Passenger forced to stand for a seven-hour airline flight

By | November 22nd, 2011

At nearly seven hours, US Airways flight 901 is one of the longest domestic nonstop airline flights. And Arthur Berkowitz knows how long it takes to get from Anchorage to Philadelphia down to the minute. That’s because he says he had to stand for most of the flight when he returned to Philly last July.

Why would anyone stand for that long? Because he says a morbidly obese passenger seated next to him was spilling into his personal space, making it impossibly to sit in his assigned seat, and the flight was completely full.

“I didn’t fly from Alaska to Philadelphia on flight 901,” he says. “I stood.”

Telling an airline passenger who can’t fit into a seat to stand is pretty unusual. But it happens. The question is, what should the airline do about it?

Before answering, let’s review some of the specifics of Berkowitz’s complaint. He boarded the flight on July 29, and was grateful to find an empty middle seat next to him. But that gratitude turned to horror when the airline sent a late-boarding passenger who weighed more than 400 pounds to the seat. It was the last empty one on the plane.

“His size required both armrests to be raised up and allowed for his body to cover half of my seat,” he says.

Berkowitz immediately notified the flight attendants about the passenger. He recalls,

They were sympathetic, but could not do anything. No other seats existed on plane. They would not permit me to sit in their jump seats, and fully acknowledged the mistake by their gate agent, in allowing this individual on plane without requiring him to purchase and occupy two seats.

That wasn’t just a comfort issue, according to Berkowitz. It was also a safety problem.

“It did not allow me to use my seatbelt during takeoff and landing as well as required me to stand in the aisle and galley area for most of the seven-hour plus flight,” he says.

After he returned, he wrote a brief, polite email to the airline, asking it to refund his fare or for a voucher for the full amount. He also reported the incident to authorities, citing his safety concerns.

US Airways responded with an email that described his travel experience as “regrettable” and apologizing for the “difficulties” he encountered.

“Our intention is to offer the best travel experience possible,” it added. “The details you have provided indicate that we have failed to meet our intentions.”

The airline offered a $200 voucher for Berkowitz’s trouble. It didn’t address any of his safety issues.

He wasn’t happy with that, so he contacted me. I reviewed his case and agreed with him that US Airways might want to take another look at his complaint. I mean, leaving a passenger with no alternative but to stand for almost seven hours — if that’s true, then this might be one of those rare cases when a full refund is in order.

I contacted US Airways on his behalf. A representative told me US Airways had made its last, best offer. It didn’t say anything about the safety concerns this case raises.

Berkowitz says the airline is missing the point. It is glossing over the safety problems created by allowing overweight passengers to buy one seat.

“The $200 is inappropriate,” he adds. “I paid more than $800 for the ticket.”

We want your feedback. Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.