Plus-size travellers blast 'discriminatory' airline seat policy

Jae'lynn Chaney is seen sitting in between two aeroplane seats on a Southwest Airlines flight to Kona, Hawaii in April 2022.
Jae'lynn Chaney is seen sitting in between two aeroplane seats on a Southwest Airlines flight to Kona, Hawaii in April 2022. Photo credit: CNN

While the average width of an aeroplane seat has been shrinking for decades, bodies are getting larger around the world, with experts predicting more than half of the global population will be overweight or obese by 2035.

This ultimately means more and more passengers are likely to be finding it difficult to fit into aeroplane seats, and some may be hit in the pocket as a result.

Policies around plus-size travellers tend to vary from airline to airline. While a number, including United Airlines, require "customers who require extra seating" to buy an additional seat in advance, some refund the purchase if one or more seats are available after takeoff. 

However, there is no universal standard as such.

Different airlines have different guidelines. Some have no guidelines at all, meaning even well-informed travellers can have trouble keeping up.

Policy confusion

In April, plus-size travel influencer Jae'lynn Chaney launched a petition urging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to mandate all airlines for a comprehensive customer-of-size policy that "prioritises the comfort and well-being of all passengers".

"We need the policies to be a little bit more standardised," Chaney told CNN Travel. "At the bare minimum, we need every airline to have a policy that tells people of size how to navigate their airline."

Charles Leocha, co-founder of airline consumer advocacy group Travellers United, shares this sentiment.

"All plus-sized passengers are appreciative of knowing the rules," he adds. "It eliminates many misunderstandings."

Outside of the US, the Australian Consumer Law prohibits airlines from charging passengers different amounts based on their body sizes.

Meanwhile, the "one person, one fare" (1p1f) policy, which prevented domestic airlines Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz and WestJet from charging passengers requiring an extra seat for more than one fare, was passed by the Canadian Transportation Agency in 2008.

Obesity is recognised as a disability in Canada and passengers must be considered "functionally disabled by obesity," to meet the requirements for a free extra seat.

However, the rule only applies to domestic flights, which means that plus-size travelers still need to buy an extra seat when going on an international flight.

Plus size traveller Jae'lynn Chaney launched a petition in April calling for the Federal Aviation Administration to “require all airlines to implement a clear customer-of-size policy".
Plus size traveller Jae'lynn Chaney launched a petition in April calling for the Federal Aviation Administration to “require all airlines to implement a clear customer-of-size policy". Photo credit: CNN

Tight fit

One of the various demands listed in Chaney's petition, which had received more than 17,000 signatures at the time of writing, is all airlines "provide accessible additional seats to customers-of-size" who may require more space or "encroach onto another passenger's space".

"These passengers should be provided with an extra free seat, or even multiple seats, to accommodate their needs and ensure their comfort and safety, as well as those around them, during the flight," reads the petition.

For Chaney, who has needed a seat belt extender from a young age, the issue is a hugely personal one.

"I kind of knew that planes were not built for people like me by the time I was 12," she said, recalling trying to tuck her seatbelt underneath her stomach so that flight attendants couldn't see that she hadn't been able to buckle it.

"There was a really tight fit on the seats. And being such a young child at the time, travelling without my parents was really stressful for me. Because I didn't know how to advocate for myself."

Chaney feels airline policies that require plus-size travellers to buy an extra seat while flying are "discriminatory", pointing out passengers like her are "paying twice for the same experience".

"People with smaller bodies get to pay one fare to get to their destination," she said. "And we have to pay two fares, even though we're getting the same experience. 

"If anything, our experiences are a little bit more challenging."

United Airlines, one of the US airlines that requires larger passengers to purchase an extra seat, declined to comment.

Chaney dismisses suggestions plus-size travellers are asking for special treatment, stressing they are simply "asking for the same dignity and respect from an airline that someone in a smaller body gets".

Human rights issue?

Canadian air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs said he views the practice of charging larger passengers for two seats as a human rights issue.

"Being a large-size person is not a choice, as many people mistakenly believe," Lukacs told CNN Travel.

"There is, unfortunately, a lot of negative attention and prejudice against plus-sized people.

"But it's not as if someone is getting up in the morning and making a decision that they're going to be a large person.

"So through that lens of human rights, I don't see any justification for charging these people a double fare."

Lukacs goes on to point out airlines don't provide discounts to people who are smaller sized, or even children, even though they're much lighter, and therefore "less fuel is being consumed to transport them".

"I'd be very concerned to see this type of argument being advanced where immutable characteristics of a person are being used for assessing fees," he adds. "It can be a slippery slope."

According to Chaney, aside from being a "financial burden", the prospect of paying for two seats is an added complication to an already very difficult experience for many plus-sized travellers.

"There are so many different things, obstacles, that are in the way," she explains.

Chaney regularly shares tips on flying as a plus-size person on her TikTok channel and said one of the questions she's asked the most is, "What do I do if the seatbelt does not fit"?

"It surprises me every time that many people don't know that seat belt extenders exist," she adds. "And that they're available on all flights."

Chaney admits having to ask for a seat belt extender "isn't always the most comfortable experience", particularly when faced with hostile passengers, or even flight attendants, on some occasions.

The size of the average aeroplane seat has shrunk over the years.
The size of the average aeroplane seat has shrunk over the years. Photo credit: Getty Images

Constant challenges

"The stereotypes that surround plus-size travellers, and the hostility towards us when we're travelling by plane is honestly horrendous," she adds.

"It can just be such an uncomfortable experience. People treat us very much differently."

While Chaney stresses much of the feedback she's received since launching her petition has been hugely positive, she admits she's been subject to abuse, and even death threats, from members of the public.

"I have chosen to focus on the positivity and support," she adds.

Earlier this year, content creator and plus-size travel expert Kirsty Leanne went viral after posting a video of herself struggling to fit in an aeroplane seat while flying with a budget airline.

Leanne, who is also the founder of the website Plus Size Travel Too, said she was shocked by the sheer volume of negative comments she received after sharing the clip, which detailed many of the problems she and other plus-size travellers face while onboard a plane.

"I was sharing my experience with the airlines and showing other plus-size travellers what to expect, so I didn't expect so many people to think that the points I made were complaints of any kind," Leanne told CNN Travel via email. "I thought I would get one or two negative comments as I always do with videos talking about being plus-size but not to the extent that I did."

Over the past two decades, the width of the average seat has shrunk from 18.5 to 17 inches. Meanwhile, according to a study by the World Obesity Federation, about 38 percent of the world population are overweight or obese.

"This [shrinking seats] has had such a negative impact on plus-size travellers," said Leanne. "So not only does it deter them from flying but it also makes it incredibly uncomfortable for those that do choose to fly.

"With shrinking seats, there should be [an] acknowledgement that plus-size people may require certain accommodations in order to allow them to fly safely and comfortably."

When approached for comment by CNN, the FAA pointed to a 90-day public comment period, on minimum seat dimensions necessary for airline passenger safety, which was held last year.

"The agency is reviewing the thousands of comments it received on whether current seat size and spacing affect passenger evacuation," the FAA said in a statement.

In 2022, Flyers Rights, a nonprofit organisation, petitioned the FAA to regulate a minimum seat size, citing concerns about medical risks, including blood clotting, due to limited space, among other issues.

However, the petition was denied by a US appeals court earlier this year.

For Lukacs, decreasing aeroplane seat sizes are something that all travellers, not just those who are plus-sized, should be troubled by.

"It is a concern, because being crammed in a very small seat could, apart from your comfort,  also affect your health, in terms of risks of deep vein thrombosis," he notes.

"I'm not sure what the science is on that today but I could see that being a problem. And also, we're not cattle.

"We do expect, when we board a plane, to be treated with some reasonable level of respect."

Back in 2013, Samoa Air, the flag carrier of Samoa, previously known as Polynesian Airlines, became the first airline to begin weighing passengers at the airport.

And last month, Air New Zealand confirmed it will be weighing passengers as part of a "passenger weight survey", to calculate data on the weight load and distribution for planes.

The national carrier of New Zealand has stressed the survey is voluntary.

Chaney, who last took a plane ride in April 2022, said she's most comfortable flying with Southwest Airlines, explaining the airline's "customer of size and extra seat policy", which stipulates passengers who require extra room can purchase another seat at the time of booking and claim the money back after contacting customer service.

Open hostility

When she flies with her partner Jake, who is also plus-sized, the couple has to decide whether to buy four seats and sit apart, or purchase three seats between them and "just have it be a little bit of a tight fit".

"We also make sure that our flights are only six or seven hours max because we can't use the restroom comfortably on the plane," adds Chaney, who said Jake has had passengers refuse to sit next to them.

Like Chaney, Leanne feels it's important to share her experiences, good and bad while travelling, and hopes other plus-size travellers, who might be wary of getting on a plane, will see that "there's nothing to be ashamed of".

"Although it may be incredibly daunting and overwhelming to travel in a larger body, please do not let the experience of flying while fat put you off travelling," she said.

"There are so many incredible things to see out there and I promise you, it's worth it."

According to Chaney, one of the biggest misconceptions about plus-size travellers is the notion that they don't consider how much space they take up.

"They [other travellers] think that we want to invade their space or that we don't care if we're invading their space, or encroaching upon their space, especially in air travel," she said.

"And that's where a lot of the blatant hostility will come from. When in reality, so many people that I talk to, speak about how they try to shrink themselves.

"They try to lean up against the window. They try to make themselves as small as possible when travelling by plane, simply so that they don't offend somebody else. So that they don't have to face hostility or embarrassment.

"I know it's something I think about all the time in life, no matter where I am."