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updated 5/8/2006 3:30:12 PM ET 2006-05-08T19:30:12
Commentary

If we live in a world where the average person is getting taller and heavier, then why do the airlines continue to make their economy seats smaller and smaller? The obvious answer is that more seats generate more income. But who do you feel more sorry for: the passenger who barely fits into his seat, or the passenger whose seat space is taken up by the person next to him?

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For weight and balance purposes, the average airplane passenger was once assumed to weigh 165 pounds. After a few incidents, the Federal Aviation Administration upped the average to 190 pounds, but it seems the airlines are taking no notice of this change when it comes to seat comfort. And they won’t, either — not so long as travelers choose their flights by price.

Southwest Airlines got blasted by the media a while back for requiring extra-large people to buy two seats. Right or wrong, at least Southwest did something about the problem, instead of ignoring it or hoping it would just go away. Most airlines still do not have a policy addressing the large-passenger issue.

I am 6 feet 2 inches tall and weigh 195 pounds, and I have space problems when I fly. Can you imagine what somebody twice my size goes through? I also find it tragic that on just about every flight, three large people are wedged into one row while one smaller passenger is enjoying three seats to herself. But since the airlines may not discriminate by size, and computers do most of the seat planning, the big guys’ bad luck just continues.

Here are some tips for flying large more comfortably.

  • Look it up. Most airlines have good Web sites that detail the seat sizes and special facilities for each plane, and allow you to choose your own seat.
  • Pick your seat. Whether you are booking online, by phone or through a travel agent, reserve the right seat for you. If you’re tall, a seat in the emergency-exit row will give you more legroom. If you’re bulky, a window seat will allow you more room to maneuver. If you’re both tall and bulky, an aisle seat might be just the ticket. Explain your situation and make sure your request is typed into your booking comments. Get the booking confirmation number and carry it with you in case your requests are not met.
  • Don’t ask, don’t get. Ask the gate agent and the flight attendant for help getting the best seat for you. Most will try everything to accommodate you. If possible, ask a bigger crew member, as he will be more familiar with your plight.
  • BYOB. If you are a frequent flier and are tired of asking for a seat-belt extender, then bring your own. You can buy FAA-approved extender belts at many flight shops. Unlike the extenders used on a couple of airlines I know, these belts are not bright orange.
  • Check the time. Fly during off-peak hours. You are much more likely to find the adjacent seat unoccupied.
  • Pay it forward. Some airlines offer bigger seats with more legroom for a small additional charge. Don’t be cheap; your comfort is worth the extra money. If you have bought two seats, be sure to tell the flight attendants so they won’t try to move someone next to you.
  • Move on. If you see two seats free after the doors have closed, either move when you can or suggest kindly to your seat neighbor that he might be more comfortable with the extra arm room in the other seats.
  • Rise to the occasion. If possible, raise your armrest. You and your seat neighbor will both enjoy the couple of inches of space that becomes available.
  • Board early. When the agent makes the announcement for early boarding, go for it. You qualify, as you need extra time and assistance. This is also a good time to ask for a seat-belt extender or to explain your special needs.
  • Last resort. If you do not fit in your assigned seat and the flight is full, and if all other efforts have failed, then ask to take another flight. This action might inspire the gate agent or flight attendant to miraculously find you another seat, as they do not want to delay the flight by pulling your luggage out of the hold. This will also signal that you are serious about your problem and are not just trying to pull a fast one. But do this only as a last resort: You might find yourself waiting for hours in the airport for the next flight.

One major airline got itself into a heap of legal trouble when its supplier of seat-belt extenders experienced a small design oversight. This item is generally classified as a “Technical Service Order” or TSO, and the Federal Aviation Administration is often abbreviated as FAA. Since the supplier printed FAA on one side of the belt and TSO on the other, when it was buckled it read FAATSO. By the time the problem was spotted, the supplier had already manufactured several thousand extenders, so I guess you could say it was a BIG problem.

If you are a passenger who is sitting next to someone who is encroaching into your seat, you too have rights. You can use some of the above tips yourself, but please do so as courteously and sympathetically as possible. There is nothing worse than making a scene with a large seat mate and then having to sit next to that person for hours on end. I warn you, I have seen this happen many times, and it is never pretty. If everyone would just practice common courtesy, flying could be a happy adventure for all of us.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Wysong's forum.

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