Obese Kids and Air Travel

At one time or another, a journey by plane is in the cards for a large number of people, even if it is only a once-in-a lifetime trip to a relative’s funeral. When an emergency happens, families have enough details to worry about.

It is not really the best time to begin researching how to shepherd a 350-pound 14-year-old through the maze of airline regulations. Even if there is no morbidly obese person in the reader’s family, these things are still good to know, because knowledge is a component of empathy, and we all need more of that.

Anthropometric and ergonomic factors

Anthropometry is the measurement of human bodies, their physical dimensions and ranges of motion. The measurements that passenger plane designers use are somewhat mysterious. In one online forum, one commenter states that the statistics used for aviation purposes seem to have originated with studies undertaken by NASA or the military, five decades ago.

The average American man weighs 15 pounds more than he did 20 years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the average American woman weighs 16.2 pounds more. We are getting bigger.

A person with ordinary common sense might think, “Well then, I guess the airlines now provide more capacious seats.” But that person would be mistaken. Squeezing more bodies into the plane makes more money. When there is money to be made, ordinary common sense is not consulted.

About the planes

Ergonomics is the science of creating workplaces, products, and systems around people. Applied to furniture, its priorities are comfort, and not causing physical duress that will send the end user to the chiropractor. However, according to anecdotal reports, it appears that passenger planes are designed around some perverse anti-ergonomical theory.

Seat pitch is the distance between each seat “anchor” — or from the back of one chair to the back of the chair in front of it or behind it. The thickness of the seat’s upright component devours some of those inches, of course, so the published figures might be identical for two different makes of plane, yet feel different to the unsuspecting passenger. In other words, two seats that technically have the same pitch may yet provide notably different experiences for the passenger.

This matters because pitch is the dimension that allows for “leg room.” Fifty years ago, seat pitch averaged 35″, which is now down to about 31″. One member of a frequent flyers’ forum issued a passionate plea: “If you can provide me with a resource that gives actual distance from front of seat to back of the seat in front I would love you forever.”

Leg room is also influenced by other factors: the tray tables and other doodads that are attached to the seats. Incredibly, over the past years, seat width has shrunk too. Meanwhile, people continue to expand.

Check out this information source!

SmartTravelAsia.com offers an extensive array of charts where all the figures concerning seat width, seat pitch, and angle of recline are compiled for first class, business class and economy class seats, on what seems to be every airline in the world. In economy class, the rare 19″ wide seat exists, but 17″ is much more likely.

Business class is a little more comfortable, but first class? The sky’s the limit: 80″ pitch? Sure thing. Or 35″ seat width? You betcha. And the fancy seats recline 180 degrees, which, for the non-mathematically inclined, means flat. Like a bed. Just mortgage your home and bring plenty of dollars.

About the seats

Here is the thing about the seats occupied by people of ordinary income. As we mentioned, average seat width is 17″. The average width of a woman’s shoulders is 17″. The average width of a man’s shoulders, even if his butt only takes up 17″, is more than 17″.

Men, like ice cream cones, are wider at their top ends. So, three average men seated in a row are already in contact with each other. If one of them is obese, his oversize arms, chest, and stomach will definitely extend laterally into another’s rightful territory. This is where the trouble begins.

Who needs special accommodation?

Some people are unusually tall, and if judicious planning has not succeeded in reserving a decent seat, flight attendants can usually cope and find some nook or cranny to stash the person in for at least part of the flight. A too-wide person presents a different challenge, and one who is both too wide and too tall will not have a very comfortable trip.

Just to keep things interesting, the length of the seat belts may vary even in the same passenger cabin where all the amenities for that class are supposedly equal. The airline may or may not provide a seat belt extender, so it’s probably a good idea to inquire about that when planning the trip. Some obese people buy their own seat belt extenders and bring them along. Others report that they tried, only to have the item confiscated by security agents.

A little advance thought and planning can smooth out the bumpy parts of traveling with an obese child. So good luck with that, and happy holidays!

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Passengers of size present a challenge for seatmates and airlines,” Elliott.org, 11/05/18
Source: “Economy Class Seat Survey,” SmartTravelAsia.com
Photo credit: Mark Hodson Photos on Visualhunt/CC BY

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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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