Fats on a Plane: One Person’s Negative Experience with American Airlines

By | July 22, 2008

With fuel prices as they are, even a cursory glance over the news reinforces the fact that the travel industry in general, and the airline industry in particular, is suffering right now. Given that major domestic airlines have broken the Fee Barrier and started charging extra for stuff that used to be free, such as all checked baggage, it’s of little surprise that the move toward charging passengers for their own corporeal baggage would be the next step.

Weighing passengers at the gate is unlikely at this point, since it would not only produce a PR nightmare, but would also further injure the ailing industry and send anyone with even a minor body complex scuttling for the Amtrak. However, forcing some fat passengers to buy an extra seat is not new; some airlines have been doing this, quietly, for a decade.

And sometimes not so quietly.

A member of the Fatshionista Livejournal community recently had an experience with just such a scenario on American Airlines, an experience that defied fairness, reasonable treatment, and basic human respect. In the interest of speaking out against this sort of treatment, and letting others know their experiences are neither unique nor shameful, this member has kindly allowed me to reproduce the letter she wrote to American Airlines here.

What follows is in her own words.

American Airlines Customer Relations
P.O. Box 619612 MD 2400
DFW Airport, TX 75261-9612

July 21, 2008

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is L* (AAdvantage Member #1234567) and I am writing to you to register a formal complaint, and to offer suggestions so that what occurred on my recent trip does not happen to others like me in the future. I have been an AAdvantage member for the past eleven years, and have used your airline exclusively for all my personal and business travel. In the past, I have never had any problems with your airline that occurred without a satisfactory resolution. However, an event occurred on my recent flight from Seattle to Dallas that I am unsure will have a satisfactory resolution.

I fly American Airlines exclusively for two major reasons: you have flights to nearly every place I would ever want to go, and unlike your local competitor, Southwest Airlines, you do not make it standard practice to charge passengers of size for an extra seat—until my recent trip.

On Sunday July 20, I flew from Seattle to Dallas on Flight 1516 (record locator: ABCDEF) as I was returning home from a business trip. It has been my practice in the past couple of years to purchase an upgrade to a First Class seat (when available) in order to make my travel experience more comfortable for me and other passengers, as First Class seats are more spacious and can accommodate my body better. On this particular day, I was unable to do so, as I was told via phone earlier in the day and again by a different agent as I checked in at SeaTac airport. I had checked your site via my mobile phone, and it had indicated that First Class seats were available, but apparently this was not the case.

I went ahead and boarded the plane, knowing there was little I could do as the flight was full. As I sat and waited for the others to board, the passenger who was to sit next to me placed his things in the underseat space next to me and then left for a time.

When he finally returned, he fetched his belongings and a gate agent appeared. The agent then informed me in front of everyone that I would need to purchase the seat in between me and the passenger already occupying the aisle seat. I was not given a reason, only ‘here is the best price we can give you for the seat’ as a paper with the price on it was thrust in my face and impatient looks as I tried to figure out what to do next.

As I wanted to get home, having been away for several days, and wanting to spare myself further embarrassment, I gave the agent my credit card and purchased the ticket. I was appalled, shocked and extremely embarrassed, as this has never happened to me on an American Airlines flight.

I came home and read your airline’s “Conditions of Carriage” on your website (http://www.aa.com/aa/i18nForward.do?p=/customerService/customerCommitment/conditionsOfCarriage.jsp), and in no place within that document is there a formal written policy about charging passengers for an extra seat if the passenger is of considerable size. If this is not a formally established policy, why was it enacted with me on my flight? I do not find this fair, because as I boarded the plane, I noticed there were other passengers of size, and none of them were singled out in the same manner that I was. Why was I the only person made to pay for an extra seat when I was not the only large person on the flight? Was I singled out because the passenger who was to sit next to me complained, or was I singled out because this is something that your airline is starting to do with large passengers on flights?

I realize that larger passengers do present a problem on flights, as you are pinched for space and are trying to make the flight as comfortable as possible for everyone, but this particular situation was not handled professionally in my opinion, and I would like to see it remedied so that it does not happen to me or anyone else in the future.

Here is where I would like to point out some things your airline can do in the future to spare someone else the embarrassment that I experienced:

* Please give your staff sensitivity training, or at least remind them that a little tact goes a long way. It is extremely humiliating and embarrassing to be singled out in the way I was singled out. I realize that you cannot reasonably know what each passenger looks like in terms of their size pre-flight, but please teach your staff to have a little more tact when dealing with large size passengers on board in the future. I think the agents who were dispatched to handle this matter were highly embarrassed as well, and employing some such policy would save them the embarrassment of having to deal with this issue.
* Formalize a large-size passenger policy, or don’t be inconsistent in charging some large passengers and not others. Picking and choosing who to make buy extra seats is unfair, and will cost you customers, which you cannot afford to lose. I am fortunate in that I was able to afford to buy the extra seat I was being forced to purchase. What if I had not been able to do so? What would have happened then? My fare had already been paid for by my employer, as this was a business trip. Would I have been stranded in Seattle without a way to get home?

Furthermore, since I was made to purchase an extra seat because I was treated as though I am two people, I would appreciate being rewarded as such. I do not find it fair that I had to buy an extra seat, and I feel that receiving full AAdvantage mile credit for the extra seat for the particular flight I was on would be a satisfactory and appropriate resolution to this issue, in addition to the requests I have made above. I also believe that I should be refunded the full amount of the extra fare I was required to pay, given that none of the other large passengers on the flight were made to purchase extra seats and that my original fare had already been paid for by my employer and I do not expect them to reimburse me for a fare that I feel I was unjustly charged. It is the very least you can do, as my dignity cannot be returned to me.

Please give consideration to the things I have outlined in this letter. I would like to continue to patronize your airline; however, if you choose to continue to treat passengers of size in the manner that I was treated, you will lose not only my business, but also the business of thousands of other large passengers who fly every year (including my husband). Not flying to certain destinations is not an option for me, and I like to think that American Airlines is the best travel option my family and I have. I would like to continue to think so, and would appreciate a prompt personal response concerning this matter, as I will be following up with you in the next two weeks.


Mrs. L
Suburban Hell, TX
AAdvantage Member #1234567

Cc: Gerard Arpey, Chairman and CEO
Isabella D. Goren, Senior Vice President – Customer Relationship Marketing and Reservations
Rob Friedman, President – AAdvantage Marketing Programs
Kurt Stache, Vice President and General Sales Manager

* Personal information has been redacted to protect the author’s privacy.

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