Space Invasion: What to Do When Seated Next to a Fat Person on a Plane?

A concerned woman sitting next to a smiling fat passenger on a plane who limits her personal space; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.

Air travel is how many exciting journeys begin these days. But the confined space of a plane can also be a joy-killer, dissipating our adventure before it even starts. Plane seats have shrunk, and extra legroom has become a holy grail of flights. These restrictive conditions can quickly make us turn against other passengers, especially if we get to our seats only to find out that our first neighbor’s size will make the journey a tad more challenging in terms of space. What to do when seated next to a fat person on a plane?

Armrest wrestling, overflowing belly, protruding legs… How to handle sitting next to an obese person on a plane?

Sitting next to an obese person on a plane can cause discomfort and frustration. Nobody teaches us how to deal with these circumstances, and the least we want to do is enter into conflicts that would kick one or both participants off a plane. Disruptive passengers are harder to fly with than those who have extra kilograms.

I experienced these awkward scenarios myself – having a feeling that the armrest is just not enough of a barrier to secure your personal space is truly yours. Besides someone’s belly overflowing into your assigned seat, you could also experience other body parts, such as arms or legs, protruding over. Some passengers can object to unpleasant warmth and sweat coming from unwanted body contact.

Now, seating a fat person next to a skinny person may somehow work out, but if the airline’s system has put an average or a larger passenger next to an even larger one, it’s calling for trouble.

Today, we’ll explore practical tips and etiquette when navigating this challenge. We will learn how to avoid sitting next to a fat person on a plane, and how to deal with it if it happens anyway.

Do you dream of an airline career but you are concerned about your body mass index? Here's how you can become a plus-size flight attendant!
A plane passenger sitting by a passenger of size; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.
“Today’s flight is full” is not usually the sentence you’d like to hear

Sitting next to an obese person on a plane – Reddit experiences

Online communities such as Reddit are a treasure trove of testimonies that show how regular people answer our ultimate question – what to do when seated next to a fat person on a plane?

One passenger recounted: “On a recent flight I was seated next to a really big guy. For added detail, he needed a seatbelt extender and when the armrest was down, you couldn’t even see it… He took up half the seat I was in.” Fortunately, luck was on their side as the flight wasn’t full, and the flight attendant orchestrated a seat swap.

A plus size passenger encroaching into a personal space of a fellow seatmate on a plane; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.
Getting cozy on a flight is something you imagined differently

In another case, there were no spare seats, and a passenger, whose in-flight neighbor was seeping into a third of his seat, had to make a tough choice: cope with a 5-hour-long flight being squeezed, or a guilt trip for requesting a deboarding intervention. This squished passenger ended up proposing a controversial financial remedy: “Look, I’ll put up with this if you give me $150 – that’s half the cost of this flight and that would compensate me enough for the circumstances.” The larger passenger accepted the offer, but certain observers called this an a**hole move.

Then again, not saying anything about the situation may not bring you to the meditative state of mind either, as this user suggested: “I had to sit 6 hours with my body contorted, and he was still touching me. When I got off that flight, my back was killing me (for weeks, I was in pain). But my suit jacket and shirt were soaked with this guy’s sweat. Tried to dry clean it twice and couldn’t get the stench out. I had to trash that suit. Sorry, overweight people, it’s your responsibility to get two seats and not jeopardize other people’s health.”

Check out how a plus-size model confronted a fellow passenger for fat-shaming!

How to avoid sitting next to a fat person on a plane?

“How to avoid sitting next to a passenger of size?” is a million-dollar question. Besides just counting on good luck that a broken game of musical chairs will skip us, there are a few methods that could ensure against or at least minimize the chances of armrest wrestling on our flight.

1. Consider off-peak travel times

Flights during off-peak hours, days, or even seasons might have fewer passengers, thus reducing the chances of ending up in an uncomfortable situation of a crowded, fully booked plane.

If your schedule allows it, off-peak flights will provide more flexibility in seat selection, and more options if changing the seat becomes a need.

2. Select a preferred seat

While this method doesn’t completely control your neighborhood (as other passengers can choose their preferred seat too), there are statistically better seats to pick, if space is your major criterion.

Larger plane passenger using a measuring tape as a seatbelt on a plane, while seated to a thinner passenger; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.
Erm, sir, that doesn’t count as a seatbelt!

It may seem obvious, but you should avoid the middle seat at all costs. It would put you in between two passengers, so the chances of having a person of size on either side are doubled.

In very unfortunate circumstances, you could even find yourself ham-pressed in a sandwich, like a former cabin crew member who endured the most uncomfortable five hours of his life last year: “I had to fly between two very overweight (obese probably) passengers, both of them took parts of my seat. I spoke with a member of the cabin crew but they simply said that the plane was full so whatever, they offered me a free meal.”

No free meal will sort out your discomfort (if you even manage to open a tray table in such a squeeze), so always aim for either a window or aisle seat.

Aisle seat is a slightly better choice, as it puts a passenger on one of your sides, but not a wall on the other. That breathing space could make all the difference when it comes to the perceived pleasure of the journey.

3. Upgrade your seat

If your budget allows it, consider upgrading to a premium cabin or selecting a seat with more legroom.

Thinner passenger on a plane looking at an obese passenger across the aisle; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.
Cabins are becoming more crammed, and the quest for comfort has never been so adventurous

Normally, some regular seating configurations offer more space or convenience, such as exit rows, seats near the front of the plane (bulkhead rows), or occasionally even seats in the back of the plane (the so-called taper seats, where three-seat rows change to two-seat rows).

Of course, premium seats provide the most comfort in economy, reducing the likelihood of feeling cramped.

If your wish for more space is inversely proportional to your wish to keep money in your pocket, splurge on wider seats in business or first class. You might never come back to the economy cabin!

4. Check-in among the last passengers

Checking in among the last passengers is the second best thing to arriving early for seat selection. If you’re among the last passengers to check in, you can maximize your chances of choosing the best seat between the available options (of course, if the flight is not sold out).

A plus-size passenger sitting next to an average-size passenger who was served an in-flight meal; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.
Pulling out a tray table is a first step for getting an in-flight meal

If your seat was pre-assigned, you can communicate with airline staff at check-in or the gate, if they’re able to assist with moving you to a less crowded area of the plane.

5. Board among the last passengers

Even if you have been assigned an aisle seat in a nominally fully booked plane, not everything is lost. Board the aircraft among the last passengers!

The truth is some passengers never make it to their flights (that’s what airlines are counting on when they do overbookings), and you may find entire rows empty.

I often do last-minute boarding myself. If I find a better seat situation on the way to my assigned seat, I just park myself there, without the need to ask to switch seats.

If you are a passenger of size, take stress out of your flight experience, and consider ordering a seatbelt extender. This product fits most airlines. Find more advice for flying while fat here!
A young boy sitting next to a large passenger on plane; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.
Have we become too big, or have the plane seats become too small?

What to do if an obese person sits next to you on a plane?

Sitting next to an obese person on a flight is not something we can truly control. We don’t get to choose people sitting next to us unless they are members of our travel group. What can we then resort to, if the situation is hard to avoid?

Before resorting to elbow jabs, embarrassing the plus-size passenger in front of everyone, extorting money from them, farting, getting drunk to induce a comma, or even calling the police on them for stealing your space (Reddit users come up with a variety of creative solutions), there are better ways to handle the seating situation with sensitivity and respect.

So, what to do if a fat person sits next to you on a plane? Here’s your game plan!

1. Stay positive

The first step in addressing any situation is to approach it with a positive attitude, and a smile.

You’d be surprised how turning complete strangers into possible friends can shift your perspective. Start by introducing yourself and exchanging some small talk.

A morbidly obese passenger sitting next to an average passenger on a plane; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.
Silence makes it awkward; approach the big guy with a small talk

Maybe the passenger’s size becomes secondary when you find out that you share the same interests and views on life. You never know, it could be the most entertaining and inspiring flight time of your life. Or would you prefer being bored by a skinny person annoying you with neverending stories that would kill a zombie?

Even if you don’t find a friend for life, getting to know someone you share space with will release some of the frustration. Keep an open mind before you label the situation as problematic. Avoid making assumptions or passing judgment based on appearance alone. Instead, employ empathy and mindfulness.

2. Kindly address your concerns

Once you’ve established a friendly atmosphere, it is easier to address the elephant in the cabin. Well, don’t do it with these words! You should express your concerns respectfully and gracefully.

A plus-size passenger invading into a space of a fellow female seatmate working on her laptop; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.
When your seatmate discovers the comfort of an armrest

If you feel your seatmate’s weight is encroaching on your personal space, politely ask if they could adjust their position slightly. Your request can be as simple as saying: “Excuse me, would you mind shifting to the side a bit?”

Check if a mutually agreed solution can be reached, such as adjusting the armrest, alternating its use between you two, reclining seats, or even lifting the aisle armrest entirely (if that’s where the larger passenger is sitting) – the release button is usually on the underside of the back of the armrest.

Embrace patience, and offer assistance if needed.

3. Speak to the flight crew

If diplomacy fails and you encounter difficulties in ensuring a comfortable seating arrangement, don’t hesitate to reach out to the cabin crew. They are trained to handle such situations and can guide potential solutions to make the journey enjoyable for all passengers.

To avoid the embarrassment of your seatmate, who is probably already sharing some of the discomfort, the best way is to approach a flight attendant discreetly in the galley. Explain the situation, say that you cannot safely fit in your seat, and ask if there are other available areas you could move to.

A plane passenger complaining over his overweight in-flight neighbor for spilling into his seat space; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.
Ask for flight attendant’s intervention without causing a scene

Bear in mind that the plane might be full, so if you think you will not be able to endure the situation for the entire length of the flight, act immediately! Raise the issue with the crew before the flight departs or plane doors close.

You should be aware that a passenger who cannot fit in their seat could either have to buy an additional seat or upgrade (if there are such options available) or deplane to get a rescheduled flight. That may not be the happiest solution for that person.

If the airline cannot guarantee you a seat space you purchased, you can try to volunteer yourself for a later flight. Whatever the solution, you might at least get some kind of compensation for the discomfort, possibly a flight voucher.

4. Bring entertainment

If you still feel stuck next to a fat person on your flight, just – don’t. Nagging will exhaust you if there’s no better solution available. Reserve your grumbling for a complaint letter you can address to the airline later, and try to make the best out of the situation you’re in.

A man reading while seated next to an obese passenger on a plane; photo by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.
If you cannot get out of the situation physically, run away mentally!

To distract yourself, bring along noise-canceling headphones, a captivating book, or a tablet loaded with your favorite movies and shows. Immersing yourself in entertainment and engaging in activities you like will help shift your focus, alleviate the discomfort, and make your flight more enjoyable.

If you still struggle with diverting your attention, try practicing self-compassion. Focus on maintaining your composure and treating your neighbor with respect and dignity. Remember that your actions reflect on your character, so choose to be understanding and considerate.

5. Get a seat divider

When it seems that nothing else works, there is an actual product you can consider purchasing. It’s called a portable airplane seat divider.

The Create-A-Space partition was invented with the exact intention of preventing someone from spilling into your zone. When fixed on an armrest, this nifty contraption eliminates hip and elbow contact with the person sitting next to you.

Create-a-Space seat divider for planes, that ensures you get your half of the armrest, and nobody invades your personal space; photo by Create-a-Space.
A seat divider is a first-line defense against potential invaders

Your personal shield against body contact is a compact product, the size of a book, and it fits easily in your hand luggage.

Its availability is sometimes limited, but if you want to defend the full width of your seat against your neighbors’ invasion, order it here.

What to do when a fat person sits next to you on an airplane – Conclusion

Passengers with high body mass are still passengers. All of us have the right to travel comfortably, and that includes the passengers with a larger build.

When they spread to the next seat, overweight passengers are usually aware of the situation. Most of the time, they will keep their arms folded, trying to make themselves smaller.

Sitting next to a fat person on a plane can present a challenge, but sometimes there are easy solutions without the need for heavyweight vocabulary

As armrests become negotiation zones, we might be tempted to shout: “Just buy another seat!” But we don’t know about our seatmate’s financial situation or even about the purpose of their trip. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and demand equality in a world that is not designed for equals. Employing tact and compassion for each individual is as important as finding ways to make yourself comfortable.

Sitting next to a fat person on a plane can present physical and emotional challenges. But even when it seems the situation is the ultimate test of our contortionist skills, we should arm ourselves with empathy, maybe some humor, and a willingness to look for solutions. Sometimes, these solutions are ready-made and available, without the need to use the heavy-words artillery.

Courtesy and understanding play a crucial role in ensuring a pleasant journey for everyone on board.

By implementing tips and strategies from this article, such as choosing the right seat, asking flight attendants for assistance, and treating your fellow travelers with dignity, you can enhance both your comfort and your flight experience. Not less importantly, you can also contribute to a more inclusive and compassionate travel environment.

Were you ever seated next to a larger passenger? 
Share your experience in the comments, and pin this article for later!


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All AI images in this article were created by Ivan Kralj via DALL-E.

Ivan Kralj


Award-winning journalist and editor from Croatia

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