Too Fat to Fly: Did This Man Need Three Seats?

Internet photo sparks debate on the seating, safety of large airline passengers.

December 4, 2009, 12:28 PM

Dec. 4, 2009— -- Flying coach these days isn't exactly the most spacious or luxurious experience. But for one overweight passenger on a recent American Airlines flight out of San Francisco, things were really cramped.

In a photo circulating on the Internet, allegedly taken by an American Airlines flight attendant, a very large man is spilling out over his armrest (he actually appears to be sitting on it) and filling half of the aisle. Not only does it look really uncomfortable for the passenger -- and the passenger next to him -- but it also seems like a safety hazard.

The image has rekindled the debate over passengers that some consider "too fat to fly," especially in a time when airlines are charging hefty fees for overweight luggage.

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Before takeoff, American Airlines ended up giving the unidentified man at least one and possibly two extra seats to himself. The airline said the man did not have to pay for the extra seats.

The man was also given a seat-belt extender, allowing him to be buckled up for takeoff and landing.

The Federal Aviation Administration said "there weren't any FAA rules violated." The oversight agency had seen the photo and made an informal inquiry to the airline.

"We inquired about it because we saw the picture that was circulating on the Internet" but the agency is not formally investigating the matter, according to FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown. "We were given an explanation that indicated that no rules violated and that some steps were taken after that picture was taken that put the airline in compliance."

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Kieran Daly of the aviation blog is responsible for the photo's circulation. He said in a post: "This is sent to me with the absolute assurance that it's a genuine picture taken by a flight attendant at American Airlines."

Three Airplane Seats for One Man?

Originally, the FAA was told that the man was given the entire row to himself and the two other passengers were relocated. Friday afternoon the FAA and American were trying to clarify if he was given one or two additional seats.

Earlier this week, American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith told ABC News that the airline couldn't verify the authenticity of the photograph or know who might have taken it. He added that the airline has a policy that "tries to be flexible for passengers of size."

He said at the time that the airline was not investigating the matter. When asked again about it on Friday, Smith said that "we are currently in the process of looking into this situation" but said in an e-mail that the airline might not make public its findings.

"We are looking into it as an internal matter at this stage," Smith wrote.

The FAA initially told reporters that the man was given two extra seats -- the entire row to himself. Brown then backed down from that statement, saying that it was unclear if the man needed one or two extra seats.

When asked to clarify the number of seats, Smith said: "We're done with small details for the time being. Suffice it to say he was accommodated (safely) without charge and FAA rules were followed."

American said it would never let any passenger fly "in any way that obstructs the aisles of the aircraft."

"It is very obvious in the photo that the aircraft is not in-flight at the time the photo was taken -- other passengers are still boarding and several overhead bins are still open," Smith told ABC earlier this week.

American, like most other airlines, has a policy for larger passengers. Airlines try to make accommodations for passengers if the person's body is large enough that it prevents the armrest between the seats from being fully lowered.

American tries not to charge passengers for an extra seat unless there are simply no other options.

If the flight is not full, American tries to seat the passenger in two adjacent seats. Otherwise, the airline tries to book the person on another flight. If there is no other available flight or the passenger needs to be on that flight for scheduling reasons, the airline will sometimes book and charge the person for two seats.

The airline said each situation is handled individually on a case-by-case basis.

How Fat is Too Fat to Fly?

The FAA has rules about larger passengers: All passengers must wear seat belts, a passenger cannot be seated in an emergency exit row seat if a seatbelt extension is required, and no aisle may be blocked by a passenger or bags in case of an emergency.

"I think most airlines have it right with a policy of armrests being able to come all the way down for oversized passengers and requiring a second ticket purchase if not, while re-accommodating and refunding the second ticket if two seats are open at departure time," said Rick Seaney, CEO of travel site and an columnist. "That is until such point when being oversized is considered a disability."

Seaney said the issue boils down to cost and enforcement.

"Oversized passengers don't want to pay ahead of time for two tickets and hope/wait for a refund," Seaney said. "Turning gate agents and flight attendants into seat airspace judge and juries isn't likely what they signed up for, not to mention seatmates, who typically only have to worry about who is going to get the elbow rest."

Anne Banas, executive editor of, added that "airlines need to clearly communicate these policies to the consumers up front and enforce them, as well as offer viable alternatives for overweight passengers such as the ability to purchase a low-cost second seat."

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