Talk About an American Airlines Incident That Got Out of Hand

Thursday night’s American Airlines Raleigh – Washington National flight, AA5580, got out of hand.

Two women sitting next to each other on the Bombardier CRJ-700 regional jet got into each others’ personal space. One woman describing herself as “fat” says her seat opponent was unhappy she was spilling over into the next seat.

She videotaped herself and the unhappy passenger beside her.

She also took a photo of the woman.

Economy seats are small, and regional jet seats don’t have the width of an Airbus narrowbody. The ‘white woman’ beside her was uncomfortable, her personal space invaded and didn’t keep that unhappiness to herself. So the larger woman started documenting the experience. And she calls it racism. They argued,

But soon they began arguing, because, Phillips said, the other passenger didn’t want any physical contact with her.

“She kept being very aggressive and finally goes, ‘Can you move over?’” But Phillips said she had no space to move into, and said she found the interaction awkward and embarrassing.

“So the plane takes off and I’m so sad,” Phillips said. “I have my hands folded in my lap. I just kept thinking, this is how fat people are treated on planes. Period.

The woman complained to a flight attendant she was being harassed by the photos. The police were summoned in response to an ‘assault’ as the aircraft arrived at an apron position at National airport, with passengers preparing for arrival at gate 35X. Police interviewed both passengers off the shuttle, no charges were filed, and everyone went on their way.

The woman who refers to herself as an “Organizing Strategist” on Twitter says it’s racism and is angry at American Airlines. I think we all need to have more patience with each other. The size of these two passengers entirely aside, I like Southwest’s model that says someone larger than the seat must buy two seats (but gets a refund for the second one if the flight isn’t full).

American’s Shuttle Bus to Gate 35X at Washington National Airport

There’s not a lot of space, but this was a 227 mile flight. Luck of the draw whom you get sat next to, it won’t last long. While it’s possible the complaining passenger was unhappy being touched by a black woman there’s no known evidence to suggest this versus simply being unhappy being touched by another passenger extending into her seat space. But American is very sensitive to the charge now, having been called out for racism after a Louis Farrakhan supporter acted out on a flight enroute to Al Sharpton’s daughter’s wedding.

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 »

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  1. Race card pull out unwarranted in this. Anything and everything to defect blame onto the big bad carriers these days it seems.

  2. Tie goes to the person in the aisle seat for the armrest. Similar to how it goes to the middle seat in a 3-seat config vs the 2-seat here. Window gets the window.

  3. This should get Trumpanzees swinging wildly in the trees. Hey morons did you see that you’re down to 19% hard core supporters? That’s your numbers for all to see.

  4. As a man whose width of shoulders does not fit a standard seat, ( never has, never will) I have been concerned about the smaller seat size and what it can lead to. She is a larger person and cannot fit into a standard seat. Fat shaming is widely practiced but what is she to do? Cue the Trump comments and political nonsense, otherwise I’d like to hear a serious debate.

  5. Gary, you seem to be awfully critical of the actions and experiences of the person of color. You also left out your own commentary on the person of colors experience with the police officers. You did not commend the person of color for knowing her fourth amendment rights. I appreciate your covering the story, but I do question the subtleties of the voice of the post.

  6. I am a person who hates having someone in my space when I’m on a plane, and mostly dread flying economy because of the reasonable chance it will happen. I truly wish there were a way to just pay however much it takes to claim the seat next to you (even Southwest’s policy is no guarantee that the gate agent won’t reassign your seat if they see you don’t need it). I got into miles and points literally to avoid having to sit next to people in economy.

    BTW both of the people in this story sound like horrible people.

  7. Like always, anytime a privileged person looks bad, some other privileged scumbag will generalize and call both wrong…

  8. This is why we need regulations for seat sizes on planes. Airlines will continue to make seats smaller until incidents like this are regular occurrences. The race to the bottom isn’t helping travel, it’s hurting it. Standards for minimum seat size are needed.

  9. @ Ivan X – I’m sure everyone will be happy to let you have all the personal space you need because no one wants to sit next to your sorry ass.

  10. Sounds to me like the “organizing strategist” feels entitled to more than one seat. If so, she should buy another seat. No crime in being fat but it’s not the other passengers fault.

  11. I agree with Joel. People are getting larger but airline seats are getting smaller. This is a recipe for disaster.

  12. At first I thought the woman was being picked on but her own video shows she is occupying a significant amount of the other woman’s seat.

  13. The woman is racist as in her tweet initially stated a “white woman”. Imagine some white person would do that in the tweet that black person has invaded his space. What a media lynch will follow. So double standard as usual. Something you dont like and you black always pull out the race card. And the rest of us should s**t ourselves because 150 years ago they were enslaved. It is same as today ypung germans should feel they are guilty because their granfathers were nazis.

  14. The fact that the flight attendant called the police supports the woman”s view that race played a large part in this incident. There was absolutely no need to call the cops when the passengers were getting off the plane. The cause of the confrontation no longer existed and there are no reports of belligerent actions during deplaning. Something (quite possibly conscious or subconscious racial prejudice or stereotyping) caused the situation to go from touching arms to an argument to claims of assault to a police interrogation on the shuttle bus. And calling the cops to do the dirty work of keeping the Blacks in line has been a time-honored tradition amongst privileged white folk.

  15. Watch the video, guys. Very obvious to me that the fat woman is getting all puffed up and harrasing the other woman. How would you like to have your face plastered all over the internet because someone decided that you’re racist, when what happened is, someone is invading her space.

  16. I have to ask Gary Lett: is it just that you like writing about women behaving badly on planes, or are such women disproportionally to the whole population, disruptive in the air? Does the female inner-bi*ch inexplicably come to life once the door closes?

  17. @Rjb I couldn’t agree more that she should buy another seat. Unfortunately, the airlines don’t make this easy or sometimes even possible. If you buy another seat for yourself, in your own name, you’ll end up as a no-show (since you can’t check in for yourself twice), and your seat will be given away to a standby or nonrev.

    If you want to secure a second seat because you are a “person of size,” some airlines allow it, but it’s not like there’s any way to do that on an airline website or OTA; you actually have to call them, which, if you don’t have status, often means waiting 1-2 hours just to talk to someone. So, yes, she should have bought a second seat, but the airline shouldn’t make it an ordeal to do so each and every time she wants to buy a ticket.

    @chancer It doesn’t matter whether they want to sit next to me or not; they don’t have the option, just as I don’t have the option. If I were them, I wouldn’t want to sit next to my sorry ass either.

  18. There you go guys! Another racist situation between black and white! It all started about space and being big..later it is all about the colour of your skin..welcome to the USA of today! ..where everybody who cannot cope or care to solve situations peacefully will stretch it to racial misunderstandings..lots of tuck under emtions, tensions etc. hidden beneath for years and it is now starting to come up to the surface..

  19. “Fat” is an understatement! I don’t know if she broke any criminal laws, but some laws of physics were broken when that plane somehow managed to lift off.

  20. Amber, your own video tells the story.

    Stop playing the “race” card. You is a very, very large PERSON, and you need to put the fork down.

    Until you do, purchase two seats when you fly, OR go Greyhound.

  21. The fat woman is a disgrace and is clearly hogging some of the other passengers space. The fat woman should not be flying at all unless she books two seats.

  22. I’m told by my friends at who word at Delta Air Lines (gate agents, flight attendants) that their policy is that a large person should buy two seats, and if a passenger sitting next to an overly large person complains that his/her space is being intruded upon, that the fat person has to move. Obviously, in this day and age where there are no empty seats on the plane, this means the fat person has to get off. In this particular situation, removing the huge African American person from the plane would be a PR nightmare for DL, so even if this is the official DL policy, I bet you won’t see it enforced.

  23. I also agree that seats are getting smaller and a lot of people are getting bigger.
    First don’t book small planes if you’re large. I don’t like it either if I only get 3/4 of a seat. I really don’t care if your green, pink, blue, white or black I would like to have my seat to myself!
    If you start taking pictures of me your phone may have a accident, I too wouldn’t want my picture on the web.

  24. The evidence is clear in the video: you can clearly see Amber’s arm is going into the space of the other passenger. Amber, you have incriminated yourself by your own video. You need to regulate yourself and look at yourself and not blame other people or pull the race card.

    @Joelfreak and @MissMarierose “This is why we need regulations for seat sizes on planes” correct.

    for example, the AA 737-800 has 15.9-17.3 inch seat width with 90 seats per seatguru. 43% of American’s are fat and cannot fit in a seat that is 15.9-17.3 inches

    @David, leave Gary alone, he is not “awfully critical of the actions and experiences of the person of color. ”

    @chancer, you don’t need to bother to type ugly comments like that

    @Jim ” I would like to have my seat to myself” agreed. Amber, you are a large person, you need to buy two seats.

    @Don in ATL “the fat person has to move” agreed. Amber, you are a large person, you need to buy two seats.

    @SteveC “The fat woman is a disgrace and is clearly hogging some of the other passengers space. The fat woman should not be flying at all unless she books two seats.” agreed. Amber, you are a large person, you need to buy two seats.

    @WilliamC “Amber, your own video tells the story. Stop playing the “race” card. You is a very, very large PERSON, and you need to put the fork down. Until you do, purchase two seats when you fly, OR go Greyhound.” agreed. Amber, you are a large person, you need to buy two seats.

    @J.C. “The cow feels entitled to squat her lard ass into someone else’s space” agreed. Amber, you are a large person, you need to buy two seats.

    @ABC “Watch the video, guys. Very obvious to me that the fat woman is getting all puffed up and harrasing the other woman.” agreed. Amber, you are a large person, you need to buy two seats.

  25. further evidence of the infantilization of American society, and many, not all, of the responses on this blog reinforces this.

  26. The more you weigh the more it costs the airlines (and all of us) to fly you. It’s math, nothing more. Ideally we’d pay a bracketed amount for airline tickets based on total flying weight. Anyone that is too big to fit in one seat should buy two (but can have the second seat refunded if it’s not taken, like Southwest’s policy). It seems fair

  27. Who the is this woman to start video taping another passenger and claiming racism? Based on what? It seems more and more often what people do now is get in a confrontation and then pull out a frickin phone and calmly film even though they were flipping out right before the camera went on. Filming a stranger and then posting it to the internet calling her a racist? She really should be sued for that. Also, it would be nice if on a travel blog we didn’t keep getting these articles about race. The media is full of this stuff and I come here to read about travel.

  28. I flew from LA to fiji next to a larger fella that realllly spilled over into my space. It was annoying but what was I gonna do? Cause a scene? After about an hour I relaxed about it and kind of resigned to the fact that my arm would be touching a stranger the entire time. He seemed to be pretty chill and relaxed about it too so while it was 9 hours, it was no big deal. But then on an hour flight from London to Dublin I was sitting next to a very large man who smelled like mayonaise and was talking to a giant stuffed banana he had brought on board with him. Was far more uncomftorable than the fiji experience. Would never say anything even then, its 45 minutes suck it up!!

  29. She can’t do anything about flying while black, but she can certainly do something about flying while fat. Here’s an exercise one can do at every mealtime…it’s called push-a-ways, as in over filled plates and bowls.

  30. I haven’t seen anyone address the actual “assault” issue. In the video ther woman is making it very clear she is being videoed against her will, a.m.d you rhem her her say, “pleaase stop. ” Then, once they leave their seats, Ms. Phillips takes another picture without permission. She knows she is going to post these on social media, without permission, in hopes of getting people to turn against the other woman in outrage. How many times have we seen social media turn into physical violence? The lion hunting dentist? The parents of the man who shot Mr. Martin? Before you post a video or photo on social media, you should have to get signed permission like a professional organization. This was a disagreement between two women, one who felt she was giving the other person plenty of space even though she acknowledges her arm was in the other woman’s area, and one who felt she paid for a seat and should not have to share it. The camera is what escalated it.

  31. The OBESE woman’s arm was not only touching the complaining other woman, her shoulder and her arm were clearly at least 2 inches or so INTO the complaining other woman’s seat space, encroaching well into the complaining other woman’s seat space !!! I suspect the obese woman could’ve moved closer to the window, but made no deliberate effort, and furthermore attempted to incite a racial incident !!! This is the VERY situation where an obese passenger has met the body-mass proportion to warrant buying a second seat … YES !, even on a regional jet !!! If you’re a Fatty, then you should expect this situation to occur !!! Lose some weight !!!! It works on the SAME principle for carry-on luggage … if it doesn’t fit in the overhead bin, then you MUST CHECK IT !!!!!! SAME PRINCIPLE !!! It ABSOLUTELY infuriates me when people wanna play the race card, when there’s NO RACE ISSUE !!!!

  32. The race card played immediately- hoping for her starbucks moment. who do you think the racist is- the person who points out the race of everyone involved bc that’s all she sees, or the person who didn’t care about race, but who DID care that 20% of her seat was being occupied by the morbidly obese woman next to her? Her reaction would have been the same if the obese person were white, brown or purple. it’s HER personal space. NOBODY likes someone spilling into their space.

    People whose body mass is greater than their seat, should have to purchase 2 seats. PERIOD.

    sooooo sick of actual racists playing the race card bc they’re not white and can get away with it. and the PC crowd, eager to virtue signal, feed it.

  33. Why is there no discussion of why the airlines don’t make it easy to purchase two seats? I agree that’s the solution, but it’s not much of one if it’s very difficult to do, which it is.

    Instead everyone is going off about race and fat shaming and other tertiary topics. Until the airlines make it easy for plus size people to sit in minus size seats, I have a hard time placing the blame entirely on wide passengers.

  34. I believe this may be the same femi nazi racist Amber Phillips… if so this woman has a long history.

    This behaviour is not all that uncommon of blacks. See it all the time…a total lack of empathy, situational awareness, self centered, skewed moral judgement, use of aggressive tactics to bend others to their will. Can not be reasoned with will rachet up the aggression and race card till others yield. This starts with upbringing and lack of male rolemodels positive influence on development of character traits in juvieniles.

  35. Someday, the government might say that being fat is a disability so airlines must give a 2nd seat for free.

  36. The whole incident is a symptom of two problems – Americans (and other nationalities) are getting larger and airlines are reducing seat sizes. I guess the people who design seat interiors are all from places where people are short and skinny. I once flew BA from LHR to Abuja, Nigeria where the large woman next to me flew BOAC. She was in seat B and spilled over into A and C – and she wore a heavy overcoat the entire trip. Nothing I could do about it – just had to get used to 7 hours of flying shoulder to shoulder.

  37. @Gary Leff, I’m reasonably strong stomached, and while I accept that people say intentionally provocative, horrible things all across the internet, and ignore them accordingly.

    But I also feel as though a single-writer site with a community feel, such as yours, has the option of not providing a voice to people saying truly awful things, such as Truth B Hurtn above, and so permitting a comment as nasty as his/hers to remain is also a choice. However, it’s not the kind of choice that makes me feel like this the sort of blog I want to frequent.

    I realize that some amount of prejudice and racism is inevitable in the comments of a story like this, and I also actually enjoy that you run stories that are themselves provocative.

    But to allow a commenter to publicly malign not just the subject of the story, but all black people, in such specific and ugly terms, makes this an ugly place to be.

  38. @Ivan X has a perfectly valid point. In publishing this appalling story you would have known that it would bring out the worst of your fringe-dwelling readership. I believe that to preserve whatever integrity you feel your blog has you should have carefully considered each post, and immediately deleted the most offensive. You may be against censorship per se, but this is one instance where it would be appropriate. Late, but not too late……..

  39. @Greg: Stop being ashamed of the hand your Creator dealt you. It’s not wide shoulders that keep you from spilling over. It’s your extra chromosome. Set up a GoFundMe to have it surgically removed.

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