2011 in Review: Worst Experience

by Chris on December 29, 2011

My worst experience of 2011 came on my longest flight of the year, unfortunately, when I was wedged next to an overweight passenger for almost 13 hours.

I’ve been handing out a lot of superlatives in the last week or so, so now it’s time to reflect on what didn’t go so well on my 2011 travels.

I’m happy to report that there were only a few contenders for the Worst Experience title; unlike 2010, where I seemed to be a germ magnet, I didn’t projectile vomit in an airport or get elevation sickness or sniffle my way through a city. I didn’t even miss a flight, which is amazing considering some of the tight connections I pieced together during my fall travel binge. I can only hope that 2012 goes as smoothly.

Still, every frequent traveler hits a bump at some point. And for me, the worst experience of the year came on my Air New Zealand flight from LAX to Auckland in early November.

My husband and I had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy an upgrade into Premium Economy on the packed flight. When it didn’t come through, we shrugged it off, as we at least had aisle seats. Longhaul flights don’t scare me; while 12 hours and 40 minutes is an eternity in the air, I figured that my friend Ambien and the airline’s top-notch in-seat entertainment system would get me through.

Then I boarded. When I came to my row, I looked down, confused. An immense woman had taken up residence in my seat – and she didn’t seem keen on moving.

I pointed out the row number and told her that she was in the wrong place. She grudgingly moved over, keeping the armrest up as she struggled with her seat belt. When she couldn’t fasten it, the flight attendant came by with an extension. After she was buckled in, I put it armrest back down, but it didn’t help with boundary problems. The woman’s body spilled over the armrest, to such an extent that I couldn’t sit straight in my own seat.

And thus began the endurance test. Once we were in the air, I lifted the armrest on the aisle so I could at least try to sit straight. But that configuration put my feet in the aisle, vulnerable to getting stepped on (and tripping others). I looked over at the girl on the other side of my oversize seatmate. She, too, was sitting sideways and looked uncomfortable (although she was considerably shorter and smaller than me).

When the flight attendant came by and saw how I was wedged in, he looked aghast. “Tight squeeze, there,”  he said, sympathetically. “Is there anything I can do?” I suggested that he move me, but he checked and the plane was full. He did bring me some extra mini wine bottles. “Maybe this will help,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

They didn’t. Although she was squeezed in on both sides, my seatmate had no problems falling asleep – and she listed toward me. The heat from her body radiated. I could smell the B.O. When I got up to walk around, she encroached further. I could only get back in the seat by raising my armrest.

Lord knows, I tried to be a good sport. I’m not exactly a small person and I’ve felt the animosity that some people have toward larger women. But around hour 11, with the prospect of sleep far from reach, I lost it a bit. I put my head in my hands, leaning over to Don who was seated in the aisle seat across from me. “I can’t handle this,” I told him. “This is absolutely the worst.” When we arrived in New Zealand, I couldn’t get off the plane fast enough.

Luckily, Premium Economy seats were available on the flight back, so we paid $500 each to upgrade. The experience couldn’t have been more different. We had plenty of room, with great service and amenities. Finally, I felt, I was experiencing Air New Zealand the way that everyone else had.

I’m not writing this piece to cast more hate toward the obese. And I’m sure that my seatmate didn’t mean to make my life miserable; I can’t imagine how embarrassed I would have felt in her situation. But, at the same point, I had a much more unpleasant experience than other people on the flight, because of her. I’ve come to the unfortunate realization that the only way to ensure that something like that doesn’t happen again is to always try to upgrade, either through miles or money, on international flights, at least if I don’t score an exit row seat.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathryn Schipper December 29, 2011 at 5:46 am

Yuck! I’ve had a similar, though not quite as bad,experience on British Airways from London to Seattle. I wonder if Air New Zealand has the same “passenger of size” policy that some US carriers do; whereby large customers must buy two seats?

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Durant Imboden December 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm

It isn’t only the obese who can make other passengers feel crowded: On one flight, I was squeezed in next to a guy who was built like an NFL football player. He didn’t have any flab to spill into my space, but his arms and shoulders would have been a tight fit in a first-class seat.

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Chris December 30, 2011 at 5:09 am

Durant – True. My husband is 6’5 and so we work hard to make sure that he always gets an exit row (or we pay for a premium economy/preferred seat upgrade).

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Caroline December 30, 2011 at 8:19 am

Hey Chris,
That happened to me this year on a ten hour JetStar flight from Sydney to Honolulu. I felt terrible because the large man next to me was sweet as can be, offering to buy me coffee and such, but I didn’t know what to do. I could have asked to change seats but I was worried I would end up somewhere worse. He struggled to reach the bags under his feet, the change in his pocket and to buckle his seat belt. I finally understood all the controversy about making larger people buy additional seats because he was spilling over into my personal space, even when I put the armrest down between us.
Thanks for sharing!
Caroline

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Christine B.Osborne December 31, 2011 at 11:02 am

Oh dear, poor you. Please see my blog on obesity in the air.

http://christinebosborne.blogspot.com/2010/01/is-obesity-tax-unfair.html

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Shannon January 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm

I just flew from Paris to Atlantic over Christmas and had the worse experience I’ve ever had on a plane. This beats the baby issue that occurred from London to Seattle in September. This time, the gal next to me had such strong BO that I couldn’t breathe. I placed the eye mask they give you over my nose and mouth to try to muffle the smell. Of course this meant that I couldn’t eat or drink anything the entire 9.5 hour flight.

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Chris January 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm

@Shannon – Planes these days really test your endurance. I’m leaving tomorrow for Japan, which is almost a 12-hour flight. I have no idea what horrors will await. On the other hand, it’s the only way to get somewhere. I’m really concentrating this year on maxing out miles so I can use them to upgrade on trans-oceanic flights.

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Rob January 3, 2012 at 11:29 am

Urrgh – poor you. Thankfully, experiences like that are few and far between.

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Tony James Slater January 15, 2012 at 12:37 am

Yikes… I think if that happened to me I’d make a complaint to the steward/ess (in the privacy of the galley) and demand that my complaint be made known to management further up the company. I’d then put it in writing later on, perhaps with a sneaky camera phone photo when the Denizen of Middle Seat slept – and send all that in. Doesn’t make the experience any better, but you might get a few perks out of it – at very least a free upgrade for the return flight!
*shudder!*

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