Flying While Fat: Obese Passengers on a Plane

Colorfully dressed obese passenger in sunglasses walking to his plane with a wheeled yellow bag, photo by deagreez1, Depositphotos

Flying while fat can be a rather unpleasant experience. When overweight passengers need to fly, they come across a variety of obstacles: from plane design to fat-shaming. But do plus-size travelers really need to associate airlines with nightmares?

To some extent, we can all agree that airline policies of packing passengers in planes like sardines in cans are not fair. The extra legroom seats are the most sought-after section of the plane, securing extra profit for companies. But we should all be assigned more than just minimal space when flying.

This guide to flying while fat will lift the weight off your shoulders

While we can relate to this basic idea of comfort in the air, the public opinion easily shifts if the person demanding more personal space in planes is – overweight. Suddenly, once united protesters against the airline policies split off into groups, and one of these certainly becomes an avid defender of the status quo. For them, the obese passengers on a plane should be stripped of their rights to demand a more comfortable flight.

Humans are complex beings, both physically and psychologically. But if you are overweight, you already know that you will typically be expected to offer a lot of explanations for your condition in order to be perceived seriously.

Hopefully, this comprehensive guide for flying while fat will at least give you essential practical tips and advice on how to board your plane without the weight of worries.

Flying while fat – first-hand experience

As British blogger Kirsty Leanne recently found out, it doesn’t take much for large-bodied travelers to stir internet debates. The TikToker was flying with Ryanair and illustrated her uncomfortable flight experience in what became a viral video, with more mean than meaningful backlash.

“The first issue I faced was walking down the plane aisle. I felt the stares of people and all I could think was that they didn’t want me to sit next to them”, Kirsty revealed.

But gazes were not the only issue an obese passenger on a plane has to face. Narrow aisles, even narrower lavatories, and the use of seatbelt extenders, all of this affects the experience.

Kirsty’s belly got in the way of her wishful lunch break too. “The tray table was a big fat no”, she said, while trying to open it with no success.

@kirstyleannetravels Flying Ryanair with no upgrades ❤️ #plussizetraveltok #travellingwhilefat #plussizetravel #plussizequeen #plussize #ryanair #flyingwhilefat #plussizeseating #fatacceptance ♬ As It Was – Harry Styles

The internet backfired with thousands of comments ridiculing Kirsty’s issues. The most frequent advice was aligned with the simplified school of thoughts such as “eat less”, “change your lifestyle”, “buy two seats”, “disabled people deserve more accessibility than you do”, “the world doesn’t revolve around you”, “I feel bad for the people sitting next to you”…

While the hate speech would affect many of us negatively, Kirsty simply tries to shake it off. She has dedicated her TikTok, Instagram, as well as Plus Size Travel Too blog exactly to helping overweight people travel the world. Hashtags #bodyliberation and #fatacceptance support her mission, and doing it in public does take some personal toll.

Fat flying cat

In 2019, a business class passenger on a flight from Moscow to Vladivostok was two kilos heavier than the airline’s limit. His name was Viktor. With 10 kilograms of weight, this cat wasn’t fitting into Aeroflot‘s restrictions on pets flying inside the cabin.

In order to protect the feline from stress connected to flying in a cargo hold, Viktor’s owner Mikhail Galin came up with an ingenious plan. He borrowed a smaller lookalike cat called Fibi, and after the weighing at the check-in, he swapped the furry body double with a real travel companion that would join him on board.

Viktor, the Russian cat that was too fat to fly, posing next to the glass of champagne. Because the cat was two kilograms over limit, the owner brought a lookalike cat for the check-in weighing, and then proceeded with overweight Viktor into a business class cabin of Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Vladivostok, photo by owner Mikhail Galin
Viktor’s high life in the clouds

This trick could have gone unnoticed, but just like in Kirsty’s case, the social media posts brought attention to the story. Viktor’s moments of purring next to the glass of champagne were eternalized in Facebook and Instagram posts.

The airline launched an investigation on what they called a “serious violation”, and even found CCTV footage of the cat swap. Aeroflot kicked Mikhail out of their loyalty program and confiscated his air miles.

Unlike in Kirsty’s case, the general public was more sympathetic with the overweight passenger: “He deserves a medal! How ridiculous the cat has to weigh a certain amount”, “Can’t believe the airline is fat-shaming him”, “Aww so cute though it’s a violation”…

Cat lovers were rooting for public protests. There were companies offering free yearly supplies of cat food for Viktor. Mikhail was offered unlimited taxi rides. The Russian parliament member Vladimir Burmatov lobbied with the airline to revise its policy and return Mikhail’s nullified miles. The serious matter reached even the Russian president Vladimir Putin, but he decided not to comment on the cat’s situation.

Can a plane be too heavy to fly?

Obviously, people can have different criteria when commenting on overweight passengers on flights. A few kilos here or there, is it really that important? Can a plane really be too heavy to fly?

The simple answer is: yes, the plane can be too heavy to fly. This is determined by laws, those we, the people, have written, but also those written by gravity.

There are quite a few elements affecting the plane’s performance that are beyond the control, such as the runway length, elevation and geomorphologic surrounding of the airport, weather conditions (air temperature, wind…).

On the other side, there are elements affecting the plane’s performance that we can control, such as the weight and its distribution in the aircraft (balance).

Overloaded planes, especially the smaller ones, are risking fatal accident scenarios.

In order to optimize flight operations, all planes have a maximum takeoff weight and a maximum landing weight. Those numbers are not the same, namely because of the fuel consumption during the flight.

If the flight becomes unexpectedly shorter or requires an emergency landing, the plane needs to lose some weight first. As throwing passengers and bags out of the plane is not an acceptable option, the only solution that remains is – the fuel dump. Despite widespread beliefs that this procedure is done in order to minimize the risk of an explosive impact, it is actually connected to controlling the maximum landing weight of the aircraft.

While technology has significantly improved, our destiny is still in human hands. Here's what you have to know if you want to survive a flight crash!

What average weight do airlines use for passengers?

Our weight is a worldwide problem, but not equally dispersed. According to the available data, the most overweight countries are the islands in the Pacific such as Nauru, Palau, Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu. In the United States, more than 70,2 % of the population is overweight or obese. In Europe, the countries with the most overweight citizens are Greece, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Iceland.

Since the 1980s, airline seats have been constantly shrinking, yet passengers were getting bigger and bigger. While bags could be weighed before the flight, the weight of the passengers is generally averaged and estimated. Different regulators recommend different figures.

The Federal Aviation Administration in the USA estimates the average male passenger’s weight at 90,7 kg in summer and 93 kg in winter. Female passengers are averaged at 81,2 kg in summer, and 83,5 kg in winter. Children weigh 37,2 kg in summer, and 39,5 kg in winter. These figures include hand luggage.

The European Aviation Safety Agency estimates that men weigh 84,6 kg, women 66,6 kg, and children 30,7 kg.

For extending the safety margin, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority in Australia has a sliding scale, depending on the size of the aircraft. Passengers’s weight is estimated at 86 kg (male) and 71 kg (female) on smaller planes, up to 81,8 kg (male) and 66,7 kg (female) on larger ones.

Tui miscalculation

In 2020, the Tui airline's new software update resulted in a possibly dangerous miscalculation. On a flight from Birmingham to Majorca, 38 passengers identified as Miss instead of Mrs, and the reservation system assigned them the child's weight. The actual weight of the aircraft was thus more than a tonne heavier than what the figures were showing. Luckily, the flight operation was safe in the end, and the software was soon amended.

Do airlines weigh people?

Airlines should weigh a sample of their passengers every 3 to 5 years, in order to keep the figures updated. While airlines can indeed ask passengers about their weight, participation in these surveys is normally on a voluntary basis.

However, there are remote regions of the world where weighing passengers is a common practice. Such is the case with smaller aircraft in some destinations in Australia, where one could be asked to be weighed before boarding.

In Samoa, one of the world’s most obese countries, a short-lived operator Samoa Air did introduce a pay-as-you-weigh system in 2013, describing it as the concept of the future. “A kilo is a kilo is a kilo”, explained the CEO Chris Langton. The flight rates ranged from 1 to 4,16 dollars per kilogram (for a passenger + bag combo), and the idea was promoted as the fairest way of traveling.

In 2016, Hawaiian Airlines also noticed that their flights to American Samoa are often overweight. They started weighing their passengers regularly, but only for the reasons of even weight distribution in the cabin.

Flying while fat – what to expect?

How fat is too fat to fly?

Even though there are no weight limits for fat passengers, there are normally three basic requirements for flying while overweight:

  • Passengers must be able to sit with both armrests down.
  • Passengers must be able to buckle their seatbelts.
  • The aisle must not be blocked by a passenger.

What happens if you can’t fit in an airplane seat?

Obese passenger on a plane of American Airlines, spilling out of his seat into the aisle, viral photo allegedly snapped by the airline's flight attendant
This viral photo was supposedly snapped by an American Airlines flight attendant

If the passenger cannot comply with the above-mentioned requirements for a comfortable flight, he or she will be offered to purchase an additional seat. Typically, the second seat could be bought at a discount, and in the case that the flight is not full, the purchase could be eligible for a full refund.

If there are no additional seats available on a particular flight, the passenger that cannot comfortably fit in the seat will have to deboard and reschedule their flight.

How do I know if I will fit in an airplane seat?

How do you know if you will be too fat for a plane seat? There are two elements you could check beforehand: the seat size and the seatbelt size.

From 48 cm (19 inches) in 1985, the width of the plane seats has shrunk to as low as 41 cm (16,1 inches). As the situation differs from airline to airline, aircraft to aircraft, and even a section of the aircraft to a section of the aircraft, it is best to check out the exact seat on a flight you are looking to book on SeatGuru‘s maps.

As for the seatbelt size, it typically ranges from 100 cm (39 inches) on Southwest Airlines to 130 cm (51 inches) on Hawaiian Airlines. A seatbelt extender will normally add 64 extra centimeters (25 inches).

Troubles of flying while fat: obese passenger in a plane not being able to buckle his seatbelt, photo by oocoskun, Depositphotos
The weak hug of a seatbelt

Is it embarrassing to ask for a seatbelt extender?

As if flying while fat doesn’t draw enough attention by itself, there is often a notion of embarrassment and humiliation connected to the fact that passengers of size need to ask for seatbelt extenders.

Some even end up avoiding the feeling of shame by trying to pretend they are all buckled up. This is certainly not recommendable as seatbelts are essential safety devices in the case of an emergency.

The way to minimize the stress is to try to board the plane before others and request the seatbelt extender as soon as you enter, or sit in the aisle seat so you can discreetly signal or whisper your needs to the flight attendant. They are distributing the seatbelt extenders on every flight, so you should really not approach it as a big deal.

Can I buy my own seatbelt extender?

If you want to avoid the conversations on seatbelt extenders altogether, an option is indeed to purchase your own. Check out this affordable universal seatbelt extender for your next plane journey!

When does overweight become obese?

The most common way for identifying obesity among adults is by calculating the Body Mass Index (BMI). All you need to know is your weight and height. The formula is BMI = kg/m2, which means you should divide your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared. The number you will get is your BMI.
 	
  • If your BMI is less than 18,5, you are underweight.
  • If your BMI is between 18,5 and 25, you have a healthy weight.
  • If your BMI is between 25 and 30, you are overweight.
  • If your BMI is between 30 and 40, you are obese.
  • If your BMI is higher than 40, you are severely obese (formerly called morbidly obese).
  • The formula is not reliable for muscular people, such as athletes and bodybuilders. They could have a higher BMI, but optimal levels of fat. That is why an additional measure of waist size could be a useful correction for higher BMI. Typically, you might develop obesity-related problems if your waist circumference is higher than 94 cm for men, or 85 cm for women.

    Best plane seats for obese

    Intuitively, passengers of size might reach for extra legroom seats, but that is not always the smartest choice. For instance, the armrests could be fixed making the seat even narrower, and you will not be allowed to wear a seatbelt extender in the emergency exit row. A bulkhead seat could come with a set of similar limitations. Sitting in the back of the plane is also not ideal as the last row seats do not recline.

    If you are a customer of size, always consult the plane map before picking your seat. Aim for the middle of the cabin, closer to the wings, where turbulences are more bearable. According to your preferences, you might choose to sit closer to the galley, if you think you would need assistance often, or closer to the bathrooms, in case that’s where you would gravitate to.

    When a row has three seats, never choose the middle one! If you can control your bladder, opt for a window seat. If you think you will have to get out of your seat often, pick the aisle seat! But have in mind that sitting in the aisle seat means you will be getting up for your fellow passengers too, whenever they feel the urge to go to the bathroom.

    Can a fat person fit in an airplane bathroom?

    These days, anyone using the plane lavatory needs to have some basic contortionist skills. While aiming to squeeze even more human sardines into the plane, airlines have shrunk the plane bathrooms too. Currently, the smallest loos are 61 cm wide (24 inches).

    To not rely on circus techniques when you need to go, you can ask flight attendants for a wheelchair-accessible bathroom, or alternatively for mercy to let you visit the first class.

    Hear real experiences of overweight passengers in “Flying While Fat”, a short documentary animation by British fat activist and artist Stacy Bias!

    Best airlines for overweight passengers

    Different airlines handle plus-size passengers differently. So which ones provide more comfort?

    Air Canada could give you more than 51 cm wide seats (20,2 inches). But even if you have to sit in those that are 43 cm wide (17 inches), the good news is that the airline will give you a free extra seat on domestic flights, if you bring the doctor’s notice. That’s aligned with the government’s policy classifying obesity as a disability.

    Among other fat-friendly airlines in the world, we could include Japan Airlines, Bangkok Airways, China Southern Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Uzbekistan Airways, and Emirates.

    In the United States, JetBlue welcomes overweight passengers in seats that are at least 46 cm wide (18 inches), Delta Airlines give at least 45 cm (17,9 inches), while low-cost Spirit Airlines offer ‘Big Front Seats’ that are 51 cm (20 inches) wide.

    If you are planning your next journey, find the most affordable flight options here!

    15 tips for flying while fat

    When we fly, we cannot always choose all aspects of our experience, simply because we need to get from point A to point B at a certain time. Still, there are ways that obese passengers on a plane can improve their experience of flying. These flying while fat tips will help you prepare for the stressless journey!

    1. Travel in off-peak hours and seasons.

    If you choose to fly in off-peak hours or low season to your destination, there might be a greater chance of finding empty plane seats you could stretch over. These could be the earliest flights in the day, or generally the shoulder season at your destination of choice when the weather is still fine, but the touristic pressure vanishes. Your wallet will love you too!

    2. Collect miles.

    Join the airline’s loyalty program. As you will be traveling more and more, the accumulated award points or miles could come in handy when you want to upgrade your seat to the business class, where seats are considerably more comfortable.

    3. Book an aisle seat.

    If you cannot afford a higher booking class than the economy, an aisle seat is usually the best pick for passengers of size. It will provide you with more comfort as you will be able to get up and stretch as you like, without crawling over fellow seatmates. If the flight is short enough that you feel you won’t need to get up as often, you could consider booking the window seat.

    4. Travel in a company.

    Traveling in a company of a friend, a family member or a partner will make it significantly easier for you. You will avoid the situations with annoyed passengers you rubbed your shoulder with, and generally have moral support in potentially stressful moments.

    5. Dress simply.

    To avoid the unpleasant security check issues, try to dress simply, with no metal parts that could trigger the additional security checks. Wear shoes you can easily take off and put back on, and loose clothes you feel most comfortable in.

    6. Check the seating situation with the gate agent.

    Kindly approach the gate agent while waiting for the flight, and ask if it’s possible to check the situation with the seating. You might just be able to get reseated to a row with fewer passengers.

    7. Head to the restroom before boarding.

    Airport restrooms are much spacier than those on the plane. Using them might help you skip the entire experience of trying to squeeze yourself into the plane lavatory.

    8. Board among the first passengers.

    In a narrow aisle crowded with people looking for their seats and a place to store their carry-on, overweight passengers might struggle to navigate. That’s why you should board as soon as the gate opens, and find your seat with no pressure.

    9. Get the seatbelt extender.

    Pre-boarding also gives you an opportunity to ask flight attendants for a seatbelt extender without large social pressure around you. Alternatively, purchase your own!

    10. Ask flight attendants if you can switch seats.

    If it feels crowded in your row, discretely ask the flight attendant’s assistance in finding you a potentially roomier area. Sitting next to a skinny person or a child will put you in a more relaxed state of mind than constantly thinking about how to scrunch up yourself smaller and non-obstructive.

    11. Meet your fellow passengers.

    Put a smile on, say ‘hi’, and introduce yourself to the passengers you will be sharing the row with. It might not be a start of a friendship, but being kind at the beginning might set the tone of the entire experience differently.

    12. Travel with a carry-on.

    If your luggage gets lost or delayed, your airline or insurance company could reimburse you for buying the necessary clothes. However, for larger passengers, it might be difficult to find an adequate clothing size at the destination. That’s why you should try to travel with a carry-on, or at least always have some clothes of your size easily accessible.

    13. Make a sandwich for the trip.

    You want to avoid the situation of taking a meal on the plane only to find out that your body is obstructing the opening of the tray table. Bring your own sandwiches and snacks instead, and eat them at your leisure.

    14. Stretch periodically.

    Just because you think you might cause inconvenience for others, that doesn’t mean you should ignore your need for moving. It is good to get up from your seat every two hours, stretch your legs, rotate your ankles, flex your toes, and have a walk. That’s the best way to avoid the risk of deep vein thrombosis, serious jeopardy for obese flyers.

    15. Pay a guest visit to the first class.

    Put on your best puppy eyes and politely ask the flight attendant if it could be possible to use the bathroom in the first class. That one is typically more spacious than those squeezed in the coach section, and with a steward full of understanding, you might unexpectedly upgrade your toilet visit experience.

    Flying while fat – Conclusion

    If one is overweight, it doesn’t mean he or she should settle for a sedentary lifestyle. People of size also want to travel, but the travel industry is rarely designed to accommodate them.

    This doesn’t mean that the urge for traveling among the large-bodied passengers is dying down. In ten years, more than 16.000 people joined the Facebook community for fat passengers. In 2015, a subgroup for superfat passengers had to be formed, with 1.600 members.

    Why do airlines insist on humiliating the largest among us with toilets the size of their shirt?

    World statistics tell us that overweight people have become a dominant group in certain societies. Instead of accommodating the growing market in the last four decades, airlines were doing exactly the opposite: shrinking the plane seats, and trying to raise their profits at a cost of passengers’ comfort. But people who should travel in those smaller seats are actually growing.

    Should obese passengers go on a plane with a feeling of guilt, or should the regulators rethink the norms that were formed in the past?

    There is no weight limit for a fat person flying. So why do airlines insist on humiliating the largest among us with toilets the size of their shirt or seatbelts the size of their necklace?

    Indeed, for plus-size people sometimes it is easier to just give up and admit that they are “too fat to fly”.

    Labels are blooming in our society, but maybe using the transport to get from one point to another should be exempt from them.

    Airline obesity policies are sometimes merely a marketing stunt. But the market is changing, and it is not enough to use the buzz words to draw people’s attention anymore. The public expects airlines to accommodate a variety of travelers, from oversized flyers to those who manage to squeeze in the current seat configurations more easily. We all deserve enough space when traveling!

    Did you have an experience of flying while fat? If you want to share what overweight and obese passengers experience on a plane, please leave a comment below!

    If you liked this article on fat flying, pin it for later!

    Flying while fat is not easy. Obese passengers on a plane face a myriad of obstacles: from plane design to fat-shaming. These are the 15 essential tips for flying when flat that will lift the weight off your shoulders!

    Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means if you click on them and make a purchase, Pipeaway might make a small commission, at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting our work!
    
    The cover image of this article was purchased through Depositphotos, my go-to platform for high-quality licensed stock images. They have great photo deals, so check them out!
    Ivan Kralj

    Editor

    Award-winning journalist and editor from Croatia

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