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 (www.southwest.com) 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.
When airlines do talk about their weighted customers, they do so in a tone that is usually reserved for genocide victims, as if at any moment, these big passengers could shatter into a thousand pieces because someone called them fat. (Come to think of it, isn't that how society deals with the problem of obesity?)
But the focus is on the wrong person. It isn't the morbidly obese who are in need of special protection, but the folks seated next to them.
Wedged next to them, actually. 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."
He's angry that airlines can allow two XL passengers to fly in economy-class seats that are obviously too small, and he and Haas are upset that there isn't a law to prevent it from repeating itself.
"This type of incident happens far too often," he says.
And that's 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 doesn't specifically classify a passenger's weight or size as a disability that is in need of protection. If it did, airlines would probably have to give every tall guy like me a first-class seat, which, now that I think about it, wouldn't be so bad.
But I think we'd all settle for a rule that says passengers are entitled to a minimum amount of legroom and personal space, whether they're 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 author of the upcoming book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.