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Squeezed to meet you

As Americans' waistlines continue to grow and the already-small airline seats aren't budging, more travelers must deal with "seatmates of size." The Well-Mannered Traveler has some helpful advice.
Overweight Passengers May Be Dragging Down Airline Profits
As Americans' waistlines continue to grow and the already-small airline seats aren't budging, more travelers must deal with "seatmates of size."Tim Boyle / Getty Images file

Dear Well-Mannered Traveler: “Is there a polite way to deal with an extra large passenger seated next to me? These folks always have bags full of food spilling out everywhere, their arm is actually in my seat space, every time they shift their weight my drink spills, etc. I nearly cry every time I see that I am seated next to such a person. Please advise!”
- Sheila T., Parkland Florida

Dear Sheila: Next time you head out to the airport remember to take your tickets and your driver’s license or passport, but please leave your stereotypes behind.

That said, Sheila T’s letter brings up topics of concern to other readers: “seatmates of size” and the experience of having the person seated next to you on an airplane take up not just their seat, but part of yours.

It’s not only the folks whose frames fit easily into those narrow airplane seats who have issues:

“As a fat flyer, I’m tired of glares, stares, and (in some cases) rude comments from others who are made uncomfortable by my size. I’m tired of flying with armrests slamming into my thighs.  And I’m also tired of MAKING others uncomfortable because of my size. It isn’t my fault that airline seats are so small… ”
– Jenn

Travelers come in all sizes, yet airplane seats don’t seem to. In fact, although 60 percent of Americans are considered overweight and the average American waistline keeps getting larger, airplane seats seem to be getting smaller. These days, the standard width of most economy or coach seats is just a smidge over 17 inches — about as wide as your computer keyboard. So don’t be surprised if, no matter what your size, you feel squeezed in on your next flight.

Wider seats for everyone would be great, but that’s not something we can demand. What we can do is explore some well-mannered options for squished seating situations and offer tips on getting comfortable on-board.

If you’re seated next to a large passenger:

  • Keep in mind that, just like you, your seatmate is a ticketed passenger. They may be more uncomfortable than you are. You’re going to be in this together, so be polite as you settle in.
  • If another passenger is taking up part of you seat space, stay put until everyone else has been seated. If the flight is not full, you can move to a nearby empty seat before take-off.  If you don’t see an empty seat, wait until after take-off, when the seatbelt light is turned off. Then excuse yourself and seek out a flight attendant who may be able to find you a different seat. A simple, “It looks like there’s enough room for us both to spread out” can suffice as a goodbye.
  • On a full flight, you’ll just need to make the best of it. Be patient: this isn’t a permanent situation and you’ll eventually get to your destination. Rather than sit and stew, get up and walk up and down the aisle a bit or find a spot out of traffic to stand and read a magazine or chat quietly with another passenger.
  • You do not need to fly with the armrest raised. In fact, many airlines will ask a passenger who cannot fly with the armrest lowered to purchase two seats. (See below).  If it’s just a matter of your seatmate being a bit more comfortable with the armrest raised, consider a half-hour up/half hour down compromise.
  • And as long as you and your seatmate may be, literally, cheek-to-cheek for a few hours, try getting to know him or her. Your seatmate is probably as fed up with air travel as you are. You might end up making a new friend or business contact and shedding some stereotypes along the way.

If you are a large passenger:

  • Again, keep in mind that, like you, your seatmate is a ticketed passenger. You’re going to be in this together, so be pleasant and polite as you settle in. If the flight isn’t full, be proactive and ask a flight attendant to help find you a spot with more room to spread out.
  • You can increase the chance of having an empty seat beside you by booking an off-peak flight and avoiding air travel rush hours. An airline reservation agent can help you identify flights that regularly fly full.
  • Business and first-class seats are usually larger than coach seats, so book those if your budget allows. Don’t give up on coach: while the standard coach seat is 17 inches wide, most 777s, for example, have seats that are 18 inches wide. And many Midwest Airlines flights offering “Signature Service” have seats that measure 21 inches across.
  • If your midsection is much wider than 17 inches, it’s a good bet you won’t fit in a standard airplane seat. Let the airline know. In some cases a reservation or gate agent might be able to request that the seat next to you be left empty.  It’s worth a try.
  • Research your airline’s policy on “customers of size.” Some airlines ask employees to resolve seatmate situations on a case by case basis. Other airlines have policies stating that passengers unable to lower the armrests and/or who take up any portion of an adjacent seat may be required to purchase a second seat or take a different flight.  Do your homework so you’re not taken by surprise by a gate agent, a flight attendant or by another passenger once you’re on board.
  • If you do purchase two seats, get two boarding passes and keep them handy until take-off.  Jenn, the self-described “fat-flyer” above, says although she and her husband don’t mind paying for three seats in a row, they are sometimes asked to give up that “empty” seat to a stand-by passenger.
  • It’s not your fault airline seats are so tiny. If you find yourself cheek-to-cheek with your seatmate, try to make the best of it. You might end up shedding some stereotypes as well.