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.” (She sent me a photo of the offense, which I’ve published above.)
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 couldn’t 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 someone’s 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.
Here’s an excerpt:
We are sorry for your discomfort on your recent flight with us to Dallas/Fort Worth.
Our seats are standard in size and are designed to comfortably accommodate our customers. Of course, our customers do come in all shapes and sizes.
If we are aware that customers are too large to sit in a coach seat, we do what we can to avoid an awkward and uncomfortable situation — for everyone concerned.
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.
I have forwarded your comments to the appropriate personnel.
Ms. Haas, thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. Please give us another opportunity to welcome you aboard and the chance to provide you with a more enjoyable flight.
American Airlines didn’t 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. It’s hard to find their policies online and they seem to be unevenly enforced.