Oversized Passengers: Health, Safety and Cost of Larger Business Travellers

An all too familiar happening today is the sight of seats not matching the size of travellers. While some airline seats are just to small, an increasing number of travellers are just too big. How do businesses manage the travel risk of such employees? What are the cost implications? How many trips are “safe” for such business travellers? How far is too far? How to evaluate this hazard in your travel risk management system?

In a recent article, IAPA identified the financial impact of such business travellers and how some airlines are dealing with this issue.

Here is the article:

We’ve heard the stories of some passengers being forced to buy a second seat, or being escorted off of a plane for being too large. Reactions from flyers have varied from sympathy to outrage to simple indifference. But the equation for seat comfort involves more than just width, as tall passengers may find it hard to contort themselves into those same seats as well.

Oversized Passengers: Travel Health, safety and cost

Airline passengers have increased in size over the last several decades, but airline seats have remained relatively unchanged. While the distance between each seat (known as pitch) can be an issue for some flyers, others find the width of the seats the more pressing problem. From knees being smashed into seat backs to body mass spilling into neighboring seats, complaints from larger than average passengers and their seat mates have led to demands for more room or wider seats. But that’s a tall order for airlines to fill, especially in an environment where packed planes are the norm and the economics of catering to even more types of passengers just don’t add up for the airlines. So what are the options for big and tall flyers?

Some airlines allow passengers with high body mass to purchase a second seat if they require additional room in economy class, but not all of them are allowed to do this. In Canada, passengers deemed clinically obese must be allowed an adjacent seat at no additional cost. Of course this sets off an entirely new debate as to when obesity is considered a disability. Despite all the sensational stories on this topic, several airlines actually do have policies in place for “persons of size.” They just don’t like to draw too much attention to this often controversial topic.

Several U.S. carriers have a second-seat policy. Their basic rule of thumb is that a passenger must fit securely (not necessarily snugly) into his or her seat with the seatbelt fastened using no more than one seatbelt extender, and with both armrests completely down. Otherwise, an adjacent seat must be purchased. Some airlines will provide a full refund of the second seat if the flight does not depart with every seat occupied.

There is no set rule regarding larger airline passengers in most of the aviation world. Airlines everywhere are dealing with the large passenger issue on their own terms. Some airlines will publish their policies while others simply prefer to handle each case on its own merits. Airlines without clear policies do encourage larger passengers to be proactive and inquire about the possibility of purchasing a second seat at the time of booking. While this could avoid any conflicts or embarrassing situations at the departure gate or on board, the costs could be too high for some flyers.

What about premium economy or business class? Although these clearly are options on larger jetliners that offer such seating, it doesn’t solve the issue entirely for some bigger passengers. Some aircraft simply cannot accommodate larger seats and the cost of an upgrade to another cabin or seat type could be too much for some flyers.

Public reaction to “too large to fly” stories often result in a flurry of comments and ideas for mitigating passenger discomfort and embarrassment. Some flyers suggest airlines make their seats larger or put more space between rows. Others suggest that passengers pay their fair share in weight, bags included. What about dedicating a row with wider seats for passengers who may need them? Whatever the ultimate solution, how to accommodate passengers of size has become a headache (not to mention an ache in other body parts) for airlines and passengers alike. Now, here is the next question: Will you get frequent flyer miles for that extra seat?


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