Etihad Airways: Passenger Sues Airline Over Obese Seatmate

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Another interesting aviation related lawsuit surfaces from Australia this week. A passenger sues Etihad over a back injury, sustained while having to contort his body due to his obese seatmate.

EtihadA380As per the claim, the crew refused to moved him after he complained that the passenger seated next to him was ‘spilling’ into his seat on a flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi back in 2011.

The Guardian (access here) reported yesterday that the passenger Mr. Bassos filed a lawsuit against Etihad Airlines at his local District Court in Queensland (Australia) asserting that he injured his back after sitting next to an obese man who coughed frequently, was salivating and that he [Basso] was forced to twist and contort his body for long periods during the flight to avoid contact with his neighboring passenger.

The article outlines further

After five hours he asked to be moved but airline staff allegedly refused. Half an hour later, Bassos complained again and he was moved to a crew seat.

However, he had to return to his seat next to the man later for another hour, and again for the final 90 minutes of the flight for security reasons, according to court documents.

Bassos is claiming damages for personal injuries, saying that being forced to twist his body for such a long time to avoid contact with the other passenger gave him a back injury and exacerbated an existing back condition.

The matter opens up an old ‘can of worms’ so to speak because it is a matter of high controversy in what way airlines should be required to make very obese passengers purchase additional seats to ensure their own comfort as well as those of the paying passengers around them. It is the position of many (including myself) that passengers are entitled to the entire space belonging to the assigned seat and not be inconvenienced by someone spilling into it.

Etihad tried to have the claim thrown out and argued it was not unusual to have overweight passengers taking up too much space, or coughing passengers.

However Brisbane district court Judge Fleur Kingham refused to strike out the claim on Wednesday. Kingham said she wasn’t convinced Bassos had no chance of winning.

In the meanwhile Etihad went in the offensive according to a new Guardian article today (see here)

“Etihad Airways will continue to oppose the action and now that Mr Bassos will finally face a medical assessment in December 2015, as directed by court, we believe that the matter will proceed to an early conclusion,” an Etihad Airways spokeswoman said on Friday.

Bassos is seeking more than $227,000 for medical expenses and lost earnings and superannuation.

Situations like these should be handled in various stages. First and foremost all airlines should have a set guideline for this matter, to leave the situation to airport staff who might end up in hot water is just not right. At the same time the passenger who suffers from this condition should have decency to call the airline or travel agency to alert the airline of the circumstances (maybe even prior of purchasing the ticket).

If these steps are not followed the supervisor at the check-in should then be notified of the situation and trying to find an empty seat to ensure comfort and safety for all passengers. If there is no empty seat available and it’s not possible to upgrade an elite member, protocol as per the guidelines has to be followed and the passenger ultimately denied boarding.

Conclusion

As I stated above, these situations are problematic because all passengers are paying customers, entitled to a safe and comfortable transportation. On top of that some local jurisdictions who might consider obesity a disability protected under certain laws might limit in what way airlines can reglement extremely overweight passengers. In the worst case it could be seen as discrimination so it’s important that the airline is on solid ground here.

By ignoring the matter and pushing the responsibility to the crew (who really has very limited options) the airline is opening itself up to a lawsuit such as this. It can be seen as negligence not having a protocol in place to avoid such situations.

I’m not sure why a lawsuit takes 3-4 years to be heard in Australia and what a medical assessment four years after the incident is supposed to reveal. I hope the court awards him at least something, it’s the only way airlines will eventually change policies.

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