Flying When Overweight

One of the top questions I get emails about doesn’t have to do with diet or exercise, it has to do with what to expect when being fuller figured and flying on an airplane.

me with a seatbelt extender in September 2010

I completely understand the anxiety of the situation. We’ve heard horror stories, and even famous people like Kevin Smith aren’t immune (as I previously wrote about). Last night, I was checking out some of my favorite blogs when I saw the headline that made my heart drop: The Day Southwest Turned My Old Fears into a New Nightmare. The beautiful Kenz at All the Weigh, who has lost over 100 pounds, wrote about a horrifically humiliating experience she and her mom had to endure with Southwest Airlines. Check out her post to read all about it.

The story, unfortunately, is all too familiar with me, and is the reason why I don’t give Southwest Airlines my business. Their “customer of size” policy is the most blatant and complained about in the airline industry. (Although Token Fat Girl Lorrie had a cruel joke played on her by United Airlines.)

Here are posts I’ve written before about flying when overweight:

I’m thankful that I’ve never been in any confrontational environments because of my weight and flying. I constantly get emails asking about my weight (current weight here) and height (5’10) and size (currently a 24) and if I fit on the airplane. Even after losing 110 pounds, I still require a seatbelt extender. I can, however, fit my armrests down just fine. I can’t put the tray table down on most regional jets, so I hold my drink. I haven’t tried tackling the bathrooms at this smaller size, so I’m not sure how those would go right now. 99% of the time I fly Delta, and I’ve never had an issue with being asked to buy 2 tickets, although I’m sure it could happen at anytime.

So, here’s the thing that struck me about Kenz’s story: She had the courage and conviction and balls (not literally… you know what I mean!) to stand up for herself. She questioned the employees. She took great documentation. She blogged about it and asked for answers. Many people put in that same situation would shrink and hide in humiliation, accepting the situation at face value. Kenz didn’t do that, and I’m incredibly proud of her strength. She has accomplished so much.

If you’re ever in this situation, I just ask you to have the strength Kenz did to stand up for herself and her rights… and human dignity. You shouldn’t stop yourself from traveling or flying because of the fears these companies put in us. I’m sure no one WANTS to be uncomfortable in an airplane seat. None of us WANT to have to stress about these issues when trying to get from Point A to Point B.

I know Kenz is going to post an update here shortly, so I’ll post that here when it goes up.

UPDATE: Here is the latest update from Kenz, including a summary of her over 2 hour conversation with someone from Southwest.

Have you had any bad experiences? Have any questions about flying?


  • Chris Pugh

    My size is one of the reasons why I don’t currently fly and it sucks. I’d really like to be able to feel comfortable about going to see friends in Denver or family in Missouri. I keep telling myself that once I get down to about 250lbs I’ll be able to fly like a normal person but when I read about situations like this I’m just not so sure anymore. I’ve seen too many of these types of stories and when I do eventually start flying, I can tell you that it will never be with Southwest.

    • Skinny Emmie

      Chris- I think it’s important to remember that these stories, while they should never happen, are the minority of what actually happens. I’ve flown at over 400 pounds and haven’t ever had an issue. I fly at least 10 times per year and no matter if it’s at 300 pounds or 400 pounds, it’s never been the most pleasant thing, but I’ve never been called out on it. I wish these stories didn’t exist so we could all go on with our lives without having to wait for the “when I’m…”

  • Lilly

    I haven’t yet read Kenz’s experience, but I will. I wanted to tell my story before I get sidetracked and forget.

    A year ago I flew for the first time since being fat. Technically it was the first time flying because the last time was way back in 1993 – so much has changed, plus I honestly barely remember the experience at all.

    I was terrified of “flying fat”. Everything. From crowding my neighbors to knowing I’d feel uncomfy to well….everything.

    When I flew last year, I was 285 pounds and a size 22/24, with a big belly and hips. The armrests went DOWN, sure, but my hips pushed them up everytime I moved. I kept my arms smushed in front of me, my ankles crossed….I tried so hard not to take up anybody else’s space. Because of my large stomach, I had trouble with the trays. I could get them down but it wasn’t very sturdy, they hit my tummy and such.

    I flew a smaller plane, the kind with only 2 seats on each side of the plane, a bigger 747 type (coach all three of those flights) and a bigger Delta 757 or something first class. This first class had 3 sections across. My seatmate was unfortunately already there when I boarded. He gave me the window since I’d never flown FC before or at night, and he was a seasoned flyer. As I tried to gracefully squeeze over to the window, I knocked off the FC accoutrements lining the big stationary armrest that divided me and him. I’d heard praise about FC seating….I truly expected to have more room. At least I didn’t worry about the armrests coming upwards of their own accord, but I was squished. The tray came from the right armrest instead of the seat in front, and it was okay enough to eat dinner, but not comfortable.

    I always needed an extender. Everytime I asked it was dealt with professionally.

    But oh god….I was so sore. Such long flights, trying to make myself smaller lead to so much back pain and well…pain everywhere. I didn’t DARE go to the bathrooms. I held it no matter what. I didn’t want to waddle down the aisle, brush up against people, or have trouble in the bathroom.

    Ultimately…..I’m glad I don’t have to fly to visit family or for work. I’ve sworn I will never fly again until I lose even more weight. I’m down 50 pounds since that flight but I know it’s not enough for ME to feel comfortable.

  • lori

    Oh Emmie. Thanks for writing about this because it causes me anxiety everytime. In a few weeks I’m traveling southwest to Chicago with several thin women and 2 are good friends. I was hoping that sitting next to them would help compensate and I wouldn’t bother others with my size. Now I’m wondering if I will even get on the plane. I flew with Southwest in December with no problems, now I’m a bit worried.

    • Lilly

      Lori – I flew alone…if I’d been with my husband or a friend, I would have felt SO much better, I would have been able to relax and not be fearful or embarrassed.

    • Skinny Emmie

      Oh Lori- please don’t let my post scare you or cause you more anxiety. MOST of the time this doesn’t happen, it’s just when it DOES it is very highly publicized (and rightly so). Flying with friends is great, as you don’t have to worry about who you’ll sit beside. I hope to goodness nothing like this happens to you, but I’m sure you’ll be fine. I fly alone all the time at 350 pounds for work and haven’t had anything said to me. Even at over 400 pounds nothing was ever said- and I did fly Southwest once at 400 pounds. Just try to relax and enjoy the time with friends.

    • Lacey

      Don’t you find it a bit selfish that you feel just fine encroaching on your friends, as if part of the agreement in being a friend is having them spill over into their space any time you need to ? They may find that quite uncomfortable as well. Maybe if they agree to sell you half of their seat, I could see it, but why should you be able to use their space otherwise?? It is horribly uncomfortable to be seated next someone whose flesh is pushing you over into a fraction of the space you have paid for…why is your discomfort so much more important than everyone else’s?? Every choice has a are no more a victim than the smashed person next to you!

  • shay

    I flew to europe for 10 hours on a plane when i weighed 300lbs the seat belt just fastened (and i held my breath)…i remember the anxiety of would it fasten or not? would i sit next to somebody who would feel i was taken up some of their space…luckily i had a very small old woman sitting next to me, who was nice and just happy to have me to talk to through out the flight. I personally think airplane seats are too small and squished together as it is, no matter what size you are and they should space them out a little, they would lose money but more ppl would fly with them if they could fly comfortably. not everyone can afford to buy 2 seats or fly first class.

    • Skinny Emmie

      I’m glad you had a good experience. The last time I flew internationally I was 315 pounds and thankfully also had a small person next to me on all the long legs of the flight. If I had to buy 2 seats every time I traveled, I’d never go anywhere!

  • Anna Walker

    I hopped on over there and read her story…I’m DISGUSTED. Can’t they treat everyone like human beings?!

  • Kenz @ All The Weigh

    Thanks for posting about this Emmie. Now that my internet is working again, I’m putting the next post together. I fit on the flight too…totally within their requirements…I haven’t always, and I’ve purchased two seats before. My biggest problem was the blatant disrespect and public humiliation, but yes…I’m fighting back. And it seems like someone at Southwest was listening to me today.

  • emily (Big Life, Little Blog)

    Let’s face it, treating overweight people badly is the form of socially “acceptable” discrimination. I hate to say it, but these airlines need to have a WRITTEN policy to state in what circumstances a 2nd seat is required to be puchase

    I am flying for the first time since losing 60 lbs and I’m still self conscience about “spilling” into the seat next to me.

  • Sarah

    I almost never fly, but this past September I had to and I was very, very nervous because I knew that I would need a seat belt extender and I was embarrassed to have to ask for it. Well I asked for it and was kindly given one and they were very discreet about it. However, since I didn’t want to go through that again, I kindly stuck the seat belt extender in my take on bag, and when we flew back, I didn’t have to ask and no one stared at me while I put it on because no one knew. I did leave it on the last plane, I wasn’t going to totally steal it, but the stares and the sideways glance from one of my parents was enough to make me not want to have to do that again. I know that I’m lucky that the flight attendant was kind enough to be quiet about it, but I really don’t intend to fly again until I won’t need one.

  • Lisa

    It was a really upsetting story when I read about her experience. I was so enraged for her and the disrespect the airline portrayed. I really hope that this makes enough noise to get that airline in trouble. It’s unacceptable behavior.

  • Virginia Beach Chiropractor

    This is actually the first I’ve heard about Southwest being a big culprit in this regard. Honestly it sounds horrible, though! Are there any airlines that are heavy-flier friendly?? I’m curious.

    • Kenz @ All The Weigh

      They have been in the news about this before, and if big time celebs can’t fix this, I doubt I can either. I fit inside the perimeters of their policy, but I still prefer to fly JetBlue. They’ve been incredible on countless flights even when I weighed over 300 and 400 pounds.

  • iBirgitta

    Hi Skinny,

    What a HORRIBLE story. HORRIBLE. Much respect for her for turning it into a fight, and not hide from it.

    Do I have questions about flying? Not in particular. But I do like to read updates on how you are doing, compared to before (toilet stalls, stamina (comparing now with holiday with inlaws a year or 2 ago) that kind of stuff. I assume/hope that a lot has become easier, just interested in your progress, I believe you are calling them non-scale victories, hoping they are all victories, although I imagine not everything is solved YET).

    Love from Holland

  • Kenz @ All The Weigh

    And Emmie! I started using the airplane restroom last year..haven’t had any problems with that for a while though I prefer not to just because it’s kind of gross…lol

  • Vivian

    That was a terrible incident! Having SWA sponsor her trip to Baltimore is a good idea but I think it would be better if they partner with “customers of size” to change their policy. If SWA wants to look good, they have to do better.

  • Michelle

    Hi Emmie

    This post was posted at a perfect time for me. I had to go to CA on April 25th for work and they were all flying Southwest so I had to also. I thought I would be ok because I now weight in the 330’s I recently had WLS (duodenal switch) and with my pre-surgery and post-surgery weight loss have lost over 150 lbs. Well I get to the area to check my luggage and the lady said have you ever flown with us before and I said no and she said well you may have to buy an additional seat, if the arms don’t go down comfortably. So i said ok, I did not think I would have an issue fitting in a seat. She then called over like 5 different people trying to get another seat bought for me on this flight and I stood there wanting to die for 45 minutes while my manager was standing there staring at me, worrying about missing our flight. Half way thought that time they sent my manager to security to start waiting in line.

    I get my extra seat, I run to the gate and they told me to go stand in another line to get a blue pass. The blue pass lets you board right away (this was actually nice) I picked my seat by the window, got my extender and the arms went down fine. I sat there still feeling horrible about myself, thinking about what happened and just feeling bad. They said it was an oversold flight and there would be no seats left on the plane, but in my head I was thinking yes there will be I just paid for one. Then a guy sits next to me. I did not say anything because part of me wanted validation that I was not so huge that no one would want to sit next to me. I also took a pic of this and the open seat right in front of me to show the airlines so I could ask for my money back.

    On the way home I still had my 2 tickets because I did not want to go through that experience a second time, so wait in line at a gate and get my early boarding pass. I get on the plane sit at another window seat and another guy wants to sit next to me and this flight is not even full, the flight attendant told him he could not sit there that I had paid for another seat and he moved. But once again it felt great to know that the public did not think i was to big just one lady at the counter.
    I get home and I called Southwest I told them the whole story and they gave me my refund. I was very hurt by this experience, but I know that I am smaller and getting smaller every day and that I won’t let these people get me down. I don’t ever want to fly southwest again, but I am sure it will happen. When I do I will never let them make me feel the way they made me feel this time.

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  • lisa

    emily i am so glad to read your comment, bc i am flying to hawaii and i was thinking about cancelling my trip bc i weigh 350 pounds and i dont want to get embarrassed. because i have read all the horror stories about plus size flying. i am flying delta for my trip any suggestions?

  • Kerry

    Amen! I am 300 and about to fly for the first time since I was 260 so I was having a bit of anxiety. Googled some random overweight travel Delta or some such key words, and your blog showed up. I must say I am much more at ease that I happen to be flying delta! The last time I flew (cannot remember which airline) my seat belt buckled and the attendant STILL asked me if I wanted an extender. I gave her an arch reply of “Nnnnnoooo”. Haha…I am 5’9 and carry my weight pretty well so hopefully I will avoid that next time. HOnsetly, in the moment she offered I thought “I would seriously rather risk this plane crashing and me flying around with no seat belt than have to worry about getting an “extender”…Why don’t they just make seat belts bigger….duh… Anyhow, my point is ,thank you, for sharing your experiences and intel.

    • Emily Sandford

      Thanks! Can I have your hair? Is that an inappropriate question? Ha.
      Anyway, I’m actually on a trip right now and on 3 flights, needed an extender for 2 of them, and had no problem on one of them. All the same airline. One of them I needed an extended by a good seven inches, and the other only an inch or two. It’s all inconsistent, and once you realize how screwed up it all is, it turns into no big deal to ask for one.

      • Kerry

        Hahaha! Thank you! Totally appropriate question.

        Wow! So strange that they don’t just make long seatbelts, but I guess I will find out next Tuesday! I will actually be taking 3 flights for this trip, so I will let you know what happens, if you’d like. Yeah, I think at age 29, I am still in between “These are my old insecurities” and “Fuck it.” 😉 I read an article awhile back (I will have to do some more research to site my source) But it points out that larger people in today’s society are constantly trying to make themselves smaller so as not to encroach on the world around them. It was such a strong statement…I have been telling myself to stop doing this…This is the space which I currently occupy and that is it. Sorry you are smaller. I will try not to be obnoxious and will certainly be considerate of YOUR space, but I will not be ashamed of the space I currently occupy…I am rambling aren’t I? It’s late…hahaha

      • Kerry

        Just boarded JFK-> Las Vegas! No seatbelt extender needed:) although the seats seen a bit narrow. I’m in seat 15, luckily the aisle . 2 more flights to go, but for now, VIVA LAS VEGAS

        • Emily Sandford

          Awesome, safe travels!

  • BLC

    Would not want to be your friend! You don’t know other peoples stories. You have no compassion or love for others. I feel sorry for you and your ugly heart!