‘Too Fat To Fly’: A Look At Airline Policies For ‘Customers Of Size’

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A new study published in medical journal Obesity reveals that doctors treat their thinner patients nicer compared with their heavier patients.

Fifty-six-year-old Vilma Soltesz died of kidney failure on Oct. 24 in Hungary after she was denied boarding on three different flights. The reason she couldn’t get on the aircraft: Soltesz weighed 425 pounds.

Mrs. Soltesz’ husband, Janos, is now suing all three airlines involved for $6 million for contributing to the “preventable” death of his wife, who was traveling back to New York City from a vacation home in her native Hungary to receive treatment for her health problems.

The Soltesz’ attorney Holly Ostrov-Ronai said the couple flew from New York to Budapest on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Mrs. Soltesz got on the aircraft via an airlift and used a seatbelt extender to buckle up.

"KLM asked them when they would be flying home so that they could make proper arrangements," Ostrov-Ronai told ABCNews.com. But when the couple arrived at the airport on Oct. 15 to fly back to New York, the captain asked them to disembark because Mrs. Soltesz could not be secured in her two seats because of an issue with the seatback.

Ostrov-Ronai claims the couple then waited for five hours in the airport for an alternative flight until they were advised to drive to Prague where they could catch a “bigger plane” operated by Delta Air Lines. That proved unsuccessful as well as they had no sky lift to get her on the aircraft. The couple then returned to Budapest and tried with Lufthansa, but they were forced off the plane when Mrs. Soltesz was unable to fasten her seatbelt properly.

She died two days later awaiting a flight home from Hungary.

The case brought to light a touchy subject in the airline industry. Are some people simply “too fat to fly?”

In Mrs. Soltesz’ incident, all three airlines involved say they made every effort possible to accommodate her but were “physically unable,” as Delta put it.

George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com said that for people with a medical condition like Mrs. Soltesz, you can’t rely on the airline to take care of you. Instead, he said it’s best to get medical evacuation coverage on your insurance plan, which can cost about $300 or $400 a year but may save your life.

“This didn’t have to happen,” Hobica noted. “If she had coverage, they would have moved heaven and high water to get her back.”

Some 30 percent of American adults are categorized as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and for many, the 18-inch-wide economy class seat simply isn’t possible. But navigating the so-called “customer of size” policies in the U.S. can be difficult, as they vary depending on the airline, according to Hobica’s recent study.

On Delta, passengers are not required to purchase additional seats, but they may be asked to move or wait for the next flight that has additional seating. If you cannot demonstrate that the armrests can go down (and stay down) on a United flight, you’re required to purchase a second seat. US Airways takes the issue on a case-by-case basis, though passengers may be required to purchase a costly second seat at the gate if they are unwilling to change flights. Customers who are unable to fit into a single seat, unable to properly buckle their seatbelt with an extender or unable to lower both armrests must “address their seating needs” when booking on American Airlines. Customers who may “encroach on any part of a neighboring seat” on a Southwest flight, meanwhile, should proactively book an additional seat, but they may request a refund for the cost of the additional space after travel is complete.

Hobica noted that policies on overweight passengers have evolved over the past five years.

“When you’d talk to PR people in the past, they didn’t want to touch this issue or they would say ‘no comment.’ Now it’s becoming more of a problem,” he said. “So, airlines have stepped up to clarify these policies over the last three or four years, and now almost every airline has a policy stated on its website.”

Whether or not they enforce it, though, is a matter of individual perception.

“It’s up to the flight attendants and gate agents, and some people are more willing to be sympathetic,” Hobica said. “But they don’t come out with a tape measure. It’s really subjective.”

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAF) issued a four-page brochure earlier this year offering “travel tips for people of size.” Obese passengers, it says, are encouraged to book directly with the airline; ask for a second seat and pre-boarding; bring a seatbelt extender in case the airline does not have one of its own; and bring finger food onboard so as not to encounter issues with the fold-down table.

While it’s best to be proactive and take steps to prevent upset and embarrassment, in the end, Hobica and others believe flying simply isn’t the smartest move for those who are morbidly obese or in fragile health.

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