On Flying While Fat

Before last week, it had been about a year since I’d been on a plane.  In that time, I’ve read quite a lot in the Fatosphere and elsewhere online on the topic of Flying While Fat.  It’s funny—I actually weigh a bit less than I did at this time last year, but while I’ve never been afraid of being busted for FWF before, I was distinctly trepidatious about getting on the plane last week because the possibility that I might have to buy a second seat had been pushed to the forefront of my mind.

Two things:

First, I hate to fly.  Given a choice, I’d rather take a train, even if it means twice the travel time or more.  Of course, rail travel comes with its own set of problems—most notably, the needs of Amtrak passengers are, by definition, subordinate to the priorities of the freight companies that own most of the railroads in America.  It absolutely baffles me how a country this big, in terms of both population and sheer square miles, can possibly not have government-subsidized, high-speed passenger rail.  Japan has it.  Europe has it, and I’m sure it came in very handy when a giant cloud of volcanic ash recently grounded virtually the entire commercial air fleet of half the continent while Mother Nature served us with her periodic reminder that we are not, in fact, in charge.  Rail, people.  Get behind it.

Second, flying last week helped clarify my thinking on Flying While Fat.

As it happens, a few days before this flight I read Kate Harding’s rant about air travel.  It wasn’t specifically about Flying While Fat, but she did provide links to past pieces on that topic, which in turn led to a trail of links all over the internet.  The crux of the issue:  fat people jamming themselves into tiny seats on airplanes make their seatmates uncomfortable.  Airlines, barely making a profit these days, aren’t about to make seats bigger.  So to deal with the issue, a few of them have instituted a policy that requires fat passengers above a certain size to pay for taking up extra space. Since the unit of purchase for air travel is the seat (and not, say, the square inch), those deemed “too fat to fly on one fare” must pay for an entire second seat.  The standard for deciding who must do this seems to be those people who cannot fasten their seatbelts (sometimes allowing for the use of seatbelt extenders) and/or cannot lower the armrest when seated.    The policy has split air passengers into two camps:  those who believe in one fare per passenger, and those who believe that people whose bodies take up more space should pay more.

As with most things having to do with fat in America, this issue is not as straightforward as it seems.  First, a fatty is far from the only type of person that can make air travel excruciating for fellow passengers.  Tall people with excessively long legs, broad-shouldered men, people who smell, people who snore or fart a lot, people with window seats and overactive bladders, and people traveling with babies and small children who shriek, cry, and kick the back of your seat can all make the friendly skies far from friendly.  Nobody is proposing that airlines penalize these groups for causing discomfort to others or devising a way to protect others from them.

Second, the standard seems to disproportionately penalize those who are bottom-heavy.  Exceptionally broad-shouldered men crowd their seatmates just as much as those with exceptional junk in the trunk, but it’s unlikely they’d have a tough time with seatbelts and armrests.  Some people would respond to that by saying it’s not about seat space; it’s about the extra jet fuel required to cart fatties through the sky.  They are, of course, dissembling.  Sure, it requires more fuel to transport a fat person than a thin person.  That is, unless the thin person is traveling with multiple suitcases, a lap baby with stroller and diaper bag, and some golf clubs or skis or a surfboard or other trappings of physical activity that fat people would never, ever travel with, because they obviously don’t do those things, or they wouldn’t be fat in the first place.  I rarely see it said that people should pay by the pound for every pound of ANYTHING they bring on the plane.  Just their own personal corpulence.  In any case, the weight of all passengers combined is less than 10% of the overall weight of the airplane, so to say a handful of fat passengers is going to break the bank or cause the polar icecaps to melt is disingenuous at best.  So it’s really not about the jet fuel, is it?

Despite all of that, I’m going to break with the fat sisterhood and say I think the policy is fair.  (That is, as long as it is applied properly and consistently, which is often isn’t: I’ve read examples of second seats that were in totally different rows, or seats that were taken back *without a refund* when the airline needed the seat back because the flight was oversold.)  Why do I think this?  Because I’m pretty big, and I make the cutoff.  This gives me some insight as to who it is that is being asked to buy an extra seat.  I am in the 95th percentile for both height AND weight for women in my age group according to the federal government.  That’s big.  Seriously.  Even so, I can put the armrest down and fasten my seatbelt without an extender.  If you can’t do either, you are in a very tiny group of very big people, and though I love you just the way you are, it’s probably fair to ask you to buy an extra seat.  There.  I said it.

But you know what would be even more fair?  If airlines had a better mix of seat options.  I have no idea what is meant by “business class” because I’ve never been on a plane that had it.  Every plane I’ve ever been on in my life had exactly two options:  economy class, which is basically like a flying sardine can; and first class, which is financially out of reach for just about everybody.  It would be great if there were some sort of middle ground, where you got a bigger seat but no additional perks.  I don’t need to pee in the first class lavatory.  I don’t need free beer and a hot meal.  Price it, say, 50% more than coach, rather than double or triple the cost of coach, which is the norm for first class.  I bet those seats would go like hotcakes.  The fatties would snap them up (believe me, we’re craving extra space and comfort just as much as the skinny people who sit next to us), and those people thin enough to be comfy in coach can stay there.

And while we’re on the subject of fair, let’s talk about the way in which the rule is applied.  Fat people should not have to wait until they’re already on the plane to find out they need a second seat.  Put a model seat somewhere in the airport where people can try it out and see how they fit before they board the plane, preferably in a private area.  This way they can make the choice to board the plane or not and avoid the humiliation of being asked in front of fellow passengers to exit the plane or buy a second seat.

In addition, once a second seat is purchased, sorry, but that seat is the property of the person who bought the ticket.  The airline should not be permitted to demand the second seat back because they oversold the flight.  Either the person fits or they don’t—if they magically fit when the slight is oversold, then they fit, period.  Also, sorry skinny people, but you’re not entitled to put your belongings in that seat once it belongs to a fat passenger who was asked to buy the extra space because skinny people complain.  Don’t even ask.  And if you do ask and the answer is no, shut up about it.  This is what you wanted, right?

But you know, perhaps “skinny” is the wrong word for the people complaining about fatties in flight.  Again, my recent experience has provided me with new insight into the situation.  In both directions, I was seated next to thin people.  Our thighs did not touch.  Our arms did not touch.  They did not have to lean away from me to preserve some semblance of personal space.  They seemed completely comfortable.  This has led me to a new theory:  The people whining about having to sit next to fatties might, in fact, be fatties themselves.  They just don’t realize it.  After all, when the media preach to us about the OMGbesity Epidemic, they always show photos of people my size and larger.  But going by actual BMI, people who weigh a hundred pounds less than I do are often still technically overweight, although they don’t resemble the headless fatties they see on the news and probably don’t think of themselves that way.  So, heads up, people:  If you are feeling really cramped by the fatty sitting next to you, it’s time to confront the possibility that you might be a fatty, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: