You are in the business of transporting humans through the air. Humans come in all shapes and sizes. Deal with it.
There are tall humans and short humans, fat humans and skinny humans, humans in wheelchairs, humans on crutches, humans who max out their carry-on luggage, humans with small children and solo humans with no baggage. Do you think this is a hassle? Go and become a cargo airline – no one is stopping you.
If you still want to be in the passenger airline business, then you need to quit treating humans as if they were standard-size freight. All paying customers have an equal right to fly, not just thin ones. Now it might theoretically be possible that somewhere in the world there are humans who are so enormous that they literally cannot ever fly because of safety reasons, no matter how many seats they have.
But let’s call BS when we see it: That’s not what we’re talking about! If someone were “too fat to fly”, then having two seats would not make it any safer in the event of an emergency evacuation. If it were about safety, you would not routinely put them on the next flight or give them flight vouchers in compensation!
The reality is that you have set a seat configuration for your plane that allocates space based on a formula. That formula allows just enough space for a person of average size to fit, but not necessarily be comfortable. But you know what? By definition not everyone will conform to an average. When you are dealing with humans of different shapes and sizes, roughly half the people will be bigger than average and roughly half will be smaller. That’s mathematics.
When you combine the fact that your seat configuration is not based on reality with the fact that you routinely overbook flights, then you end up with a problem. A problem of your making. It’s not the fault of your passengers for coming in different shapes and sizes, it’s your fault for not understanding that accommodating this fact is a cost of doing business if you want to be a passenger airline.
I understand that it can be difficult if your flight is full and you are trying to get the passengers seated and the plane off the ground. It’s a problem caused by airline management, but I can understand the stress for flight attendants who have to deal with it. But here’s a tip: Looking around for the nearest fat person and ejecting them off the plane, even if they are already seated, is not the right way to deal with it. As far as I can tell, this seems to be what happened to film director Kevin Smith (aka “Silent Bob”) when flying Southwest Air on the weekend.
If you are going to discriminate against fat people, please don’t do it in my name. As a woman who is 5’5” (165cm) with a medium build (size 8 US), I fit nicely into your economy seats. I’m privileged to have a body shape that conforms to your standards and I find it highly unlikely that I would ever be kicked off a plane for this particular reason.
So when you say that your policy of making fat people buy two seats is for the comfort of other passengers, I’m those other passengers. And let’s get real: I don’t believe for a second that it’s about making me comfortable. I believe it’s about revenue raising by shaming fat people into buying two seats. I also believe it’s about expedience – it’s a convenient but arbitrary reason to shove someone off an overbooked flight. After all, it seems that even when someone does book two seats, they don’t always get to keep them when the flight is full.
If you were truly concerned about my comfort, then you would also ban tall people (who can take up just as much space without being fat), men who spread their legs, children who kick the back of the seat, screaming babies, people who recline the seat when I’m eating my meal, people who complain about me reclining the seat when the meal service is over, people who blind me by opening the window shades at the wrong time, and people with excessive flatulence.
But the reality is that dealing with other passengers in close proximity is part of the deal if I choose to fly economy. Sure I’d prefer to have the arm rest down and not to have someone’s thigh pressing against me, but I can’t always get what I want. Like the average consumer I typically choose low airfares over comfort and luxury. The other person is not doing anything wrong just by being there. If I’m so concerned about my own comfort, then surely I should be the one to buy two seats or pay for an upgrade?
If I choose not to do that, then I’ll deal with whoever I happen to be sitting next to. And I’ll try to be gracious about it and smile at the human sitting next to me rather than throwing them dirty looks because they’re not giving me exactly half the arm rest and they’ve stolen an inch of my theoretical leg space.
Some people suggest that most fat people are fat because they eat too much and don’t exercise and that this is unhealthy and therefore airlines should impose an obesity tax. In reality, there is debate about the health aspects – the BMI is notoriously unreliable as a public health measure and there is some evidence that it is possible to achieve health at every size. It is also impossible to tell by looking at someone whether they are fat because they eat too much or because of genetics, or because they have a glandular problem, they are recovering from an eating disorder, or because their pro-football coach asked them to get that way, or because they’ve lost the weight and regained it, or a hundred other reasons. And even if you happen to see a large person eating a large meal, you still don’t know.
But you know what? It’s irrelevant. It’s a private matter for that person. It’s not anyone else’s job to judge them or make them feel any more ashamed than they already do. It’s not our job to divide the world into good fatties and bad fatties. Maybe fat is unhealthy but that doesn’t make it a moral issue. And last time I checked, airlines were not in the business of healthcare or public health policy.
Airlines, I realise that no matter how big you make your seats, there will probably always be outliers who require a bigger seat. But the current policies are affecting too many people to be reasonable. The so-called obesity epidemic isn’t going to go away overnight and it’s going to take time and money before you can reconfigure your seating, which you should definitely think about doing at some point. But you could alleviate most of the problem right now by ending routine overbooking.
Think about it.
- Kate Harding has written a moving piece about the human suffering caused by airlines’ policies on fat, in her Broadsheet column on Salon: Kevin Smith: The face of flying while fat.
- On Wanderlust and Lipstick: An inspiring story A monk walks on to a plane.
- Fat acceptance blog Shapely Prose summarises the incident with Kevin Smith and Southwest Air: Kevin Smith kicked off Southwest Air flight for being fat.
- Kevin Smith’s Twitter stream. His podcast: SModcast (I especially recommend episode #107, a great interview with the large girl he sat next to on his final flight). Also his blog: Running out of gas on this subject.
- SouthwestAir’s Twitter stream. Their blog: My conversation with Kevin Smith.
- Travel Rants podcast: The debate on obese passengers.
- Travels with my Hat: Is an obesity tax unfair? (The blogger argues no – I tried to leave a comment but as with many Blogger/Blogspot sites, my comment was lost).
Comment policy: You are welcome to disagree with me but I will not tolerate abuse of any kind.