Last year Kenlie Tiggeman was told by a gate agent of Southwest Airlines that she was “too fat to fly”. She is now suing Southwest Airlines. She’s not trying to get money, what she wants is an industry standard for flyers who have to buy another seat, in her words “If you’re telling me I have to buy two seats, you should tell me at the point of purchase, not the day I’m flying when I check in at the terminal.”
I have tremendous respect for her taking action on this and putting herself out there. I understand her frustration, nobody should be humiliated at any time, but especially by a company that they have paid for a service. However, I disagree with what she’s asking for. I’m very concerned that this suit will lead to an arbitrary policy that won’t help anyone and will hurt a lot of people.
It’s all but impossible to tell if you are going to fit into an airline seat before you get on the plane. For my speaking gigs I often fly twice a week taking 4-6 different planes. I can tell you that planes are very different – seats are different sizes, seat belts are different lengths, depending on the size, type and age of the plane.
Also, it’s difficult to choose a standard by which to judge if you’re going to fit. Weight, for example, is not an indicator of body size. I weigh almost 300 pounds but because my fat goes forward and back, and because a lot of my mass is muscle, I happen to fit into a seat. There are people who weigh one hundred pounds less than I do who cannot fit comfortably in a seat because they carry their weight differently. Some people’s bodies will squish to fit between the armrests, some won’t. Hip measurements have the same challenges – some people squish, some don’t. My hip measurement is large but you have to take into account how the weight is carried.
The general argument about this goes that the airline is selling space and therefore if you don’t fit in a seat you should pay extra. I do understand this argument and why there is controversy about this. I disagree, stick with me to the end of the blog and if you disagree I’m open to that. The primary reason I disagree is that the airlines are selling transportation to people. This isn’t Priority Mail “if it fits it ships”, the airline industry is in the business of transporting actual people, and people come in different sizes and shapes, and therefore I think that the airlines are responsible for accommodating their actual passengers and not just those who are a specific size. We are all paying to get our bodies from one place to another.
I’ve seen flight attendants bend over backwards to accommodate a tall thin passenger, and if someone wants to use the ” tall isn’t their fault but being fat is” argument (thought I don’t agree with the premise), then I’ve seen flight attendants bend over backwards for someone wearing a cast and using crutches and, having watched the show Jackass, I know that could very well be the result of doing something incredibly foolish. At the end of the day, it’s about getting bodies from one place to another. People come in different sizes, this is the size I come in, and I need to get from here to there just like everybody else who is getting on this plane.
Also, I would argue that this is thinly-veiled fat discrimination because nobody ever says anything about men (and sometimes women) whose shoulders don’t fit within their prescribed area – next time you get on a plane look at how many people’s shoulders are in someone else’s seat. We’re also not talking about people with body odor or people who have marinated in cheap cologne and make the flight unpleasant for a couple of rows of passengers – should they be required to purchase all the seats within smelling distance?
We keep hearing about how airlines are struggling financially. You would think that if more than 67% of Americans are fat then it might make financial sense to court us for our business, not treat us like we are an unbelievable pain in the ass because we have the audacity to exist, and their refusal to actually accommodate us results in us bothering some tiny percentage of the 33% of people with whom the airlines actually seem to want to do business.
This is a problem, but the solution is definitely not to set some arbitrary weight at which people should have to pay extra, or to have people entering their hip measurements along with their credit card numbers.
Accommodating fat people is not rocket science. Canada has a one-passenger one-ticket rule so clearly it’s not impossible. Put us in the aisle – a lot of people don’t know that the aisle armrest actually raises. You have to keep it down during take-off and landing, but for the vast majority of the flight you can gain a lot of space. Choose which standby passengers get to fly based on who is willing to sit next to a person of size. Insist that your staff stop being bigots and jerks and work to accommodate people of size.
Quit bowing to passengers who are weight bigots. If the person sitting next to you has their body in your seat but isn’t touching you, then you may have 99 problems but a fatty ain’t one, enjoy your flight. If the person sitting next to you is touching you, then welcome to the experience of millions of people taking public transportation every day, this may not be your favorite flight ever-it happens. I’ve been seated next to a shrieking baby, in front of a kicking toddler, near people with some serious body odor, near other people wearing half a bottle of the world’s most noxious perfume. I’m allergic to cats and I spent 4 hours sitting (and sneezing) next to a woman with a sick cat in a carrier in her lap beside me. None of these were fun flights, but in each case I can empathize. Also, get a grip - it’s a few hours out of your life, you don’t have to spend a month on this plane. If you don’t want to deal with other people in close proximity public transportation is not for you.
Fat people are in fact people. We’re just like you, only bigger. We deserve the same ability as everyone else to buy one ticket for our one body, get on a plane, and get safely to our destination without being the subject of bullying, harassment, or bigotry because of how we look.
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