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Obese air passengers… Does size matter?


Ok, so I saw this in a pilot wife group today, and it made me chuckle-though it probably shouldn’t have, since it’s actually a safety issue and a serious concern in an emergency.

Basically, the picture is rumoured to have been taken by an American Airlines flight attendant who wanted to use the picture to demonstrate how dangerous the problem of obese passengers are if they do not book the required number of seats for their bulk to occupy.

She said she captured the image because wanted to demonstrate exactly why obese passengers should be made to buy an extra seat.

One comment made in a cabin crew forum neatly summed up my own take on this situation which is:

‘Sympathise with the guy or not, he’s a major safety hazard in an evacuation and a gross inconvenience for the cabin crew.’

one of the Daily Mail‘s readers posted:

I know what it’s like to be overweight – although not obese – and I sympathise, to a point. Yes, overweight people should have the same rights as the average person. If this story were about a person who couldn’t get seated in a restaurant, or had to pay double the price for clothes that fit, then I’d probably have more sympathy for him, because those things are truly necessary (at least the clothing is, and everyone has to eat).

That said, this isn’t about human rights – this is about safety. If this guy is a safety hazard – which it looks like he is – then something needs to be done. Either he needs to buy two seats, or it should be the at airline’s discretion whether they allow him to fly, if the plane is full. Give a warning when the tickets are bought, and provide obese passengers with a choice: buy a second seat, or take a chance on them having a spare if the plane’s only half-full.

(And since when is the right to fly a basic human right, anyway?)

– Sati-Marie Frost, St. Albans, Herts, 04/12/2009 15:49

However, even if this passenger had purchased 2 seats, it seems he would still be a health and safety issue in an emergency situation, since the aisles may become obstructed. We can clearly see that he would struggle in a crisis situation to squeeze himself through the aisles, and many cabin crew in the forums are suggesting he would also struggle to fit out of the over wing exits, which are his closest. Aside from that, there are many incidents of such passengers being unable to even rise from their seats without the aid of others, and in many cases this leaves other passengers restricted to their blocked in seat, even during a normal flight, with limited access to facilities like toilets.

Aside from all the other safety issues, this leads me to worry more about the rising trend of obesity skewing the passenger average weight ratios that airline pilots use to calculate weight take off loads.  In this article: Passenger obesity as a contributing factor in commuter airplane crashes they discuss the NTSB evaluation of the Air Midwest Beech 1900 crash in Jan 2003, which happened when the plane carrying 19 passengers

failed to gain altitude quickly enough and crashed into an airport hanger during takeoff in Charlotte, North Carolina. All passengers and crew died in the incident. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that Air Midwest used “substantially inaccurate weight and balance calculations for company airplanes,” which were based on incorrect “average passenger and baggage weights” The NTSB recommended “periodic sampling of passenger and baggage weights [to] determine whether air carrier average weight programs [are] accurately representing passenger and baggage loads”

For many looking at the picture, the sentiments seems not to be accept and adjust these figures, but rather tackle the problem and penalise the specific individuals causing the change. They argue that the current system is flawed because at present, the airlines are charging more for a slim person with a few kgs of excess baggage than the obese who are not being charged for their excess weight/fat.

In the thirties, when excess weight was a critical factor, passengers were weighed before take off and if overweight their luggage was left behind.  This policy should be re-introduced.

I’m no lightweight but after forking out 40 notes for 5kg excess baggage, the next passenger was about 70kg heavier than me but faced no excess.  All passengers should be charged a set sum per kilo of weight flown inclusive of person and luggage.
Then everyone would pay a cost directly related to the fuel used to transport them and have a financial incentive to lose weight.
Green and healthy!

– David H, Bedford UK, 3/12/2009 16:48

Evidently this is a subject that a lot of people feel passionately about… I am not sure where I sit with it; clearly I think that this man should be required to take 2 seats regardless, and I do hope that the plane was never allowed to take off like this (I am assuming not, since the FA was moved enough to take this). I also believe that it is unfair for me at 57 kgs to pay more to fly with an excess 5 kilo bag, than someone else who is more than double my weight with no extra baggage. However, IF someone is obese due to a serious health issue beyond their control, then I think they should be asked to produce a medical certificate to that effect, and then perhaps be granted that additional seat for a lesser/free amount.

That said, I guess my concern is the concept of average passenger weight’  This theory assumes that you will get an even slice of the passenger population on each flight, but what happens if you have the plane filled with passengers who weigh an average of 300lbs each because they are going to a weight lifters convention? I sure as hell hope my Bf wouldn’t be flying them, or demanding they all weigh in first!

I am really interested to know what you all think… What are your thoughts, and how would you solve the problem?  Please enter a simple yes or no vote here, and expand your answers in the comments. Thank you!

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8 Responses to “Obese air passengers… Does size matter?”

  1. I’m not sure what’s going on in the pic. He’s clearly not seated yet – looks like he’s sitting on the armrest. Do we know he didn’t buy a second seat?

    I agree that this gentleman being on this flight creates a potential safety hazard for every other person on the flight. I can think of several emergency evac scenarios where this man’s size would absolutely contribute to the death of others.

    This is a rough policy issue for the airlines. Do they ban heavy pax? If so, how do they determine the cutoff? You can’t really base it on weight alone since the problem is really more about a persons “shape”. Should the customer be require to enter height and weight during the ticket purchase?

    • Well Brian, I am not even sure if this man could physically sit in one chair, so he probably was sitting on the arm rest… Ew.

      Why not suggest pax measure up I guess? Some airport authorities make you measure hand luggage against a template, and in the UK small letters have to be able to fit through a template… Why not people too if they are to be transported as PAX?

      Those who cannot fit through the specified template (whatever that may be) would be classed as a safety risk and would not be allowed to fly.

      I personally would not have an issue with this, and if I was too big to fit through, you can be damn sure I would want to lose those inches!

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Devon Dudgeon, Joe d'Eon. Joe d'Eon said: Obese passengers. Where does discrimination end and genuine safety concern begin? Is this pic for real? http://bit.ly/4tBTs7 […]

    • Good question, but there has to be a cut off… This guy is CLEARLY too big to be safely sat in this seat though, of that there can be no doubt!

  3. In this specific case, a passenger was bribed to take a later flight and others were rearranged to give this guy three seats to himself, using the seatbelts from two of them plus an extension.

    For the “weightlilfters convention” example you mentioned, Canadian air law, so probably yours as well, specifically dictates that if the particular passenger contingent is unusual with respect to weight, e.g. a male sports team, the standard weights are not sufficient.

    I suspect that there is a more dangerous amount of weight going into the cabin in the form of overweight carry-ons and personal items than in people’s bellies and tushes.

    I’ve like the idea that you buy a ticket based on a combination of the number of seats you require in the passenger cabin plus the total weight you want transported, both in the hold and in the cabin. And just as there is a gauge to check that your cabin baggage will be able to be safely stowed, there’s a butt gauge to see how many seats you need.

    Just like smoking, toxic flammable upholstery, and metal fatigue from high cycles, it will take a high-profile accident with fatalities to regulate passenger size. Standard passenger weights were adjusted not long after the 1900 accident you cite.

    Pretty striking picture, isn’t it?

    • Thanks so much for that comment Aviatrix, that was really informative and enlightening! Unfortunately, I’m sure you are right about the serious accident… Oh, and thanks for the insight into the male sports team scenario too! 🙂

  4. This is making me think of rollercoaster size restrictions. Some rides have a seat you have to be able to sit in, and fasten a seatbelt into, before you can go on the ride. I was at a theme park last year on a ride where everyone gets strapped in facing each other in a circle. A rather large lady couldn’t strap herself in, the guy running the ride had to come over and try and he couldn’t do it either. She had to get off, with everyone watching 😦 so embarrassing.

    Its a matter of safety though isn’t it, not just for that individual, but in a plane for other pax. I wouldn’t want to be sitting next to someone who was obstructing my exit off the aircraft. I like the idea that Aviatrix mentioned, regarding total weight transported plus baggage in the hold.

    You hear a lot more people grumbling these days at airports about the weight of baggage you are allowed to take onboard, when personal body weight is not factored. Interesting one.

    • I agree, but to be honest, as you say, it’s a safety issue, and if you accept it for your safety at the fairground, then why not on a plane?

      I understand that some people have a genuine issue with genes and it is effectively then a disability, but I know people who cannot fly due to heart issues-so I dont see how that is any different.

      I have had a lot of Twitter hits from someone suggesting that this concept borders on discrimination… But tbh I think people have to accept that if they cant wedge themselves through the over wing emergency exit of a passenger jet… Then it’s probably not a good idea to fly in one!!!


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