While we’re on the subject of airplanes . . .

Could we resolve to be kinder to large people? I had an eye-opening experience on a recent flight.  I was seated in coach, the aisle seat, with 2 other women.  One was a little smaller than I, the other a little larger, but we all fit easily into the seats.  Before takeoff, I heard some raised voices, and then the flight attendant came by, eyeballing each row. I saw her lock in on us, and sure enough, she stopped. Speaking quietly, she said there was a problem up front, with a passenger who refused to put the armrest up to accommodate a larger man.  It was getting ugly.  Would one of us be willing to move, and could the other two accommodate? I nodded assent, and my seatmates must have as well. The woman in the middle seat was out of there like a rocket, and the  woman who had been in the window seat took charge.  She had it all figured out. “We’ll put him in the window,” she said briskly, unbuckling and flipping up the armrests. “You and I can scootch over and that will make  enough room.”  We both moved into the aisle, and as the man arrived, I could see he was trying hard not to cry.  I blurted, “Welcome to row 37!”  He sat, we scootched, seatbelts were fastened and my take-charge friend asked if he was okay. His hands were shaking; he said that his previous seatmates had called him names.  Later, he disclosed a little more.  The passenger assigned to sit next to him called him a “fat fuck” and told him to get off the plane. And this was not the worst air travel experience he’s had. He only flies on business, and only if he absolutely has to.  He can’t sleep for days before he flies due to the stress.  People make cruel remarks at the gate, for god’s sake, telling him he better not be in a seat near them.  He doesn’t eat or drink anything when flying so as not to invite attention, and also to avoid using the restroom. He can’t put the tray table down. He doesn’t bother bringing a “personal item” because he can’t reach under the seat to stow it.

The airlines should do better. It’s hardly a radical notion that airplane seats should be the size of the people who will sit in them.  At 5’4″ I can reach under the seat to retrieve my briefcase, move my feet and cross my legs.  As I learned on the flight from Reno, I can fit in 3/4 of a seat width and it didn’t kill me.  I always thought I am short, but according to Wikipedia, I am of precisely average height for a woman, but the average man is 6 inches taller, and weighs more than twice what I do.  I’m not a numbers person, but it’s safe to say that a whole lot of people are too big for an airplane seat.  Would it be so bad to have a few specially sized seats assigned on the basis of need? I’m not talking about upgrading people to business-class, just basic size accommodation.  Why should a coach seat offer me plenty of wiggle room, while a tall person is tormented and heavy people have to spill over?  It’s Procrustean.

But enough about the airlines. They stink at taking care of people and it will never change.  It’s my peers that shock me.  I took to Google and found an awful lot of vocal fat-shamers.  What is the matter with these people that they need to trumpet their judgment of others?  It’s none of our business how obese people got that way; some of them eat healthier than thin people. There’s even an acronym TOFI (thin outside, fat inside) for people who look fine but have terrible medical stats.  We have no right to assume anything about obese people except that they suffer.

I don’t know why these men  thought it was okay to verbally abuse an obese passenger, but I bet their moms would not be proud.  I was pleased to hear from the flight attendant that the woman who relocated from Row 37 had plenty to say to them, and the French word for “shower” was liberally used.  As for me, I was glad to have been able to offer some refuge, and greatly impressed with the competence of the woman originally in the window seat. I’m sure she’s a mom.

Author: Lowry Heussler

Lowry Heussler is a lawyer from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Having participated in the RBC as a guest-blogger, she made it official in 2012. Her most important contribution to the field of public policy to date was her 1994 instruction to Mark Kleiman, "Read Ann Landers every day. You need to learn about real people." Her essay on the 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates went viral and brought about one of her proudest moments, being described as "just another twit along the lines of Sharpton, Jackson, Gates, etc." (Small Dead Animals Blog). Currently serving as General Counsel to BOTEC Analysis Corp., she has been a public housing lawyer, a prosecutor for the Board of Registration in Medicine, a large-firm associate and a small-firm partner. She serves as a board member for NEADS, Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, a charity that trains service dogs to increase independence for people with disabilities.

19 thoughts on “While we’re on the subject of airplanes . . .”

  1. Lowry, as a larger passenger myself, I can't thank you enough for this post. I didn't travel for 7 years, until I could afford to fly up front because of the size of airplane seats. And now seat sizes are smaller than ever. For example, the 777 was designed for 9 seats across in coach. Now almost every airline has 10.

    We have economy plus for tall people, so for maybe 10-20% more, they get 3-5 extra inches for the legs. But for wider people, no such option exists. Most larger people don't want a handout, they just want a fair and reasonable option.

  2. Airlines should be required to provide realistic accommodations for the different sizes of passengers who fly. And airline passengers who fat shame others should be given an earful and then some But those of us who are short and slight should not be made to furnish those accommodations, nor to forgo our own already limited personal space. My almost 70 years of experience is too often we are elbowed aside by taller, larger people — on buses, on planes, in elevators, on sidewalks. No thanks!

  3. "I’m sure she’s a mom."
    Or maybe a teacher. Or a veteran. Or a waitress. Or an events organizer. Or a check-in clerk at a hotel that handles lots of conventions. Or an EMT. Or a children's librarian. Or a minimum wage employee providing care at an assisted living facility. . . .

    It is good that you and your seatmates were able to provide accommodation to the gentleman. And I agree with lifeinthebonusround that accommodation should be provided-accommodating our fellow human beings is part of being in any sort of society. But I also agree that it's untenable to always ask other passengers to create the accommodation. A passenger, however, slim and slight, might have very good reason for finding it problematic, psychologically or physically, to pass a long flight in physical contact with someone else. I am trying to imagine how such a passenger, eyeballed by the flight attendant as possibly able to solve the flight attendant's problem by passing the flight without the physical barrier of an armrest, might have difficulty refusing the request.

    Finally, I really wish you hadn't said that you occupied 3/4 of a seat and "it didn't kill [you]." If there's an airline bean-counter reading this, s/he is at this moment trying to work out how exactly to position the two extra seats (new, slim size!) that could add to the 10-seat widebody row, and whether they can add the extra half-seat and sell it at full price as a "seat specially designed to accommodate our pre-school guests!"

    1. I'm autistic, and like a lot of autistic people, I have issues with physical contact with other people. Fortunately, this does not extend to hugs and other gestures of affection from people I know, but sitting in coach with someone whose body extends into my seat, or crowded public transit, can be a disturbing experience. I'm now willing to drive 14-16 hours in order to avoid air travel, and that radius keeps getting longer.

      So, put me down for wider seats, too.

      1. In fact, I had in mind particularly people with autism, among others-there are many people whose experiences would make being on a flight where they had to be physically touching a stranger, or feeling physically crowded by a stranger, essentially impossible. I recall reading about a situation where a person boarded a plane and found that the armrest of between their seat and the adjacent one was up, and the adjacent seat was occupied by a woman who said, apologetically enough, that her size made lowering the armrest not an option. And I was trying to figure out how on earth someone who had autism or any other issue could possibly make their needs known to the flight attendant without seeming to be fat-shaming or otherwise becoming a "problem customer."

        By the way, I was poking around some airline websites and checking their policies for "customers of size." I was rather pleased to find, aside from what I am tempted to call the "basket of inflexibles" some airlines that acknowledge directly and in very nearly so many words that accommodating customers who require extra seating space is part and parcel of accommodating the safety and comfort of all their passengers.

    2. Actually, you hit on an idea that really has legs, if you'll pardon the pun. That airline bean-counter is dreaming up an ad campaign where "super slim" seating is available only to the svelte, at a premium rate. To qualify for the seats, you will have to weigh in at the luggage scale. The seats will be in a different color, and slightly elevated, so the occupants can look down on people. The flight attendants will only offer cucumber water. I know the seats will sell like crazy, because the couturiers have already figured this out. If I shop at Target, I'm a size 6. Brooks Brothers: size 4. J Crew? Size 2. Woman happily pay a premium for the number on the size label.

  4. Airlines already offer seats large enough for the obese: first class. Of course, obesity correlates negatively with wealth, so those seats are mostly used by people who don't need them.

    Please note that people do have legitimate reasons for not wanting to sit next to the obese in coach. Spending four hours with someone else's belly in your lap is really unpleasant. Not remotely unpleasant enough to justify the verbal abuse described above; nonetheless, there's a legitimate issue here.

  5. This is a perfect example of how those in power pit less-powerful groups against one another.

  6. At 71/180 (inches/centimeters) and having an unfortunate tendency toward cramped thigh muscles (semitendonosis, semimembranosis, biceps femoris) I can no longer fly coach. I have fond memories of my younger days when not only was there adequate leg room but also a fold-down foot rest on the seat ahead of me. Those days are gone and so am I. Just as well since my state driver's license will soon be unacceptable by the TSA and my passport expired 11 years ago.

    But in the days when I did engage in air travel, I found myself on an Air Niugini flight and across the aisle from me was a man large enough to need multiple seat belt extensions. Whether he paid for all 3 seats or not was none of my affair. A few years later, commuting via city bus I noticed that when "ken" boarded, he always chose one of the bench seats at the front of the bus that were aligned with the long axis and provided plenty of room for him without inconveniencing others. And if anyone has been furniture shopping lately, it's hard to avoid noticing oversized chairs. It's possible to accommodate larger people, just not in coach class on deregulated air carriers.

  7. This might be less of an issue if airplanes were not packed full. A couple of empty seats could be used to give obese people some extra space, and spare their neighbors as well.

  8. What was uncomfortable and cramp-inducing for me at 5'8" was torture for my seatmate at what looked like 6'3" or 4". But we were at least thin and could move around a bit. I can only imagine what it would be like for an obese person. It seems as if the air lines don't want their business, because they make it so hard to fly if you're even a bit over "regulation size."

    1. " It seems as if the air lines don't want their business, because …"

      Feel free to fill in any of at least a dozen attributes of modern airlines:
      -Baggage mishandling and losses
      -Inability to keep to their schedule
      -Incredible cheapness (meals became snacks became peanuts became …???)
      -Hidden charges
      -Aggravating nickel-and-diming
      -"Service with a smile" became "Whattaya want? Sorry, ya can't have it."
      -…and of course, "comfortable" became 'tight" became "cramped" became "intolerable."
      The list is long, isn't it?

      The airlines are, of course, the perfect proof of the Republican Party mantra: "Put it in the hands of private enterprise, Let people cast their votes with their checkbooks. The marketplace will solve the problems." ::end snark::

      1. Maybe airplanes could be designed with a pop-up or detachable pod with larger seats, which could be deployed if needed. Or perhaps a glider which the airliner can tow behind it.

  9. While we are waiting for the revival of the airship (lots of space and lightweight seating, originally wicker) there are still trains. Here's a standard second class Spanish AVE carriage. There are usually some facing seats with a table in between, good for families but with less room for legs. The seat pitch is a generous 1m. By good luck, the width of the carriage is fixed and it's impracticable to put more than four seats across, so that's what you get. First class carriages are three across, and of course the markup is far less than between coach and business in the air.

  10. I'm shocked at the comments he said people gave him. I shouldn't be, but am because I just don't hear things like that.

    When I used to teach, one of the things that bedeviled me was that I knew bullying was going on, but kids were very good at hiding it from adults.

    As a relatively average white male, I'm not the object of such insulting behavior. And my suspicion is that people are very good at hiding their comments from others. I've always heard from women, minorities, gays, overweight, etc. that insulting, degrading comments aren't infrequent.

    The fact that this sort of "bullying" goes on unnoticed by the likes of me explains how the myth of a "post-hate" society (you might call it) is indeed a myth.

  11. For years before my disgust with airlines made me decide to give up flying, I routinely would book a second seat, so as not to inconvenience others. Aside from the extra cost, the airlines won't let you book two seats with the same name. And of course, there's no guarantee that the second seat is adjacent to the first.

    I believe that with Southwest and others requiring some to buy a second seat, that all airlines should be required to quote prices and accomodate requests for second seat. But that would be reasonable and we can't expect that.

    Of course some people will always be a**holes; not much to be done to fix that.

  12. Over-booking and hub-spoke fetishism are also at issue here. Several airlines used to have a rule that if you were over 375, let's say, you were required to buy a second seat. The CFO at my company was about 450, and he always booked two. But, given the prices, and the inadequacy of rail routes, I know a lot of obese people who just don't fly. My girlfriend never says anything nasty, but she always used to ask to move to an empty seat when she got squeezed by the overflow from the neighboring seat, particularly in the summer time, when people might show up in shorts and a tanktop and be sweating profusely from schlepping their stuff through the miles of shopping mall that now constitute the modern airport. I get her point, she's tiny, and she didn't pay to have a monstrous sweaty shoulder drenching her blouse or hair. Now there are no longer unoccupied seats, and if there are, they're in Economy Plus, and they'll try to gouge you $125 for the "upgrade". It does seem for everybody's sake they should simply have some non-first class seats with extra room, a few rows of four instead of six, only sacrificing four seats total, and applying a reasonable surcharge. Little squeamish women have rights as well, and shouldn't necessarily be expected using one side of their body as a sweat sponge. As Jim Brown used to say, anything outside the helmet belongs to you, anything inside the helmet belongs to me, and I'll bite it off and spit it out, so you can have it on your side again.

    Next up, a soundproof row for crying babies and passengers whose little cellphone/game bleeps go off every 8 seconds for three hours.

  13. Well, there's no excuse for unpleasantness, rudeness or abuse, but if some large passenger asked me to pull up the seat rest because his or her body didn't fit within the confines of their seat I would kindly, but firmly refuse.

    Obviously the issue of people who are too large to fit in a tiny airplane seat is a problem. But it's not my problem. It's not up to me to solve it by allowing myself to be squashed by an obese seatmate for hours on a long flight.

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