Obesity in the Sky, Part 2

Kevin Smith in Toronto

Childhood Obesity News has been considering the distressing story of Vilma Soltesz, who died in Hungary recently because three airlines refused to let her travel on their planes, and then she got too sick to travel back to the United States. This story involves several important issues, and one of them is that Mrs. Soltesz weighed 425 pounds. Between that and being an amputee, she was unable to get around under her own power, and we talked about that. This time, let’s explore the weight issue alone.

In a related NBC News story, Elaine Porterfield advised viewers to carefully review their chosen airline’s policies before making a commitment. She interviewed an expert and passed along his advice:

James Zervios, director of communications for the Tampa, Fla.-based Obesity Action Coalition — a national advocacy organization with 40,000 members — strongly urged larger-sized fliers to read up on their chosen airline’s policies, then print it out and bring it with them while traveling, with the relevant sections highlighted.

Seventeen inches wide is average for an airplane seat; Jet Blue’s 17.8-inch width is considered a relief, and Spirit’s 18.5 inches are seen as bountifully generous. Really, an extra inch and a half makes that much difference! It does, not only to the obese passenger but to the person in the adjoining seat.

Consumer travel advocate and founder of Airfarewatchdog, George Hobica, explained to the reporter how:

[…] some airlines require larger passengers to purchase two seats in advance if armrests cannot be lowered because of their size. Some airlines will attempt to find a second, extra open seat if available — at no extra cost — for the larger passenger to use; other airlines may ask to move the passenger to another flight where there are open seats. Others may ask a larger passenger at the airport to buy another ticket at the lowest available price at the time. But if a seat isn’t available, the passenger might not be able to fly.

DOT [Department of Transportation] should have some kind of standardized approach to protect not just those who are obese, but those who get spilled over on.

The airline Allegiant addresses the spillover problem by letting an obese person buy a single seat, if the passenger next to them is a family member or friend. Otherwise, it is necessary to pay for two seats. It seems that most airlines make an effort to cope with an obese passenger’s need for space.

On Delta, they don’t make the person buy an extra seat, but they might bump the person from a flight to wait for one that has an extra empty seat. If waiting for another flight will ruin your plans, Airfarewatchdog recommends that you just bite the bullet, and buy two seats. And who would want to take a chance? Waiting for another flight could mean hanging around for hours or days, and those tiny airport lounge seats are awfully uncomfortable.

We do have the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the extent to which it applies to airlines is unclear. For starters, obesity alone is not a disability. Not in the USA, anyway. Apparently in Canada, with a note from a doctor the passenger can demand an extra free seat and the airline must comply. It took a Supreme Court ruling to get that much.

Author, director, and standup comic Kevin Smith self-identifies as “a fat, lazy slob who did good.” He became almost as famous for his feud with the airlines as for his filmmaking. One of Smith’s general observations is:

I live my life fat and I have to navigate through a thin person’s world at all times, and if you want to do that without vocal ridicule from the normies, you’ve always gotta offer them empty reassurance that you’re trying to do something about your weight problem. If they feel like you’re at least sorry for your grievous offense of not looking like everybody else, they’ll leave you alone.

(to be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Obese flier turned away by airlines dies overseas,” NBC News, 11/27/12
Source: “’Seatmates of size’ should check ahead before flying, experts say,” NBC News, 11/09/12
Source: “Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good,” Goodreads, 2012
Image by Ian Muttoo.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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