Your Seatmate Sucks. Should You Sue the Airline?

An Australian man is suing Etihad because his seat opponent on a Sydney – Abu Dhabi flight was:

  • “grossly overweight”
  • “coughing frequently and had fluid coming from his mouth”

Apparently the man unhappy with his luck in seat neighbor was allowed to move to a crew seat after sitting in his own seat for five hours. However, when crew needed those seats he twice had to return to his own assigned seat (“once for another hour and then again for the final 90 minutes of the flight”).

He claims his back was harmed, and wants compensation. Since the coughing and fluid isn’t related to the back injury, that’s just color (and gross). The claim is, presumably, that a combination of the seat itself and the limitations on his space imposed by the man next to him caused his injury.

And he’s suing the airline, and not the person in the next seat, presumably because the airline has greater resources.

Boarding an Etihad Flight.. Not Knowing Who Will Be Seated Next to You

Etihad, for its part, says having a large passenger sit next to you isn’t unusual. It may not be pleasant, but it’s a known hazard of economy flying.

My first thought was the alternative, that a judgment for the plaintiff would be endorsing, is larger economy seats which take up more space on the plane – and thus more expensive tickets for everyone.

That’s not right though: there’s also “the Southwest alternative” which is that a passenger of size could be required to purchase two seats, be guaranteed those two seats next to each other, and refunded the cost for one of them if the flight doesn’t go out full.

For the no good deed goes unpunished file, Southwest has faced boycott calls over the policy.


  • It sucks to have to sit next to someone who limits your space
  • It’s not comfortable for them either
  • It’s tough to say they ought to spend more money to travel, but it strikes me as the least-bad alternative with the lowest cost all around.
  • Not everything that’s uncomfortable ought to be actionable, and it’s not obvious that the airline did anything improper here.

Sometimes unfortunate situations occur, being uncomfortable on a long flight is one of those. If real injury occurred that’s doubly unfortunate, although one’s always skeptical of claims of ‘exacerbating previously existing back conditions’ in the context of a lawsuit.

I’m not even sure how different this is (passenger infringing on lateral space) than when a passenger reclines their seat (and limits your forward space).

And this is one reason why I do my very best to leverage miles to travel in a premium cabin, even though my miles would yield more trips in coach.

Etihad Business Class

The alternative, of course, is to sue.

(HT: Carrie C.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. If our society is to tackle the challenge of obesity, we need businesses, including airlines, to impose economic disincentives (like a “fat customer surcharge”) and not feel guilty in so doing.

    Sorry to be blunt, but “obese” is not a protected class. It is a severe health hazard.

  2. @Jason – I hear you, and I agree and empathize.

    But can we first get rid of this darn fake “service animal” issue?

  3. @Jason,

    Sorry to say Jason, everyone and everything are a protected class now – except for straight, white males.

  4. Having personally lived with Obesity and able to shed off the wait I sympathize with both parties in this case. The obese have a problem that is extremely difficult to overcome in our society. It is not to say they are not partly to blame, but when sugar is the culprit and can be found in nearly every product available at the supermarket it is hard to overcome. That piled on with decades of misinformation about fat (news flash: scientists for the last decade have declared the war on sugar and have pretty much unanimously agreed fat is not “unhealthy”). Once I cut out the sugar the weight literally melted off. With minimal exercise I shed 100 lbs in 7 months eating natural foods with no starch and no sugar. Problem is we have misinformation and so while the Obese may know that sugar is “bad” for them until they understand WHY its bad for them its hard to stop eating it. (not to mention it is one of the most addictive substances on earth that even I still struggle with avoiding).

    Given that, society is partly to blame, but at the same time it is not fair to someone else to have to deal with it. So yes I think the obese should be charged for two seats, not as a punitive measure but as a reality that they only paid for 1 seat and if they cannot fit into that seat they should have to pay for 2.

  5. Just flew a short regional hop and the man behind me was morbidly obese and, unfortunately, did not smell that pleasant either. And, he was sitting behind me. What made it even more aggravating is that he spent most of us time apologizing to the woman who, very unfortunately, had to sit next to him for taking up so much of her space. Buy two seats . . .

  6. If a person has paid to occupy a seat, then that person is entitled to the whole seat, not 3/4 or 2/3 of it. If two seats are required, two seats should be paid for.
    Simple as that.

  7. @ Knowledge:

    Society is NOT partly to blame. Nobody forces us to eat unhealthy. Simply, without drama and finger pointing at purveyors of crap food, choose healthy. Simple. Simple. Simple.

  8. So if you require that an obese person buy two seats then why can’t I as a non-obese person buy two seats (the middle one)? I’ve tried this a few times on long haul trips to Europe with no success. It is cheaper to buy the middle seat than to purchase a business or first class seat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *