By: Dana Palombo
Obesity is a growing issue, yet not many legal changes have been made to accommodate people who suffer from what many believe is a health condition. This includes issues overweight passengers experience on airlines, specifically in the Soltesz case. Vilma Soltesz, a fifty-six year old woman who weighed 407 pounds, was denied access to three different airplanes, in an effort to fly from Hungary to her New York home. Ms. Soltesz’s leg was partially amputated, confining her to a wheelchair, in addition to other health conditions, which began acting up during her stay in Hungary. Janos Soltesz, Ms. Soltesz’s husband, who was traveling with her, tried to get Ms. Soltesz on a flight back to New York so her doctor could treat her. Ms. Soltesz purchased two tickets for herself, one for her flight to Hungary and the other for her flight back to the United States. She did not have a problem with her weight and seating arrangements when flying to Hungary, but on the way back it became an issue.
Ms. Soltesz was shuffled between three different airlines, all of which were unable to accommodate her. On her first flight, the seats in the Soltesz’s assigned row were broken, which made it impossible for Ms. Soltesz to get from her wheelchair into her seats. The airline offered no compensation and requested the couple get off the flight even though, according to the suit filed in New York in federal court, Royal Dutch Airlines was made aware of Ms. Soltesz’s weight and health issues prior to boarding so a problem like this would not arise. The next flight was on Delta flying out of Prague the following day, however, upon attempting to board that flight, Delta did not have adequate wheelchair access to get Ms. Soltesz to her seat. According to the suit, the couple was “forced to disembark” and Delta said, “there was nothing more [it] could do for them.” The final attempt to get home was on a Lufthansa flight. Lufthansa was made aware of the Soltesz’s unique situation beforehand “so that the necessary accommodations could be made,” to get Ms. Soltesz home. Upon boarding the flight, Lufthansa medics helped get Ms. Soltesz to her seats, but before she was settled, the captain forced the couple off the flight stating they were holding up other passengers from making their connecting flights. Unfortunately, Ms. Soltesz did not get another chance to fly home to New York to see her doctor because the following day her husband “found her dead in her bed.”
Mr. Soltesz filed suit in New York against the three airlines for ten million dollars, charging them with wrongful death and claiming the airlines had shown “a willful, wanton and reckless disregard” for Ms. Soltesz’s health and safety by refusing to accommodate her return home for medical treatment. The suit was settled privately for six million dollars and the terms of the settlement are undisclosed. However, these, and all other airlines, must realize the implications of this settlement. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), passengers must be able to lower the armrest and fasten their seatbelts in order to fly. While the widths of the seats are not getting larger, obesity is becoming a more widespread issue; meaning airlines may face many future lawsuits if the current FAA regulations remain intact. Some airlines require overweight passengers to buy two seats so they do not encroach onto neighboring seats. Airlines cannot favor one type of passenger over another by allowing an overweight passenger, who does not fit into the one seat he has purchased, to infringe onto a portion of the seat an average sized passenger has paid full price for.
Aside from building planes with wider seats, airlines are stuck having to charge larger passengers higher fees or deny them access altogether, which may lead to legal complications in terms of discrimination, or wrongful death in the Soltesz case, against overweight and obese individuals. One solution may be for airlines to offer more seat width instead of more legroom in economy seating, but until the FAA creates uniform regulations to address obese customers, airlines will continue to be sued by passengers whose weight pose complex problems not easily solved by an extra seat.
Air Canada considers obesity to be a legitimate medical condition and will give obese passengers an extra seat free of charge if they can provide a doctor’s note. This may be a way for airlines to alleviate the threat of future lawsuits over accommodations for heavier individuals. However, it may be in the best interest of the airlines to sustain standard government regulations through the FAA by streamlining all airlines’ policies instead of allowing each airline to make individual policies, creating obese friendly airlines and airlines that are not as accommodating. Ultimately, this settlement sends a message to airlines that obese passengers have a voice and will utilize the legal system to substantiate change to accommodate their needs and safety as paying customers. Until then, airlines run the risk of future lawsuits, million dollar settlements, or extensive trials to solve the problem of passengers who are “too fat to fly.”
 Jacob Gershman, Airlines Settle ‘Too Fat to Fly’ Lawsuit Over Obese Wife’s Death Abroad, Wall Street Journal (Sept. 8, 2014, 11:35 PM), https://blogs.wsj.com/law/2014/09/08/airlines-settle-too-fat-to-fly-lawsuit-brought-by-new-york-city-widower/.
 Dareh Gregorian, Exclusive: Airlines Settle $6M Lawsuit in Death of Bronx Woman Who Was ‘Too Fat’ to Fly Home to the U.S., New York Daily News (Sept. 8, 2014, 2:30 AM) https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/exclusive-airlines-settle-6m-lawsuit-death-bronx-woman-fat-fly-home-article-1.1931576.
 Liz Weiss, Too Fat to Fly?, U.S. News & World Report (Sept. 9, 2012), https://travel.usnews.com/features/Too_Fat_to_Fly/.
 Gershman, supra note 1.