Ahh the holidays. Before your family can ask “Do you need to eat that?” you have to get to them. For a lot of us that means flying.
For many fat people I know, jumping out of a plane is less scary than trying to board one. The fact that I fit in a seat is, oddly, not the end of my fear. For most airlines, whether or not I’ll have a problem on the plane is based on the ground personnel’s opinion and that means that I have anxiety when I fly (and not just whether or not PETA thinks I’m a babe in my TSA Scan). I fear being embarrassed by airline personnel. I have the financial fear that I might have to pay for an extra seat at the last minute. There is no way to definitively find out if you’re considered “over-sized” until you get there and so the “safe” choice according to the airlines is to buy two seats and trust them to refund one if you don’t need it. That’s certainly an option, but it’s not one that I want to take since I don’t need the seat and don’t trust the airlines.
When it comes to charging large people more my understanding of airline policy is this: The airline is selling space – the amount of space is one seat. Space is at a premium on an aircraft and the carriers have created a price for that amount of space. It’s very much like the Postal Services flat fee “if it fits it ships” priority mail. You can mail as much as you can fit in that container for a flat fee, but if your stuff doesn’t fit in that container, then you have to pay extra. You wouldn’t say that the postal service is discriminating against people who had larger objects to mail and that they should pay the same price to mail a larger item. Thin people are justified in complaining about overcrowding because they paid for one seat, just as the fat person beside them did, but they are not getting what they paid for because the person next to them is taking up more than that for which they paid. You are paying the airline not just for passage from one destination to another, but also for the amount of space on the plane. (As evidenced by the price difference between first class and coach, as well as the optional upgrades to larger seats in coach that some airlines offer.)
There are plenty of good arguments made for changing this policy. However, since this is the policy right now and we would like to fly right now, I propose the following argument: If that is their policy then it must be applied across the board. I notice that’s it’s only those whose middles spill across the seat who have a problem. If you are traditionally thin but your shoulders are too broad to fit in a seat and they end up in the seat(s) beside you, that’s fine – the people around you just have to deal with it. If you have a smaller body but long legs, you will not be asked to pay for two seats, even though your legs will end up in the space your seatmates paid for. In fact, on a recent flight I was asked to vacate the aisle seat that I had gone to great pains to secure and move to a middle seat so that a gentleman with long legs could be more comfortable. If I am ever asked to pay more or -and heaven help the flight attendant who does this- asked to leave a plane because of my size, then you better believe that I’m going to be looking around and counting the number of people whose shoulders and legs are crossing the line and insisting that they pay up or get off the plane with me.
There are plenty of other pitfalls to flying fat. In the end, at least for me, the goal of flying is to get where I’m going with my dignity, sanity, and sense of humor intact. Here is some of what I’ve learned to help me do that:
The truth about airplane seats
The average coach airplane seat measures between 17.2 and 18 inches across, so you’ll probably feel squeezed if your hip measurement is more than 36 inches (I’ve read that the average American woman’s hips are between 44 and 46 inches and the average American men’s are 38 inches, but I that info hasn’t been heavily verified so don’t quote me on it).
One thing that is less talked about but may be more important is pitch – the measurements between seats as they are aligned in rows. This has changed quite a bit as airlines have added additional rows and small pitches mean less leg room. In first class the typical pitch is about 80-inches. In coach it’s usually about 31 inches.
If a person is over six feet with hips greater than 36 inches, they are probably going to feel very squished (that’s a technical term) both vertically and horizontally in a coach seat. There are some airlines that offer some seats (typically at a higher price) with more legroom – you typically have to book them ahead of time, but you can also ask when you check in for your flight.
Know your airlines
Hie thee to Google! Use search terms like “Fat friendly airlines”, “[airline name] oversize passengers” “[airline name] fat passenger” etc. and see what you get. I typically fly Continental and I’ve also flown American and haven’t had any problems. After the Kevin Smith incident I’ve been too angry and too scared to board a Southwest flight so I can’t say about them.
If you’re going to be hassled you want to know sooner rather than later. Get to the airport early so that you have time to talk to a manager, make an adjustment etc.
BYOB – Bring Your Own Belt
Seat belt extenders can be purchased reasonably cheaply online (I got mine for about $40 but I’ve seen them cost a little more and lots less – especially on Ebay). There are two types, conveniently named Type A and Type B. Type A are used for most commercial airlines, Type B are used predominantly for Southwest Airlines. Although I don’t always need an extender, I always travel with one. Typically planes only carry 3-4 and I don’t want them to run out. Also, I don’t particularly want to worry about how much the flight attendant will judge me if I need one. Having my own extender is just awesome and I highly recommend it.
Back Up Plan
Decide what you will do if you are asked to purchase a second seat. Write out and practice what you’ll say. Then you can either start saving early and be ready to pay, or be ready with another way to get to your destination, or cancel your trip. I hate situations like this because I can end up feeling powerless – in my experience you’ll feel more powerful if you are prepared for what will happen.
Be friendly and empathetic
You deserve to be treated with respect in every interaction, including when on a plane. Realize, though, that while it’s not your fault that the seats are small and the pitch is narrow and the airline perhaps can’t accommodate you properly, it’s not the fault of the person/people in sitting beside you either. Recognize that if the person next to you fits in their seat and you do not, their view is likely to be that you each paid the same amount for space and you are taking up more than your fair share, so they aren’t getting what they paid for. I suggest that you insist on being treated with respect, but do be empathetic. Decide if you want this to be a moment to start a dialog or you just want to put on your head phones and get through the flight. As always, it’s your choice.