she discovered a problem a very big problem.
A morbidly obese seatmate encroached into my personal space, she says. He required a seat-belt extender and that the armrest divider be raised to accommodate his girth during the entire flight, including takeoff and landing. He also had to walk down the aisle oriented sideways and moved quite slowly.
The problem of XL passengers on planes is hardly new, but their interactions with other passengers are creating a lot more friction lately. I know because over the American Thanksgiving holiday week, I reported about a man who says he had to stand on a flight between Anchorage and Philadelphia, and it became the talk of the town for about half a news cycle.
I heard from lots of passengers who said they, too, have tussled with oversized seatmates.
Haas, who was returning from a trip to see her dying grandmother in Florida, says she couldnt comfortably fit in her seat or stow her luggage under her seat because of the encroachment. She only had access to about one-third of her economy-class seat for the duration of the flight.
Do you understand the horrific discomfort of feeling someones massive, unrelenting, hot and sweaty flesh pressed into your body from shoulder to ankle? she asks.
The American Airlines flight attendants were compassionate, and because it was a sold-out flight, they allowed her to sit in their jump seats. But when she wrote a polite letter suggesting that American Airlines change its rules to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, the best it could manage was to reply with a form letter.
We are sorry for your discomfort on your recent flight with us to Dallas/Fort Worth, it wrote to her. Our airport personnel must walk a fine line in order to satisfy the needs and rights of all of our customers. I am disappointed to hear that we were not more successful on this occasion, and I am genuinely sorry that the enjoyment of your flight was diminished as a result.
American Airlines didnt address any of her safety concerns, nor did it pledge to change its rules.
Airline policies on XL passengers are, at best, amorphous. Only Southwest Airlines has a clearly defined and well-publicized policy it calls them customers of size but the other major airlines tend to dance around the issue. Its hard to find their policies online, and they seem to be unevenly enforced.
When airlines do talk about their weighted customers, they do so in gentle tones, as if at any moment, these big passengers could shatter into a thousand pieces because someone called them fat. (Come to think of it, isnt that how society deals with the problem of obesity?)
But the focus is on the wrong person. It isnt the morbidly obese who are in need of special protection, but the folks seated next to them. When the armrest is up, it can mean serious trouble for the other guy.
Norman Chance was the other guy on a recent flight between Anchorage and Chicago. Like Haas, he had a window seat in economy class but found himself next to two very large people in the seats next to him.
I had to sit sideways for the entire flight, in agony and pain, says Chance, who owns an aviation company in Indianapolis. They both fell asleep and would not move despite my requests. I ended up injuring my back, which was only resolved after visits to a chiropractor.
Hes angry that airlines can allow two XL passengers to fly in economy-class seats that obviously are too small, and he and Haas are upset that there isnt a law to prevent a situation like this from repeating itself.
This type of incident happens far too often, he says.
And thats the thing. There are no rules about passengers having to fit into the economy-class seats. The closest the Federal Aviation Administration comes to addressing this issue is when it issues its guidance on passengers with disabilities, but it doesnt specifically classify a passengers weight or size as a disability that is in need of protection. If it did, airlines probably would have to give every tall guy like me a first-class seat, which, now that I think about it, wouldnt be so bad.
But I think wed all settle for a rule that says passengers are entitled to a minimum amount of legroom and personal space, whether theyre on American Airlines or any other airline. The Transportation Department already has those requirements in place for animals that fly, but curiously, not for humans seated in economy class.
Such a rule would prevent a bulk of these XL passenger incidents from happening and make flying a far more humane experience for all of us.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his website, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.