Can A Large Person Fly Comfortably Anywhere?

Deb has an interesting question. She and her husband openly admit that they’re too large to fit in a single seat, so they purchase three seats when they travel by air. The problem, she writes, is that is that even when airline customers are happy to buy more than one seat, they are not actually granted access to multiple seats. Unmovable armrests and other barriers keep passengers of size from actually using the extra seat they have paid for. So, Deb wants to know: what’s a fat frequent flier to do?

Let’s take “lose some damn weight, fatty” off the table as a solution. That’s not the point here.

Deb writes:

I have been buying THREE seats for my husband and I to fly in for nearly 15 years. Neither of us is close to the size of that poor man humiliated by the AA flight attendant, but we’re too large to sit comfortably in the very narrow seats on many airlines.

I fell and broke my pelvis in 2007, and didn’t get on a plane for 26 months. This year, when I resumed my normal travel schedule (two international vacations each year, 4-5 international business trips per year, and 14-18 domestic business flights per year, plus a couple of long weekend get aways in the U.S.), I was dismayed to find that many of the newer jets have fixed, solid arm rests between coach seats. Even on airlines like Southwest and American that will humiliate overweight customers and demand that they pay for two seats, paying for two seats no longer means you get ACCESS to two seats.

So my question for the consumerist is simple: what are overweight fliers supposed to do? I have my million mile frequent flier card on one airline, and I’m an elite flier on another. I DON’T fly Southwest (even though I live near their corporate headquarters), and I avoid American when I can because of the rudeness their employees show to fliers and their “cattle car” cabins. But now, I have to be very careful about what equipment I fly – and some airlines (notably Air New Zealand, which was once my favorite) have pulled ALL older jets from long-haul flights. The armrests in premier coach and coach on Air New Zealand flights simply don’t raise – 1 row of seats on each plane (the back row) has arm rests that raise about ¾ of the way up, so that you have a little extra hip room at the price of having a rigid piece of plastic sticking into your back for the entire 14-hour flight. At least ANZ will “block out” the center seat on that row for less than full price if you buy the other two seats in the row….but I will be making many fewer trips to NZ because of the new seats.

I am looking for serious suggestions. My employer won’t spring for business class tickets on most flights, and frequent flier-mile upgrades aren’t always available – though I spent thousands of miles on them last year.

I can’t afford to pay the THOUSANDS of dollars in upgrade costs for all my flights. And I simply can’t fly comfortably in seats that are too narrow for my body.

Blogger Elizabeth Tamny wrote about this problem at length–noting that in her experience, Southwest is a fine example of an airline that is matter-of-fact about the fact that not all people fit in a single seat, and treats passengers with dignity.

[On Southwest, m]ost importantly, you are allowed to pre-board, so that you can get your two seats together.

Together. You wouldn’t think that’d be necessary, but some airlines make large passengers buy two seats these days, then fight them about the second seat. I’m not going to name names, since the experiences aren’t my own, but I have heard more stories these days from people I know flying on other airlines who buy two tickets only to have to defend the second spot. Flight attendants–caught in a fight with gate staff, sometimes–try to give it away, ask to give it away, challenge the passenger, sometimes don’t even let them board at a time when they can find two seats next to each other. I’ve even heard of people who bought seats giving up their extra seat with no compensation, at the urging of flight attendants.

We’ve received mail from passengers who are happy to buy an extra seat, but unhappy when those seats are in different parts of the plane. Any ideas, Consumerist hive mind?

two seats [Cahiers du Moment]