Reader Question: Person Of Size (Obese Passenger) Spills Into My Seat – What To Do?


Always a thorny topic we received a Facebook message yesterday from one of our readers who was on board a United Airlines flight while being seated next to a ‘Person of Size‘, spilling into his seat.

Aircraft SeatSome Airlines require obese passengers who obviously won’t fit in one seat to purchase additional space but this rule is rarely enforced as airlines fear lawsuits.

The topic is as old as flying ever since seats got smaller and smaller while at the same time the society as a whole became more and more overweight.

Yesterday our reader Kelvin wrote to us:

Hi, I’m on United and a POS (Person of Size) is sitting next to me. The armrest won’t lower and it’s uncomfortable. What should I do?

My suggestion was that he has a couple options if he doesn’t want to sit through it. In any case notify the flight attendant and ask if they can’t get the poor guy a place with an open seat next to him or maybe the exit row. It sounds more polite and less confrontational than just to complain that someone is too fat, especially if the person can hear you.

Considering the loads of certain flights it’s likely the Flight Attendant will tell you that the flight is full and there are no more seats. In that case you can demand (citing safety reasons) that the crew and/or ground staff takes care of the problem which means either the obese passenger has to leave the aircraft or you can leave yourself which in this case would be an Involuntary Denied Boarding (the airline is not providing you with a seat in a secure and comfortable fashion). Compensation would be due as well.

We have to realize two things: Obese people also have the need for mobility so they obviously have to travel. At the same time heavily obese passengers should be aware of their dimensions and purchase additional space, either in the form of two Economy Class or one Business Class seat. Everything else is just selfish and borderline disgusting (I hate nothing more than strangers rubbing their body against me in an unwanted way).

Southwest Airlines has a great policy (see here on their website).

Customers who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s) may proactively purchase the needed number of seats prior to travel in order to ensure the additional seat(s) is available. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats; width between the armrests measures 17 inches. …

You may contact us for a refund of the cost of additional seating after travel. Customers of size who prefer not to purchase an additional seat in advance have the option of purchasing just one seat and then discussing their seating needs with the Customer Service Agent at their departure gate. If it is determined that a second (or third) seat is needed, they will be accommodated with a complimentary additional seat(s).

Southwest will refund the second seat to a person if there are open seats on the flight which I find is a very fair policy. There is a Southwest Q&A section about the matter here.

I read a great article a while back on a website called Aircraft Interiors International (see here).

It’s a bit older but specifically talks about a ballooning population in shrinking cabins.

At the moment, 26% of the adult population in the UK are obese, and experts believe that by 2030, this number will rise to 42%, increasing the number of obese adults in the UK to a total of 27 million. With around 100 complaints about seating and around 50 inquiries about special needs a year, this is just the start of the issues surrounding passenger obesity in the airline industry.

A look into the future can be taken when comparing the UK to the USA; according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, in 2009-2010, 35.7% of US adults were obese, resulting in more than 700 complaints from passengers who felt cramped by “super-sized seat-mates” on United Airlines flights in 2009.

Seating Fig8

These complaints are legitimate because as a customer you purchase a full seat. Not a half, not three quarter. How airlines handle these complaints varies. As with many complaints they are usually brushed off but you have to be persistent is such a case especially if you left the flight because of it. In such an instance I would file an official complaint with the national regulatory body such as the U.S. Department of Transportation. The airlines are required to reply to these complaints in consideration of active laws and regulations.


This is no laughing matter and a rather serious problem for both parties involved. For sure the obese passenger doesn’t feel very comfortable either spilling onto someone.

In this case our reader replied he eventually lowered the armrest and created a barrier to the next seat so at least the passengers thighs didn’t squeeze onto him.