Flying While Fat

Today, Ragen Chastain posted a really excellent take-down of an Etiquette Hell piece arguing that if you don’t fit in a standard airplane seat, it’s your obligation to pay for a first-class seat or two seats to, as Ms. E-Hell puts it, “never presume I am entitled to more seat than I paid for and if any body part of mine has the potential to spill over into someone else’s purchased space, I need to make sure I pay for enough room to contain my body within the zone I “own”.”

Ragen covered the idea that it’s not any oppressed group’s job to be extra-special nice and accommodating to avoid perpetuating stereotypes. She also pointed out that it’s a pretty unreasonable expectation for someone to pay twice as much, or more, or just not travel, to avoid mildly inconveniencing someone else.

There are a couple other things I’d like to tack onto that. First off, the Etiquette Hell argument is based on the idea that you pay for a seat of a certain size. But seat size isn’t actually advertised when you order a ticket, at least not anywhere that I’ve seen. (I’ve flown Southwest, AirTran before it became part of Southwest, and Air Canada.) I checked Southwest just now, and there’s nothing in the flight info about seat size. If you look up flight info, you can get the plane type and then plug that info into SeatGuru to get a reasonable idea.

So, let’s say I try to be a super accommodating “good fatty” on my next trip. I determine that I need a 17.5 inch seat to fit without (oh horrors) touching the person next to me. Not wanting to pay double for first class, I make it a point to pick a flight that uses a plane with that seat width, even though that flight has a three-hour layover in Albequerque and requires me to leave the house at 4 AM. Except when I show up for the flight, it turns out that that particular plane is stuck in bad weather in Chicago, so my flight is on a different plane, with 17 inch seats. Oops. I already got up early and planned to sit around the airport for hours longer than I needed to. Do I owe it to my hypothetical seatmate to spring for an upgrade to first-class (if there are even seats available)?

Also, even if you were paying for space, it seems a little ridiculous to pay for 34 inches of space if you’re only using 18. And if you’re a thin adult, or a small child, you certainly don’t get a discount for all that space you’re not using. It’s not like there’s an option for people of size to pay twenty bucks extra to sit next to someone who’s a size 6 or less, and have that thin person pay twenty bucks less.

It’s even more apparent that you’re not really paying for a seat of a certain size when you realize that as the average person gets bigger, plane seats keep getting smaller. If airlines actually based their seat sizes on average body size, you might have an argument that people who are above that should pay more. But they don’t.

The other thing I think this piece misses is that there’s no consideration of who’s inconvenienced more in this scenario. Asking one person to undergo a major hardship to potentially save someone else some minor irritation just seems really unbalanced to me. Ms. E-Hell doesn’t say you should buy an extra seat if you encroach so much on the seat next to you that the other person is squished, or that you and them just plain will not fit. (That would be a much more reasonable position.) The standard is that if *any* part of your body is in the other seat by even a tiny bit, you should fly first-class or buy two seats. So, I’m supposed to pay double for a flight to spare someone else the horror of maybe brushing against my thigh? How about no. I get that some people are very touchy about their personal space, but maybe those folks should be the ones to pay for the extra space.

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2 thoughts on “Flying While Fat

  1. This is a great piece. I especially love the argument about the fact that the airline doesn’t tell you the size of seat you’re getting, or guarantee you a seat size. The last time my partner (who doesn’t fit in a seat) tried to work with the airline it was a disaster, they didn’t know what size seat they had on the plane, the size of the seatbelts or anything else. Thanks for writing about this.


  2. Ampersand says:

    Great post!

    It’s not like there’s an option for people of size to pay twenty bucks extra to sit next to someone who’s a size 6 or less, and have that thin person pay twenty bucks less.

    Although if there was such an option, I would use it EVERY SINGLE TIME. (Although there’d have to be a better way of measuring than dress size, since I’d be just as happy to sit next to a very thin guy, and very few guys actually know their own dress size).

    Another point: have you noticed that nobody suggests that bodybuilders and very “built” male athletes pay extra? Because, even those these guys are sometimes narrow in the waist, they’re often MUCH wider in the shoulder than the width of the seat. I’ve more than once been on a flight which was very uncomfortable because of the wide shoulders of the person next to me.

    Of course, I didn’t complain or give them a death stare or anything – it’s not HIS fault that his shoulders are wider than unreasonably narrow seats.

    But my point is, no one would suggest that someone built like this man is morally obligated to buy two seats so that the person next to him can avoid the discomfort of being pressed against a stranger’s body for a four-hour flight. Because it’s not really about comfort, or about whether or not people fit into their assigned space. It’s about morally shaming fat people for our body shape.

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