A 32 stone man who was on his way to say goodbye to a dying aunt was thrown off a transatlantic flight for being too fat. Sandy Russell was escorted off the Air Transat plane from Gatwick to Toronto by a stewardess last Saturday.
He was then offered another flight for the transatlantic journey – but only if he paid for two full-price tickets.
The 32-year-old said he could not afford the £928 charge and his aunt died of bowel cancer in Canada two days after he was due to see her. Mr Russell was escorted off the plane because his 52-inch girth meant that the armrest could not be lowered for take-off, as demanded by the airline’s regulations.
Mr Russell, from Wolverhampton, said he is angry that the airline did not explain to him before he boarded that his size could be a problem.
Air Transat agreed to refund Sandy’s ticket price “as a gesture of goodwill.” A spokesman said: “We can’t ask people their measurements before they book a flight – it’s a breach of their human rights.
“In this case, the armrest would not go down and separate Mr Russell from the lady beside him – and he was taking up more than a third of her seat.”
Tam Fry, spokesman from the National Obesity Forum, said: “The overweight passenger should really be offered the next flight which has spare seats available, or be upgraded to a wider seat.
“This is what happens in the States and I don’t think it will be long before it happens here.”
Not long ago Air France/KLM made headlines by adopting the same approach as some US airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue, to levy extra charges on overweight and obese passengers. This was denied and the airlines set to clarify their ticketing rules for overweight passengers.
In a statement to the media, Air France attempted to put its side in these discussions.
The statement said: “Recent articles in the media have incorrectly reported Air France’s policy regarding the seating of obese passengers. Air France has never made it compulsory for obese passengers to purchase a second seat.”
The airline has offered this as an option since 2005, at a 25% discount, in an attempt to allow passengers to travel in what it describes as “optimum comfort.”
The airline stated that the only new addition to its policy comes in to force from February 1, 2010. From this date, Air France will refund the cost of any second seat purchased by obese passengers in economy class if the cabin is not fully booked.
The same policy applies to KLM, Air France’s partner airline.
Passengers who cannot fit into a single seat are fastened by slotting the belt tip of one seat into the plug of the next, stretching over both seats. The average plane seat is 43 cm wide / 16.93 inches – 44 cm for long-haul flights / 17.32 inches.
This is not the first time that Air France has hit the headlines in connection with overweight passengers. In 2007, a passenger weighing 353 lbs / 160 kgs successfully sued the airline, which had to pay him US$11,423 in damages and the cost of the second seat from New Delhi, India to Paris, for humiliation after being measured in the public concourse at New Delhi airport.
Some US airlines do have certain policies regarding fat passengers:
Southwest: passengers should plan on purchasing an extra seat or risk being asked to do so at the airport by staff. If the flight is not sold out, the passenger may claim a refund.
American Airlines: passengers over 250 lbs should recognize that there may be limitations to the service that the airline can provide. However, it does not require that you purchase an extra seat automatically.
United: Overweight passengers are moved, free of charge, in the cabin to free seats. If none available, upgrade to business is offered or tickets can be booked on later flights.
Midwest: Like Southwest, passengers are encouraged to know their needs in advance. If staff determine that two seats are required, the seat will be sold at the lowest possible fare, with a refund available if there is one or more open seats on the flight.
JetBlue: You are required to buy a second seat, and there are no refunds.
Delta: The airline “works to accommodate” passengers with special needs. Upon request and availability, it will try to make sure the next seat is unoccupied. However, if the plane is full, you will most likely be asked to leave the flight and buy a second seat on the next available flight.
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