Advice for Flying Fat

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.

The Policy

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.

Be Early

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.

Happy flying!

8 thoughts on “Advice for Flying Fat

  1. The problem with “The Policy” is that the airlines sell the same space to multiple people. Specifically:
    * The armrests. There are 5 in a row of 3 seats. That is not enough for all 3 people to each have two armrests. Is the person at the window entitled to two is the person in the middle entitled to two? Theoretically, we all paid roughly the same price to fly.
    * The pitch space. If a seat is reclined, it takes away space that rightfully was purchased by the person behind that seat.
    * The overhead bin space. On many planes, three people’s worth of allowed carry-on rollers do not fit in the overhead bin space. If you board a plane with only one carry-on, you will often be asked to put it under the seat in front of you (taking up your foot space) rather than using an overhead bin, even though technically, you’re entitled to the bin space. The space that is “yours” will get used for other people’s carry-ons.

    In all of these cases, the airlines pit passengers against each other. They assume that we will all simply do our best to get along with what we’re given and ignore that we’re shorting each other of what we theoretically paid for. My issue is why this ad hoc “be neighborly” policy goes away when it comes to fat people. To borrow your example, if I shipped a package and paid full price for my shipment, and my friend shipped a package, paying full price…and at the destination, it turned out that the USPS had put the smaller package inside the larger one for shipping, my friend and I would be rightfully upset. After all, we paid for our packages to be shipped individually. If we’d combined them, we should have been billed less. Yet, the airlines sell you space that they fully intend to lend to other people.

    I’m okay with the airlines having a good neighbor policy, much as buses and other forms of public transport do. I’m not okay with them having an inconsistent policy that is not predictable. I’m also not cool with the policy being applied, as you note, to fat people and not to tall people or wide people. As a short, fat person who carries most of my weight toward the front and back, I actually fit rather nicely in most airline seats. But, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been cramped by wide shouldered or long legged people who spread into my space without even asking or apologizing. If a fat person overhanging into my seat is going to be penalized, I want all those other kinds of seat-overhanging people to be penalized, too. Otherwise, it’s a policy based on prejudice rather than comfort, safety, or entitlement.

    1. I agree that the policy is broken and I absolutely agree with what you pointed out here. The policy is built on prejudice and I think that the key to changing it is to keep pointing out things like this.

  2. I have two words for y’all:


    They are FANTASTIC. I flew to the US and back with them a few years ago, and I was treated the same as every other passenger, albeit with a discreet enquiry of “How’s that seatbelt there hon, all good?” which was a subtle invitation for me to request an extender if I needed one. On the way home, due to my connector flights being all screwy, they had to change my seating a little bit. When they gave me my new boarding pass I asked the head attendant if I still had an aisle seat because I’d specifically requested one. He simply looked at my boarding pass and smiled and said “You’ll see.”… which worried me until I realised they’d given me the whole row of seats for a 24 hour flight. Woot!

    A few months back I flew to Sydney and back (a bit over an hour one way from here in Brisbane) for the Australian Fat Studies conference and I decided to test Qantas for their fat friendliness.

    Again, same thing – treated me like any other passenger, though this time I asked up front (though quietly, I wanted to see if they were discreet) for a seat belt extender, though I didn’t know if I actually needed one. The attendant smiled and said “Oh of course, just a moment hon.” She came back a few minutes later, handing out headphones and pillows and discreetly slipped the extender to me, but I had actually done the belt up (a neat but comfortable fit on my mega fatness). I just said “I’m ok, it fits fine, but thanks.” and she simply smiled again and said “Oh no worries hon, you give me a call if you need anything.”

    It was such a pleasure to be treated with dignity by an airline. I wasn’t treated with as much by some of the airlines I flew with in the US.

    However, I have to say Frontier were excellent. I travelled with a friend of mine who is both very fat (considerably larger than my mega fatness) and has mobility issues. Her husband arranged for assistance beforehand, which was no extra cost, and they were lovely and also treated me, her able bodied but still fat friend, very well too. We boarded first because they used a wheelchair for her at the gate, and they didn’t make me wait with everyone else so that she was sitting on the plane alone. They checked on our comfort and kept us in the loop once we landed as to there being assistance for her at the other end as well. I flew with them as much as possible within the US.

    Plus it was fun to go for a ride in that little golf cart thingy through the airport!

  3. Sleepydumpling, what a wondeful change to hear of airlines that were *extra* accommodating.

    Ragen, I really appreciate this. Despite having fit into all of the seats I’ve had while flying thus far (even SW), I’m finding myself avoiding travelling more and more because of the fear associated with the possible confrontation at the gate. Knowing that someone who’s as comfortable being kick-ass as you are is also afraid makes it less isolating, though, and that really helps.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the issue of trust – I don’t trust that the airline staff will be respectful or solution-focused, even though I personally haven’t had a negative experience – yet. Combinining that with the arbitrary yet unpredictable standard of what constitutes Too Fat To Fly (in one seat) is a recipe for unneccessary stress.

    My additional piece of advice – seatguru is a great website where you can see if the plane you’re going on has wider or narrower seats. It can be a headache to try and choose a flight based on the airplane (and the planes can sometimes switch if flights aren’t full), but you can see which airlines use wider seats and avoid spots where the seats don’t recline, etc.

  4. I’ve flown American, BA, and Alaska in the last two years – each time, when I asked for a belt extender, the attendants were unfailingly polite and cheerful about bringing me one.

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