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Around the World: American Airlines Has A Weight Problem

Jennifer Merin on

There was no way you could not notice the woman who was making her way down the aisle on the airplane. Her girth was such that she had to twist her body sideways to get past each row of seats. She struggled with each step, even though she was supporting herself with a walking stick.

I'm not an expert on guessing a person's weight, but I'd be willing to wager that she would spin the dial on a scale to 300, easily.

My heart went out to her. She didn't look unhappy, but it was clear the she was very uncomfortable. Having to work that hard to walk must be a burden.

But, I confess, my heart sank when she stopped at row fifteen, looked over at me sitting in the seat next to the window and offered me a cheery hello. She stowed her walking stick in the overhead storage bin and squeezed herself into the middle seat, the one directly to my right.

I immediately felt her presence all over me. She filled not only her own seat, but at least a quarter of mine, as well. Her upper body spilled over the armrest into my space, and her leg extended under it and on to my seat cushion.

She spilled into the aisle seat, too. It was occupied by a large man man whose size came from muscle. He could hold his ground, so the woman leaned a little bit more in my direction.

The flight was transcontinental, and the thought of enduring this seat squeeze for five plus hours was truly horrifying.

I was, I think, in shock. In all my travels, I've never been seated on an airplane next to someone who was this severely obese, and I didn't know how best to handle the situation.

On the one hand, I didn't want to be rude or cruel and make an embarrassing scene by calling the flight attendant to complain. On the other hand, I didn't want to be squashed during the entirety of a transcontinental flight. No. That would not be acceptable.

A decision was sort of forced on me, however, when the announcement came that we were to buckle our seat belts, stow our belongings and turn off our electronic devices in preparation for takeoff. I was stuck.

I decided to endure quietly. I leaned against the window, closed my eyes and tried to snooze. That worked okay until about half an hour into the flight, when the woman's left arm flopped into my lap.

She had fallen asleep with her hands grasped over her belly. When she relaxed, her hands unclasped, and her left arm fell to the side and into my lap, startling me so that I actually shrieked.

She woke up, instinctively retracting her arm, and looked at me as though she thought I was crazy and yelling for no good reason.

In retrospect the incident seems comical. At the time, it was anything but.

I told her I had to get up. I couldn't step past her because her belly was practically grazing the back of the seat in front of her. So she had to get up and into the aisle to let me out. But she couldn't pass the man in the aisle seat, so he had to get up, too.

When we had this all worked out and I had access to the aisle, I walked to the plane's rear galley. There I found two flight attendants who were so engaged in a conversation about a magazine article that they didn't even look up to find out what I wanted.

I wanted a different seat. The plane was full, so I doubted that they could be of any help, anyway. I stood there for a good ten minutes before one of them suggested that I return to my seat.

It was then that I said I preferred not to return to my seat because the woman sitting next to me was so overweight that she was taking up my space as well as her own. The flight attendant knew about that -- she'd actually provided the standard seat belt extender to the woman.

I said I really needed to change my seat. The flight attendant informed that the flight was full and I'd have to stay in my assigned seat.

I said I was not only physically uncomfortable, but physically trapped, as well. I pointed out that if there were an emergency, I would be trapped in my seat. I said the situation wasn't acceptable.

They said I should have said something to the gate agent before takeoff, asking for a different seat or, if a different seat wasn't available, I could have switched flights.

I was trying to be fair and considerate, but their 'what- do-you-want-us-to-do-about-it' attitude irked me.

I'd paid for one seat, and I expected the airline -- it was American Airlines -- to provide me with one seat. Not half a seat. Not three-quarters of a seat. A complete seat.

Furthermore, I found it completely unacceptable that the flight attendants suggested that I could and should have switched flights in order to get access to a complete seat. Why should I have to change my plans because the airline -- and I repeat, it was American Airlines -- assigned the seat next to mine to an obese passenger who was clearly too large for one seat in coach class? Not!

Further discourse with the flight attendants was useless. They returned to their chatter about the magazine article and I stood for most of the flight, sitting down only when the captain turned on the seatbelt sign at times of turbulence. I was exhausted at the end of the flight, and my legs ached.

When I got home, I called American Airlines to complain. I got an interminable voicemail runaround that ended in my decision to send a formal letter of complaint to Customer Service by email. By that time, I was so furious that I decided to demand a refund for the cost of the ticket.

I also wanted to know American Airlines' policy regarding obesity, and how widespread a problem seriously overweight passengers have become.

It occurred to me that the airlines -- all of them -- impose extra charges for overweight luggage. Should the price of an airplane ticket be based on the passenger's weight? Should there be a 'test seat' similar to the carry on luggage sizer?

Issues relating to passenger size and weight raise questions about discriminatory policies and abuse. Singling out anyone who is large is definitely not p.c. And much of the discussion about passenger obesity is about respecting the rights of larger passengers, not the adverse impact they may have on otherpassengers.

I understand that weight is sensitive issue with most people. I know how much I resent having to weigh in for helicopter rides, for example. Having to fit into an airline 'test seat' would be so much worse.

I wanted to know what other people thought, and started a discussion on social media. There were dozens of comments and messages from people who'd had similar experiences. The problem is not uncommon. Everyone who's sat next to an obese person has suffered as a result, and most have been too concerned about their hefty seat mate's feelings to speak up

It's almost un-p.c. to suggest that passengers of average size have rights, too, and need those rights to be protected.

American Airline obfuscated when I asked about the obesity policy. They wouldn't cite a written policy, but said that an obese passenger would be assigned a seat next to an empty seat, if an empty seat were available, and might be asked to pay for the second seat. If an additional adjacent seat were not available, the passenger might bumped to another flight where that arrangement would be possible, or might be required to pay to upgrade to business class where seats are larger.

Why hadn't that happened in my case? I hadn't raised a fuss!

There is no industry-wide policy regarding obese passengers. The airlines that attempt to deal most directly with the problem face are accused of trying to exploit large passengers and extract extra revenue from them. Larger passengers say that the size of the seats and amount of personal space allotted to passengers should be greater. We'd all like that.

After lengthy and intense discussions with American Arlines I was able to get a partial refund – in the form of vouchers, which so often prove useless – for the ticket. But the lightweight compensation didn’t match the heavy discomfort and inconvenience I experienced. And, travel vouchers too often expire before you’ve had a chance to use them. Oh, well….


Copyright 2019 Jennifer Merin


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