Advice for Flyers, Obese and Otherwise

Childhood Obesity News has explored the emotional dimensions of flying as experienced by both obese individuals and others, who are their neighbors on commercial airline flights.

For a Passenger of Size (POS) who contemplates flying, due diligence is crucial. Put in the time to study up on the various airlines and the different models of planes that you might run into. Their facilities and policies vary, so find out exactly what your chosen airline is prepared to do for you, and what it expects from you.

Often, there is the option to buy an extra seat. Of course it seems unfair, and it certainly does not solve all problems. The actual seating area does not become any wider, because the armrest is still there, but the extra leeway on the side does help.

Some airlines allow passengers to bring their own seatbelt extenders, and some have loaners (ask the first attendant you see, advises one seasoned traveler). Book an aisle seat, and be prepared to spend some time standing in the galley if that solution is available. Even when accommodation is offered, keep an eye out for unanticipated exceptions:

You cannot buy an extra seat for comfort at the bulkhead or on an exit row.
You will not be able to buy an extra seat on a British Airways operated flight if your journey includes a flight operated by another airline.

Although they convey the general idea, suggestions fromBritish Airways are not definitive for other companies. For instance, it appears that for flights that never leave Canadian airspace, it is possible to bring a letter from a doctor that will oblige the airline to provide a second seat at no charge!

On a forum page where air customers talk to each other, an anonymous respondent issues a fervent plea to POS:

If you can’t fit without taking space that belongs to someone else, then yes, you will need to pay more, or find an alternative means of transport. Inflicting discomfort on yourself is one thing, but forcing it on other people is wrong, and isn’t going to magically make airlines make their seats any bigger.

In “6 Tips for Flying While Fat,” the author, who goes by the initial J. and specializes in fat activism and accessibility issues, reiterates:

Call the airline as soon as you can, well before your departure date, and ask about their “passenger of size policy.” […] They may be required to give you a second boarding pass that says “seat reserved,” at no cost to you. You have to ask for it. When you check in with the ticketing agent… they’ll print it for you along with your boarding pass. Then you’ll simply place this paper on the seat next to you…

Apparently, having that extra reserved seat allows the person to “pre-board.” For ease at security scanning, wear shoes and outer clothing layers that are very easy to take off and put on. Avoid other potentially embarrassing situations by checking in really early, so an unexpected gate change does not put you in the position of needing to make an undignified run for the new location.

And now for the non-obese flyers

If you are already on the plane next to a POS, and you can tell that this just isn’t going to work out, ask an attendant if you can occupy a crew jump seat, or sit on your bag in the galley, or stand in the galley. Threaten to occupy the toilet for the whole trip (just kidding).

Sometimes you might have to just make the best of things. If your need to get where you’re going is not that urgent, ask the attendant about changing to the next flight. As for legal rights, you don’t have that many. At least try to get a voucher out of it, or something.

In a forum on an airline’s own site, seasoned veterans of the skyways chime in with advice: Again, do the research. Knowing the details ahead of time could make the difference between a hellish experience and a bearable one. Some people recommend taking pictures of obese passengers to send to the company or post on social media for shaming purposes. If you are tempted, just think twice.

A person with the username “acucobal,” who is fully aware that a journey can be “torture” for both the POS and any seatmates, asks non-obese flyers to consider that the exasperating large person might have tried her or his best:

People are aware they are bigger
People try and book accordingly
Sometimes things are outside their control

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Passenger of size: actual injury claim from adjacent passenger,”
Source: “6 Tips for Flying While Fat,”, 01/19/18
Source: “Passengers of size present a challenge for seatmates and airlines,”, 11/05/18
Photo credit: Matthias Ripp on Visualhunt/CC BY

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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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