I should start this off by making it known that my backside is larger than any coach airline seat in the air. I have walked down the aisle and seen the pure fear in the other passengers eyes. They were all scared of the same thing: Me sitting next to them.
I know flying can make a POS (that’s airline talk for “Passenger of Size”) very nervous. I hope this column will help my fellow POS make good choices in preparing for a trip to make the experience as painless as possible.
The process starts when you choose which airline to fly. Southwest airlines went from my favorite to least favorite when they announced that they would begin charging POS for two seats on full flights. When I used to fly them, I would take an aisle seat about a third of the way back in the plane and try to look large. This would lead others to skip over the seat next to me, and almost always leave me with the extra space to spread out. Their open seating policy would really work in my favor.
I now have to compare the risk of being forced to buy two tickets with the advantage of other travelers natural instincts leaving the seat next to me open. A little trick I learned from my years of flying Southwest was very simple – only make eye contact with someone who you wanted to sit next to you. Eye contact was often a subliminal invite to sit down next to me. If I knew every seat would be full, and I was going to have someone in the middle seat next to me, I would make sure I only made eye contact with thin, attractive women. This was before I was married, now I only look at my wife.
Picking the right seat on the plane at time of purchase is the next step. All airplane seats are not equal. There are seats to avoid at all costs. There are ideal ones to pick too. Making the right choice at this moment is the single most important step in having a comfortable flying experience. I highly recommend consulting this website which provides valuable insight on both good and bad seats on almost every plane in service. When you have multiple flights to choose from, you may even want to look at each flight’s seat map to make sure the flight you pick still has some of the better seats available.
I’ll start the seat picking process with the seats to avoid on all planes. This list starts with the least desirable option, the middle seat. Getting stuck between two passengers is the worst possible place to be. You end up uncomfortable, maybe even in pain, and you feel bad for those two unlucky people who you are making uncomfortable and possibly angry. It makes for a very bad situation.
The next thing to avoid are the “fools gold” seats in the bulkhead row (this is a row where you have a wall in front of you instead of more seats) or the emergency exit row. I call these rows “fools gold” because a novice flyer may have heard others tell them how great these seats are and how they should get them, because they have extra room. While seats do have extra leg room, they are more narrow than other coach seats, and the armrests don’t raise up if you happen to have an extra empty seat next to you.
There are also seats that are ideal. Common sense tells us all aisle seats are ideal for larger travelers. This enables the passenger to lean a little into the aisle and increase their personal space. Not all aisle seats are the same. You want to pick one where the seat next to you is open, but the seat next to it is filled. This means that you are the aisle seat in a row with a stranded middle seat. The odds of someone taking the middle seat is much lower than if the seats next to you are open when you pick your seat. Remember, you can change your seat over and over if someone chooses the one next to you. Just pull up the itinerary from the airline’s website and you can change your seat. You may want to take a look at the seat map every couple of weeks.
If you have multiple flights to choose from, remember not all planes are created equal. Use the seat guru to compare the width of the seats on the possible planes (it varies not only by plane but by airline too, so make sure you are looking up the exact plane you are considering taking.) Sometimes you don’t get a seat assignment when you book your ticket, either to avoid a fee the airline is charging or because the flight is reasonably full. Then keep in mind the ratio of bad seats in a row of coach.
Lets compare the seating configuration in coach between the most common types of planes in service today. For full sized single aisle aircraft there are two main variations. The first configuration is seen on the MD-80’s, Boeing 717’s, and DC-9’s. This is where two seats are on one side of the aisle and three are on the other side. There is one middle seat, out of 5, so I would say 20 percent of the seats in the coach cabin are undesirable because they are the dreaded middle seat. The nest configuration is three seats on either side of the aisle, these are found on Boeing 737’s, 757’s and Airbus 319’s, 320’s, and 321’s. You can see that two of the six seats are middle seats, or about 33 percent. I won’t do all the possible math for wide body aircraft (wide body aircraft are planes with two parallel aisles), but you can clearly see your odds to avoid middle seats increases when there are fewer of them on the plane.
When you get to the gate, head up to the counter with a smile, inquire if the seat next to you is currently open. If the gate agent says yes, I politely ask them if they could try not to put anyone in that seat, since I am a big guy. Most gate agents are glad to try, since that is the best for everyone, but if a flight is full, then there is nothing they can do. Sometimes they choose not to help because they are having a bad day or are just mean. Take it in stride. There is no benefit to getting angry at this moment. Here is something that you might not realize, the seat maps you see for your flights will often show many open seats as full for any number of reasons. Just because the map looks full doesn’t mean that there aren’t entire rows empty for the gate agent to solve problems with. Don’t be afraid to ask if there is another seat they could move you to if the one next to you is full. If you do this, remember, make sure you let them know you don’t want a bulkhead seat or an emergency exit row seat, since they give you less room.
There are two things you can do to make the flight more comfortable. The first one is really simple, if the seat belt is fully extended and is not fitting around you comfortably, then ask a flight attendant for a seat belt extender. These are those little pieces of seat belt they use in the safety instruction. They add another 20 inches or so to your seat belt. There is no shame in asking for one, don’t suffer in a too tight seat belt over your pride.
The last thing to remember is the arm rest can often be raised to create more space. I never raise an armrest that is shared with another passenger, I believe that armrest separates my space from theirs, so it stays down. If that seat is empty, that armrest is coming up. On many flights, the aisle armrest also comes up and down, but you have to find the sometimes hidden button to release the latch. My general rule of thumb is that if it looks like it comes up, then it probably does, and it is my job to find the button. Sometimes the flight attendants will require the aisle armrests down for takeoff and landing, no need to argue, you won’t change their minds, just raise it up when they announce you can now use electronic devices.
Flying can be a necessary evil for large passengers either for work or for the opportunity to go to new places and see the wonders of the world. Hopefully there is a tip here that can make the experience more comfortable. Living life to its fullest often includes flying; don’t let apprehension get in your way.