What to do when you’re stuck on a plane next to someone sick, smelly, or obese

June 20
01:05 2017

Passengers traveling from Manchester to Ibiza were treated to some unwelcome in-flight entertainment last week when two passengers decided have sex (or at least simulate it) in their seat.

Though that escapade is an extreme example, the incident is one of many potential horrors we can be exposed to when traveling. Complaints about airline service jumped 70% between March and April according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Delays, lost baggage, and canceled flights are all major gripes for consumers, but another top anxiety is who we are forced to share these experiences with.

Many travelers say their biggest anxiety about flying is the person they’re sitting next to, a study from found this week, including sitting next to someone who is coughing (39.3%), has an unpleasant body odor (28%) or is overweight (13.6%). These problems are so invasive that 40% of respondents say they would pay extra to have an entire row on the plane to themselves.

Travelers have a number of options to address these issues, depending on who they are seated next to and what the offense is. The first solution is simple: just ask, said Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and author of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler.”

“If the problem is behavioral, the best thing to do is address it directly with a passenger,” he said. “Ask them nicely not to talk, tell them you’re busy, or kindly ask them to keep their child from hitting the back of your seat — those things can be easily addressed.”

Jacqueline Whitmore, a former flight attendant and etiquette expert, said if a problem can’t be resolved verbally, passengers are within their rights to ask a flight attendant to move them once the plane’s doors are closed as long as they aren’t requesting to switch to a more expensive seat. “I would do this discreetly as to not offend your seat mate,” she said.

If a passenger smells bad, they can actually be removed from the plane as long as it isn’t related to a disability. Drunk or unruly passengers, like the lovely couple on the flight to Ibiza, can also be removed under most airline policies. Delta Air Lines states in its rules it can remove customers who pose “unreasonable risk of offense or annoyance to other passengers,” for example However, such removals are left to the discretion of flight attendants and ultimately the plane’s captain.

If the flight is full, your chances of moving are smaller and you may have to make the best of it, said Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and former flight attendant. She suggested bringing cologne or perfume in case you sit next to a passenger who smells bad, and earplugs if your seatmate is loud. “You have to figure out how you can get to your happy place,” she said.

For the nearly 14% of people who dread sitting next to an overweight passenger, it should be known that “passengers of size” don’t enjoy the experience either. As seats on planes shrink, these issues are becoming more contentious and some airlines even require overweight passengers to purchase a second seat. Passengers have sued airlines over being stuck next to an overweight seatmate, and others have successfully requested refunds for their trip. If you feel your flight was ruined by your seatmate, for whatever reason, it’s worth asking for a refund or voucher. However, airlines aren’t required to give them. Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) said overweight passengers are likely far more anxious than their seatmates about flying, and the organization has released a tip sheet for traveling while fat. In her view, the blame rests with airlines for making seats increasingly small to save money.

“I guess that if you are under 5’6” tall and weigh under 120 lbs., you might fit comfortably, but since we are told that at least 60% of our population is overweight or obese, that doesn’t seem to make much sense,” she said. “Why would you not want to accommodate the major portion of the customer base out there? Or is this another privilege that will soon be available only to the wealthiest among us?”

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