Thoughts on Airplane Seating

I’ve flown on and off my whole life. I always enjoyed flying until I became an adult, and then all of a sudden it made me really, really nervous. I fly when I need to, but don’t love it like my husband does. Every time I fly I  grip the armrests willing the plane up in the air and then just as fervently willing it down again. Fortunately, every time I’ve flown it has been a safe flight. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always the most enjoyable flight.

I successfully avoided flying for a long time while I was obese. I had an opportunity or two to fly somewhere but always managed to get out of it. There was one time where I absolutely had to get on an airplane, so I did.

I had been morbidly obese long enough that I knew it wasn’t going to be a lot of fun sitting squished in a seat several sizes too small for several hours. I had already experienced the humiliation of breaking chairs, getting stuck in booths at restaurants, and getting winded just walking up a few steps to understand that my obesity was a huge problem.

Once I arrived at the airport that morning I went directly to my gate. I looked around at the other passengers and – as expected – I was by far the biggest person there. I felt like everyone was looking at me – secretly hoping they weren’t seated next to me. If I had been them I would have secretly been hoping the same thing. More and more people came to the gate and I heard the attendant announce that the flight was full. “Great,” I thought. “Now I will have to sit next to someone for sure.” And sure enough, a few minutes later there I was.

I was in the window seat, a medium largish man was next to me, and a skinny man was occupying the aisle seat, hanging onto his armrest for dear life. I wished I could just suck in my girth but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make myself any smaller. I struggled with the seat belt after reassuring the flight attendant that I definitely did not need a seat belt extender. I really needed one, but with a lot of tugging I managed to get the belt buckled. I knew that belt wasn’t getting unbuckled until we reached our destination. I was afraid I might not get it fastened again.

The whole flight was exceedingly uncomfortable – both for me and my poor seat mates. Not surprisingly, neither one of them spoke to me during the flight. Fortunately, my flight home was better as I had a seat to myself.

I’ve read a lot of stories in the newspaper lately about Southwest Airlines requiring passengers as big as I was to purchase two seats. Having lived both sides of this situation I am torn on what is the right way to handle an obese passenger. I understand the airlines’ concern, but I also know that sometimes obese people need to fly and they can’t always afford two tickets. It’s a bad Catch-22.

What’s your take on airline flights? Have you ever felt uncomfortable on a flight, and do you think obese passengers should be required to purchase an extra ticket?  Diane

42 thoughts on “Thoughts on Airplane Seating

  1. JourneyBeyondSurvival says:

    Sometimes I think airlines should just put in a row of larger seats in economy that people buy for a 20-30% mark-up. Of course, other people would want them too, so I suppose there should be some sort of priority thing.

    Anyway, I first flew at 19 and I freaked out completely. I’m much better now.
    .-= JourneyBeyondSurvival´s last blog ..Triggers =-.

    • Heather says:

      I agree, Journey – that sounds like a fairly reasonable solution. And definitely more appropriate than forcing people who are larger to purchase two seats – everyone’s wallets are the same size, after all. Anyone have any ideas about why it isn’t already being done?
      .-= Heather´s last blog ..Is This Why The Chinese Are Thin? =-.

  2. vickie says:

    What Journey said (above) makes a lot of sense.

    And I agree with her – they should be made available to those that need them first/only. Large(r) people and agoraphobics actually both come to mind.

    But I suppose from the airlines point of view – they would still be losing $$$ – as many planes are full these days.

    I understand that there is an outcry for things to be accommodating to large(r) people – but where the line is between accepting and actually enabling – I am not sure.
    .-= vickie´s last blog ..The Chronic Conditions Thing – it is a BIGGIE for weight loss and maintenance – and (I think) it applies to all of us =-.

  3. Diane says:

    This is one area where I have absolutely no life experience ( and no plan to get any). I have never been in a plane , have never flown because I am terrified of flying. People see planes as a way to get from one place to another, and I see them as death. I can’t even go into an airport without believing I am going to die.That being said, I wonder if you have to pay for two seats , do they lower the armrests that separate the seats or something ? If not, what exactly are you paying for ? Your butt is still smashed into a space too small and there is little room between you and the seat ahead of you so …..
    .-= Diane´s last blog ..Lazy Valley Sunday =-.

  4. Jody - Fit at 52 says:

    This is a toughie for sure. I have never had a prob sitting in a seat & yes, honestly, the seats are not comfortable for smaller people too. But, I must say that is I pay a big money for me to sit in that seat & another passenger is coming into my seat, I don’t feel that is right. It is a lot of money to fly so I don’t think I should have to squeeze into an even smaller space & especially on a plane where there is no out. I feel this way about concerts & other events when I pay my dollars for the seat.

    Diane, I am sorry for what you went thru though. I do NOT agree with embarrassing people in front of others though. The airlines should pull people aside prior to boarding or be more considerate if there is a problem.
    .-= Jody – Fit at 52´s last blog ..Write Your Own End Chapter; Giveaway Info =-.

  5. Mia says:

    I don’t have any experience with this situation. I have never been that overweight where I couldn’t fit in the seat and I have never had to sit next to someone who spills into my seat.

    I am always amazed at the wonder of flight. I know the physics behind the process but my mind cannot wrap itself around the idea that this huge plan is up in the sky. Consequently, I get more nervous when the flight is full because that means more weight to get off the ground. The airlines keep track of how much weight the luggage is and so forth calculating how much fuel they’ll need for the flight. Therefore, someone who weighs twice or more “normal” weight needs to be accounted for when determining the fuel needs of the flight. Buying 2 tickets means their extra weight is included in the overall tonnage of the plane plus adds to the comfort of the passenger and surrounding seat mates. Part of my fear of flying is that I get claustrophobic sitting in that little space. This would only be compounded if I had to sit inbetween 2 larger people. I don’t know how correct I am but when dealing with the laws of science, airline procedures, and my fear of flying, I can use some pretty weird logic!

    I do think that the airlines need to address this issue.

  6. Amy says:

    I agree with Journey above – if the airplane had a couple rows of XL seats in economy that could be booked for a premium price, I think a lot of people (not only overweight ones) would be willing to pay extra for a little elbow room – even for those of us who are not obese, those seats are darn tight sometimes! If a flight is full you feel like sardines!
    .-= Amy´s last blog ..Hey Big Spender! =-.

  7. Joanna Sutter says:

    I have zero self confidence so when I think of air planes I think of sitting in my seat and fearing having to get up to use the bath room and having to walk down the aisle for the entire plane to see. Isn’t that silly? And I’ve never been more than 15-20 lbs over my “goal” weight.
    .-= Joanna Sutter´s last blog ..Spring For Some New Shoes =-.

  8. PhluffyPrincess says:

    I’ve never been heavy enough to have this issue, but a friend of mine has. He feels fat people are constantly discriminated against and being forced to buy 2 seats is wrong. I am with you Diane…torn on which is right. I hate the way it makes people FEEL, but it is fair.
    .-= PhluffyPrincess´s last blog ..Snuck on the scale… =-.

  9. Waisting Time says:

    This is a sensitive issue. I don’t have an answer. But I will share that I have some strange personal space issues and struggle with any person invading it on a plane, or anywhere, regardless of size. I used to always choose Midwest when they still had wider seats and wider armrests.

  10. Marcelle says:

    I’ve always fitted into my seat on the plane but must say now that I have lost a few pounds, its a lot more comfortable for me.
    I sat next to a biggish man from JHB to CT this last time and found he took over my space when he ate with his elbows, that was more annoying for me than his size…
    It must be awful for the overweight person who needs an extra extension to their seat belt…as everyone around is looking at them – I do think its expensive to expect them to pay for two seat as flying is very pricey, I think larger seats would be the answer…just a few at the front of normal class seats….am sure something can be done for these people…
    .-= Marcelle´s last blog ..My Weekend in Cape Town =-.

  11. Dr. J says:

    I’m a surgeon, pilot, and health and fitness blogger. I think I can see this problem from several points of view. I wish all the seats in airlines were bigger, and the whole space was roomier as it once was, but those days are gone. I feel a useful solution would be to have some
    of the three abreast seats converted to two seats. The cost could be more than a smaller single seat, but less than two seats. This would accommodate folks who were larger, whether a 6′9 basketball player or whatever. I wouldn’t want this to acquire a nasty termed area of the
    plane, but I can’t control people’s cruelty, only suggest an idea to help the situation. In addition, I would think this would allow people who have avoided flying to fly more, thus making the idea more acceptable to the airlines.
    .-= Dr. J´s last blog ..Lab Notes: Like Salt or Sweets, the Human Tongue Can “Taste” Fat; Overprotective Parents May Slow Kids’ Brain Growth =-.

  12. Lori (Finding Radiance) says:

    The seats are already small for ‘normal’ size people, so there should be a section of larger seats for larger passengers at a higher cost. I was always paranoid flying at my heaviest weight and would squish myself by the window and have my husband sit in the middle so that I wouldn’t encroach onto a stranger’s seat. It isn’t fair to the person sitting next to you if you are taking up part of the space they paid for.

    I always hated that look when you walk down an aisle where you can see the expression “Please don’t sit by me” and the quick look down. You know exactly what is going through their head.
    .-= Lori (Finding Radiance)´s last blog ..Happy Pi Day! =-.

  13. Tracey @ I'm Not Superhuman says:

    This is a tough one. I totally see it from the other person’s perspective (thank you for that) but at the same time I’ve definitely been on a long flight where I only got half of my own seat. The thing is, I paid just as much for my seat, and I don’t get the full thing but instead sit very uncomfortably. I think the best idea is having a couple rows where the seats are wider. Then overweight people don’t have to feel bad about taking up their seatmates seats and everyone else doesn’t have to feel like they didn’t get to use the whole seat they paid for.
    .-= Tracey @ I’m Not Superhuman´s last blog ..Double Belated Party. And What the Heck Is HIIT? =-.

  14. Michelle@Eatingjourney says:

    I used to be 100lbs heavier than I am now. I think that making bigger seats treats the symptom and not the cause. When flying from Australia to American..that 14 hours in the same seat. It’s not FAIR to have to share your seat with someone else who is big. I know it’s sounds harsh…but to be honest I support South West Airlines approach. I do. And you know what…I would have had to pay.
    .-= Michelle@Eatingjourney´s last blog ..Sugar Wand =-.

  15. fittingbackin says:

    I’ve always felt like this was a toughie and it seems very subjective on who “should” pay for 2 and who shouldn’t. I like the idea of a happy medium – not buying TWO seats, but paying a little more for a larger seat. Honestly, I think airline seats are ridiculously small for anyone – so adding some slighly larger seats and paying slightly more seems fair than here are TWO seats (when you don’t need that much space) and doubling the price.
    .-= fittingbackin´s last blog ..St. Patty’s Beer Fest, OOT Company, Range Issues =-.

  16. Rebecca Hoover says:

    I think the airlines already have larger seats available, they are called “first class”. I’ve been on both sides and while I always managed to stay in my own space, it wasn’t easy and I found it to be a mortifying experience. But I’ve also seen 6 feet men who are just as uncomfortable and I wouldn’t expect them to pay extra for first class. I think everyone could use a little extra space, but until that happens, anyone who takes up two seats should pay extra. I do like the idea of a couple extra seats available that were a little bit bigger but you know that everyone would want them.

  17. Annimal says:

    I have sat next to many men who would not be considered overweight, but have very large shoulders/arms, and took up most of my space. Being overweight, I’ve always been conscience of my space and hug my shoulders and keep my knees together in order to minimize myself as much as possible. Needless to say, a flight of more than an hour is pure misery. Not these big guys though. they have their arms spread out and are completely unaware of their intrusion. Should I start demanding that people pay extra for shoulder space? Where does it end?

  18. Cynthia (It All Changes) says:

    I have been on both sides. I could have afforded two seats when I did fly but I know both myself and the other passenger were extremely uncomfortable. I think those seats are too small for me even at my size now even though I’m thin. They are designed to squish as many people in a plane as possible.

    Virgin Airlines I must say has the most space and they were very comfortable even at my largest.

  19. Chad says:

    At my heaviest, I was right on the verge of needing a seat belt extender, but I always fit within one seat, though it wasn’t necessarily comfortable for me or the person next to me. Then again, those seats aren’t comfortable even for small people. I don’t have a problem with airlines charging extra if need be when someone does require two seats, but I also think they should start shifting back to more normal size seats. I heard someone speaking recently about airline travel, and apparently (they didn’t say this as a joke at all), the average airline seat is narrower than a baby stroller.
    .-= Chad´s last blog ..Weighing In After My Night on the Town =-.

  20. Nicole, RD says:

    I agree with Journey, too. I was just on a flight yesterday and the woman across the aisle was extremely overweight. When she got up her tush touched my face. I really didn’t enjoy that. I know it wasn’t her fault, but it was still unpleasant. :-/
    .-= Nicole, RD´s last blog ..Back to the grind! =-.

  21. Pam says:

    I like the first comment & it sounds like a reasonable solution, because it is a shame that airlines make obese people buy two seats. I haven’t flown in years, so I am glad I was never faced with the embarrassement.
    .-= Pam´s last blog ..Deranged Aspirations =-.

  22. Melissa says:

    I agree with the first commenter also. Because it’s not really fair for the person who is only getting a portion of their seat and paid full price for the ticket.
    It is a bad situation for all involved though.
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..My First 10K =-.

  23. Jen-JensFitnessTips.com says:

    I agree. It’s hard to know what the right thing is to do. I feel that having an obese person pay for 2 seats isn’t right becuase it’s discrimination. At the same time, you want that person to be comfortable. A person who pays for one seat should get that whole seat. It’s probably the only thing that can be done. Obesity unfortunately comes at a high price.
    .-= Jen-JensFitnessTips.com´s last blog ..Tip #60: Bicycle Abs =-.

  24. John says:

    I think this is one issue that will never be solved satifactorily for either side. I’ve never seen Journey’s suggestion anywhere before but this seems like a good solution.
    .-= John´s last blog ..Running Slow is Hard =-.

  25. empower me photo guy says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. It’s such a topical question nowadays, and I think earlier suggestions about a row of extended seats might be the best option. I bet that now you have lost the extra weight it feels really empowering to not struggle with airline seating.

  26. Ashley says:

    I fly United Airlines a lot, and they do have a section called “Economy Plus” where you can upgrade for a reasonable price (around $30-40) and get more space. However, this is really only available on their big planes, so if you are taking a regional jet or turbo prop, it won’t be available. Slate (the online magazine) also recently did a series of articles where they asked readers to write in with their thoughts on how to make flying better for people who are taller or larger, and it had lots of good ideas and tips on how to get the best possible seat if you need more space.

  27. 266 says:

    Personally I think it’s a horrible idea. There are already so many social barriers for obese people and I think being required to purchase a second airline ticket is just encouraging problems like agoraphobia for those who are generally already struggling. I get the financial compensation part of this problem, but I still think it’s wrong to single someone out in that way. Are wheelchair users or people who travel with guidedogs required to pay extra for their tickets?
    .-= 266´s last blog ..Sitting, Sleeping, And Snacking =-.

  28. Beth @fatbustermack says:

    I fly a lot, and fit inside my own seat, barely. Being 5’10” with long legs makes flying a painful process. I cross my legs when I can to free up extra space but because of the long legs I can’t always do that…As far as buying two tickets…It’s so expensive, and frankly, many medium sized people are too big to sit comfortably next to, and so are guys that like to spread their legs out. Sick people are a hazard on a flight but aren’t told not to fly.
    .-= Beth @fatbustermack´s last blog ..Avocado/Sardine Sandwich =-.

  29. Josie says:

    I am completely against charging double based on a person’s size. Completely. I’ve flown before and while I’ve never been charged double or anything, I have been tremendously uncomfortable and embarrassed before. It can be quite humiliating…like when you have to ask for a seat belt extender. I think when you start charging one person more because of their weight, what will be next? Charging extra for tall people?
    .-= Josie´s last blog ..Workout Pledge =-.

  30. Sagan says:

    It’s a toughie. So many conflicting things going on… for one thing, seats have gotten bigger over the years anyways, so if we continue to make them larger, will that only continue to make the PEOPLE bigger? But no one should have to feel humiliated. At the same time, like you say, it’s uncomfortable for EVERYONE if the seat and the person don’t fit together. So… gah. I really don’t know what the solution is.
    .-= Sagan´s last blog ..Disordered and Emotional Eating =-.

  31. Tiff says:

    Oh yes, I have had MANY embaressing situations on an airplane. I’ve been told to use a seat belt extender, had to ask the person next to me not to put down the armrest, freak out when I figured I couldn’t buckle the regular seat belt, and prayed to God that the middle seat would be empty to I wouldn’t have to be squished the whole time. Do I think overweight people should have to purchase 2 tickets? No- absolutely not. Do I think it’s fair for a skinnier person to be nudged out of their seat by a bigger person? No, not really. I think the only way to solve this is for airlines to start making bigger seats- even if just a few rows on each new plane and chargine 20-30% more would be reasonable.

  32. Emergefit says:

    Sadly, I envision a time when all (American based airline) seat rows will be 2 wide. This, because I envision a time when most flyers will require more seat space. I actually believe 2 wide seats will be the standard within 5 years. And while all the people are talking about this, in the work place break room as they eat crullers and Claim Jumper frozen dinners, the problem gets worse. Set thine house in order….
    .-= Emergefit´s last blog ..All those little bullets; the story of slow death… =-.

  33. Miz says:

    this is such a tough one.
    and one which I really feel I can not chime in.
    (yes I think bigger seats. no I do not think 2 seats shout have to be purchased)

    Every time a client would say: ID LOVE TO GO TO XYZ SPECIAL EVENT (wedding, graduation etc) BUT IM AFRAID I CANT FIT INTO AIRPLANE SEATS YET.

    it broke my heart.
    .-= Miz´s last blog ..New Two Fit Chicks & a Microphone podcast. =-.

  34. Kat says:

    It is a tough one. When I was at my heaviest I couldn’t buckle my seatbelt and I had too much shame to ask for an extender. I just draped my pashmina over my lap and pretended I was using it to keep me warm. Oh yeah, I always sat in window seats and shoved my body into the window as much as possible. Looking back, it really saddens me that I let the shame control my personal safety. I am so grateful that I can buckle my seat belt now and have some extra room to pull it tight. I think I may avoid Southwest until I lose some more weight. I have recently flown united and virgin america and didn’t have any issues. The whole Kevin Smith saga made me sad.
    .-= Kat´s last blog ..Weekend update =-.

  35. Leah says:

    I’ve never had the problem of not fitting in an airplane seat, though I’ve been uncomfortable in similar situations of tight seating.

    This is a tough issue and I can see both sides having validity. Very interesting topic to be thinking on…
    .-= Leah´s last blog ..Perfect 10 Final Update =-.

  36. Rebecca @ How the Cookie's Crumble says:

    I just came across your blog and thought that was an interesting post. That is such a tricky question and I definitely see both sides. I fly frequently and have had to sit next to some rather large people and it is quite unpleasant, for both of us. At the same time, I understand how expensive it would be if you had to purchase two tickets. I do know US Airlines and a couple other airlines have their priority seating that has extra leg room, whether or not theirs more seat space, I don’t know. I do know I have several tall,larger male coworkers who have a hard time fitting into the smaller seats and usually pay their own money out of pocket (not from the company) to upgrade to more comfortable seats. I think Journey at the top has the best solution.
    .-= Rebecca @ How the Cookie’s Crumble´s last blog ..How I Started Running and Haven’t Stopped! =-.

  37. Sean (Learn Fitness) says:

    As someone who’s made people sitting next to me feel uncomfortable and as someone who when they reach their goal weight still might I have a unique perspective. The fact is I have really broad shoulders and am fairly tall. Not only are my knees jamming into the seat in front of me but my shoulders are wider than the seat.

    I’m certainly a proponent for paying more for a larger seat, I know physics and understand fuel costing more to move larger heavier things. The problem is paying for two seats makes no sense and there aren’t seats that are a bit larger. There i also the fact that when I pay more for something I actually expect the service and or object to be worth more and lets be honest, airlines suck in terms of service and comfort.

    So I’m torn but will lean on whatever side will make those around me less visually leaning to throw me out the hatch while flying over a large body of water. I just wish airline companies we’re run by people that failed lessons on how to measure the human body for comfort.
    .-= Sean (Learn Fitness)´s last blog ..My New Son Bradley =-.

  38. South Beach Steve says:

    I don’t know the answer to this Diane. Having been a person who had to squeeze in the seat belt, I know what it is like to be the fat person who cannot fit in the seat. I also know what it is like to have every person getting on the plane carefully counting out the seats to see if they are going to be stuck beside me. I like the idea of an upcharge premium seat, but how do you assure the people who need it get it? I also understand the airlines’ situation. It costs more to fly a 400 pound person than a 200 pound person, but if you are going to have an upcharge for that, are you not going to downcharge for the very light? Of course not, so therein lies part of the problem. I guess I think that if I legitimately take two seats, I should pay for two seats. If I can squeeze in one seat without terribly inconveniencing my neighbor, that should be acceptable. Unfortunately, this is far more complicated than that.
    .-= South Beach Steve´s last blog ..The New Workout =-.

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