Air Travel: Begging for an Inch

AA airplaneI saw him as I moved down the airplane’s aisle – a behemoth of a man, towering a foot taller and much broader than anyone else, and occupying his seat, the center one, and half of mine.

My heart sank. This flight, I thought ruefully, was going to be a long one.

I’d seen the man earlier in the airport, a giant guy lumbering along in overalls pulling a suitcase that looked absolutely puny next to him. He was tall, at least 6’6” and weighed in at more than 400 lbs. His protruding belly preceded him by at least a 18 inches and his arms were so large they stuck out from his sides like wings.

I’d noticed this big man, but hadn’t given him another thought — until I saw he’d be my seatmate. I counted seats, hoping against hope that I was one in front or one behind this gentleman. But no, I was in 24 D; he in 24C or rather 24C and 24 1/2D.

I frantically cast about, searching for empty seats. The entire exit row was still empty. Perhaps I could beg my way into one of those seats. But, for now, I needed to take my seat and let everyone get settled.

I stowed my rollaboard and climbed into my seat, navigating the skinny space between my seat and the one in front like an astronaut climbing into a space capsule. Using my feet, I pushed my daypack beneath the seat and sat back. Or tried to sit back. Mr. Big’s arms occupied not just the right arm rest between us, but four inches into my seat space. His massive left leg, the size of an old growth log, took up a third of the place where my legs should be. He was pushed so close against me, I could smell his sweat. Fortunately for me, this guy had bathed. Still, I’m not that crazy about sharing personal body odors with a stranger.

To his credit, he sat ramrod straight with his arms in front of him, trying to minimize the space his massive self occupied. It didn’t help much, but at least he wasn’t sprawling like so many thinner men do. Still, his big arm was smashed up against my shoulder and I had to painfully tuck my elbow inside the plastic armrest.

The plane filled up, including those empty exit row seats. I looked around, but saw only one or two empty center seats. Like most of the planes I fly today, this United Airlines flight was stuffed to the gills. If I tried to move into one of those center seats, my new seatmates would hate me. I resolved to endure where I sat.

The space between me and the seat in front of me felt miniscule. There was two inches, maybe three between my knees and back of the seat; for Mr. Big, there was none. His long, beefy legs were shoved right up against the seat in front of him.

My backpack usually takes up the majority of my under-seat space, but because my leg space was reduced by this man’s leg and foot, I couldn’t move my feet at all. Neither could Mr. Big.

I usually work on planes and, when I pulled down the tray table for my tiny Acer netbook, less than two inches of space existed between my belly and the tray. It was so close that it made typing almost impossible. And because of the silent giant next to me, I couldn’t bend my elbows to make up for the lack of space. When the guy in front of me pushed his seat into the fully reclined position – and into my lap– the tray table jammed into my stomach making working even tougher. When the passenger in front of Mr. Big did the same thing, it had to be painful.

Airplane taking off from runway

Airlines keep moving seats closer and closer and squeezing consumers’ bodies and pocketbooks — in the name of higher profits.

As I typed in my tiny, cramped position, my seatmate tried to sleep. Fortunately, he didn’t list sideways or snore. He just sat, neck bent, with his eyes closed, quietly enduring the tiny space.

When the steward came by to ask what I wanted to drink, I said a can of tomato juice and four more inches of space. He glanced furtively at my dozing seatmate and whispered, “There may be some other open seats. I’ll let you know.”

He never did.

I got up to go to the bathroom and, as I made my way back to my seat, I didn’t have to look at seat numbers. There was no mistaking my seatmate. Mr. Big’s massive neck and head towered over everyone else’s. It was like traveling with the Jolly Green Giant.

When I slid back into the seat, my silent companion had raised the armrest between us. The pain I felt in stuffing my elbow inside the armrest must have been nothing compared to what he’d endured with the armrest jammed into his leg and side. By raising the armrest, he was making a break for a little relief and I couldn’t blame him.

As we neared San Francisco, I wondered what it was like for this large man to live in a world made too small for him. Undoubtedly, his height and his size made him not fit in many places like in cabs, on trains, or in standard hotel beds. Everywhere he went, he didn’t really fit; nothing would be comfortable for someone as large as him. Everything was too small and he was too big. What a difficult way to live. My irritation at having to sit next to him melted and my heart ached for him.

The moment the plane landed and the “all okay” tone sounded, I jumped into the aisle. Mr. Big immediately migrated onto both seats. It was as if his massive body, so long contained in the small space, simply expanded and flowed out over the space; his big legs that hadn’t moved in 90 minutes relaxed and took up the legroom of both seats.

I was glad to get off this too-small plane too. As airlines endeavor to maximize profits, they steal inches from all of us, making it difficult and uncomfortable for even average-sized people like me to travel. For people like Mr. Big it makes it downright awful and airlines should be ashamed. — Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor





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Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at

2 thoughts on “Air Travel: Begging for an Inch

  1. Ally

    While I do feel sorry for people like that, it is extremely frustrating to be sitting next to them. Some airlines do offer seats with more space, although they cost extra

    1. Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT EditorBobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor Post author

      Hi Ally,
      Yes, of course, it’s frustrating. The airlines aren’t giving normal-sized people enough room as it is. Then to sit next to super-sized folks makes it more uncomfortable for everyone. I did feel compassion for this fellow. I’d like to see the airlines accommodate all of us better with larger seats without scalping us with so many extra fees. Thanks for your comments. Bobbie, RFT Editor

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