Lisa Tealer can't use seat-back trays when she's flying because she's "fat," she says. So the diversity executive of a biotech company in the San Francisco Bay Area uses her laptop as her tray. She uses candor about her weight to defuse awkward situations during boarding. "If I have to sit in the middle, I tell people, 'Hopefully, it won't be too uncomfortable for you.' "
Mark Diamond, a 6-foot-4 CEO of a technology firm in California, is an avid student of aircraft types so he can avoid the seat he most dreads — a bulkhead seat that keeps him from slipping his legs under the seat in front of him. "It's a lot of work. I hear guys who are 5-6 complain about how difficult flying is, and I'm like, 'You have no idea,' " he says.
Flying — an act that entails sitting still, often for hours, in a cramped space — has never been easy for those who carry more of themselves on board than others. But travelers who are heavy or tall are feeling the effects of airlines' penny-pinching moves more acutely than others.
The average legroom in coach is getting smaller. The seat width remains unchanged in decades even as Americans get bigger. Airlines are increasingly using small regional planes to serve less-popular destinations. To combat slow demand, they've eliminated capacity, resulting in fuller planes and stiffer competition for upgrades. And airlines' rules requiring obese passengers to pay for an extra seat are being enforced more strictly.
The controversy over paying for a second seat resurfaced earlier this year when United Airlines said it would follow other carriers in requiring overweight passengers in coach to buy a second ticket if two open seats aren't available. Passengers who can't lower their armrest and require more than one seat-belt extender must buy a second ticket at the price of the original ticket. United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski says it adopted the policy after receiving more than 700 complaints in 2008 from passengers who complained of an overweight seatmate encroaching on their space.
Seats and girths don't match
Other U.S. carriers have a similar policy. Southwest is aggressive about enforcing it, says Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights.
Southwest requires passengers who are deemed "customers of size" to buy a second seat at a discounted or child's fare at boarding. If the flight has unsold seats, customers will be issued a refund. The policy is "about safety," Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King says.
Macsata says airlines' "fat tax" overlooks the fact that seat size hasn't kept up with increasing girth. From 1960 to 2002, Americans have become on average of about 25 pounds heavier. The typical seat width — at 17 inches to 18.5 inches — hasn't changed since 1958, he says.
Tealer says she has never been asked to buy another ticket but says coach seats can be painful. "Your hips are pressing against the armrest. I've had bruises, muscle pain."
The armrest test to determine who should buy a second ticket also is discriminatory against women, says Tealer, who's a board member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, which is battling the second-ticket rule. "Women carry weight more in the hip area. People of color tend to be bigger."
The federal Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel but doesn't cover size. But obesity can result from debilitating or chronic medical conditions, Macsata says.
He has called for airlines to retrofit at least the first economy-cabin row with wider seats for heavy passengers who mostly wouldn't mind paying "a bit more."
Tealer has simple strategies for air travel: book as early as possible; fly during less-busy hours, such as early in the morning or overnight; and avoid exit and emergency rows where armrests don't go up.
She prefers aisle seats because she can lean over the aisle for more room. She tries to use the airport restroom before boarding so that she doesn't have to bother seatmates and avoids cramped aircraft restrooms.
'Aspirin and Codeine' After Trips
A shortage of legroom is a common complaint. But it's a particularly, and literally, sore topic for tall travelers, many of whom have become dedicated students of aircraft interiors in hopes of securing a few more inches.
Domestic economy cabins provide on average of about 32 inches of legroom, or seat pitch. But several airlines, such as AirTran, Allegiant and Spirit, have introduced a 30-inch pitch in recent years, says Matt Daimler of the website SeatGuru.
Robert Kleeman, a 6-foot-5 business valuation specialist from Denver, selects flights based on aircraft types because he can't tolerate the coach seats in Boeing 737 and regional jets made by Embraer or Canadair. "It'll hit my knees even without the seat (in front) reclining," he says.
He prefers Boeing 777s and 767s. But he has seen an uncomfortable surge in smaller planes to many of his destinations. "Even on a Denver-Chicago trip recently, the only option was a regional jet," he says.
SeatGuru's Daimler says legroom in regional jets isn't less on average than on mainline aircraft. But the ceiling is lower, and the aisle is narrower. "There is a feeling of being tighter overall. For those sitting in window seats, the wall curves earlier."
Diamond, the tech executive, says legroom is so important that he prefers a regular reclining seat in coach over a bulkhead seat in first class. "Bulkhead seats are the enemy of tall travelers. They're hard to recline. Your feet are cramped."
Mike Nicholes, 70, an auto-parts-industry consultant from Portland, Ore., who is 6-2 and weighs 275 pounds, flies almost weekly to see clients in small cities on what he calls "Barbie jets."
"If I have an eight-hour flight back home from the East Coast, I'm on aspirin and codeine the next morning," he says.