How Fat is Too Fat to Fly?

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

Dec. 2, 2009— -- We all know that airline seats are tiny to say the least. But when an overweight passenger squeezes into one seat, the phrase cramped takes on a whole new meaning.

A photo circulating on the Internet has rekindled the debate over passengers that some consider "too fat to fly."

In the photo, 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.

Kieran Daly of the aviation blog 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."

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Daly writes that he doesn't know what "the actual outcome was, but it seems unimaginable that he was allowed to fly in the end."

There was no further information about who the flight attendant might be or whether the man was asked to move before the flight took off.

American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said the airline cannot 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."

"Certainly no passenger would ever be allowed to fly in any way that obstructs the aisles of the aircraft," Smith wrote in an e-mail to "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."

American, like most other airlines, has a policy for larger passengers. Roughly speaking, most 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.

Too Fat to Fly?

The Federal Aviation Administration also 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."