When Better is the Enemy of Equal – Flying Fat

Dream WorldI am getting ready to take my first trip on Southwest Airlines in a long time.  They’ve recently changed their policy for fat flyers and I want to give them another chance.  I typically fit in a single seat but I’m traveling with my partner who needs a second seat and this gives me an opportunity to give their new policy a try.  Their new policy is that they would prefer people who need two seats purchase both of them in advance and then they will refund the extra seat after travel, but that “Customers of size who prefer not to purchase an additional seat in advance have the option of purchasing just one seat and then discussing their seating needs with the Customer Service Agent at their departure gate. If it is determined that a second (or third) seat is needed, they will be accommodated with a complimentary additional seat(s).”

My partner and I will be traveling to Austin in April and we’re planning to avail ourselves of the second option (not buying an extra ticket) and, if necessary, use it as an opportunity for activism.  I asked in a number of conversations  and communities with people of size if others had tried this and how it went.  I was a bit surprised by many of the responses I received from other fat people.  I was called an irresponsible trouble-maker, I was told that I shouldn’t be traveling if I can’t afford a second ticket, that I’m going to ruin it for everybody, that I should be bumped from my flight, that the policy is much better than it was, that I shouldn’t rock the boat, and many people told me that they are very happy to pay for the extra ticket since it gets refunded and I should be happy to do that as well.

Well, I’m not.

I simply don’t believe that fat people should be kept from air travel unless they have twice the money as thin people at the time of ticket purchase- I think that limits the opportunities of many fat people both personally and professionally because of their size and I consider that to be a form of size oppression that I choose to fight.

I think it’s nice that some people can pay for 2 seats every time they fly and wait for the refund with no problem and are happy to do it, but I don’t think that is everyone’s situation and I try not to be an activist only insofar as my needs are met.  I agree that the policy is better than it was, but I also try to be careful not to let better be the enemy of the equal.

Even if one is happy to pay double what a thin person pays at the time of ticketing, there are still issues with this. The fat person who is being flown to a job interview and has to tell their potential employer that their ticket will be twice as much up front as candidates who are thin. The professional speaker/consultant  who has to tell their clients that it’s going to be twice as much for their flight upfront than for a thin speaker/consultant.  The singer/comic/entertainer whose travel fees are twice as expensive up front as those against whom they compete for gigs.  The fat person who wants a job that requires travel by air and has to tell prospective employers that they will have to spend double the fees up front of a thin person competing for the same job, and that they will have to pay someone to deal with processing refunds, as they will be loaning the airline thousands of dollars every year.

Then of course there’s the simple fact that not every person who needs two seats can afford to pay double what other passengers pay and then wait around for a refund.  This is problematic both for the person who wants to book their travel well in advance and can’t afford to give the airline a long-term interest-free loan, and for the person who has to fly because of an emergency and can barely scrape together enough for one seat let alone two in the middle of an incredibly difficult time.

Also, let’s remember that this policy isn’t applied across the board.  First of all, the airline says that the armrests are the definitive border, but there are four armrests for 6 arms and so the airline has already created some issues with common space.  If someone takes up more than two seats because they have very broad shoulders or very long legs, they are not asked to buy a second seat, we’re all just supposed to be okay squishing in with them. At this time, I don’t take up two seats (it’s sheer luck – my fat goes front to back rather than side to side and I happen to have have narrower shoulders and hips) but I am constantly seated next to people whose arms, shoulders, or legs are in my space and I often wonder what would happen if I insisted that they needed to pay for a second seat based on the policy.

I have not yet found information on how Southwest handles bumps on overfull flights, but in general I believe that passengers should have the same experience regardless of body size. So if the flight is overfull, the policy to deal with that should have nothing to do with passenger size. Their policy should not be to bump fat passengers without compensation unless we give them an interest free loan of hundreds of dollars, while simultaneously giving compensation to thin passengers who they have to bump. It also shouldn’t be bumping passengers first due to physical appearance, rather than a fair and transparent system (volunteers, time of check in etc.)

I think it’s also important to note that it is the habit of airlines to overbook flights, so their policy is to sell more product than they have to begin with, and fat passengers should not bear the brunt of that. They should develop a system to let them know how many seats they need that does not require one group of people to pay twice as much up front as another group of people based on how they look, or to have one group of people have the highest chance of being bumped because of how they look. Anything else, as far as I’m concerned, is discrimination based on physical appearance and it’s not ok with me.

I believe in expecting the best and preparing for the worst, so in about a month my partner and I will go to the airport full of optimism that we will be treated well, and prepared if we are not.  Wish us luck!

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45 thoughts on “When Better is the Enemy of Equal – Flying Fat

  1. So I think I have read too many of these posts. I dreamt that we had all taken up the cause and started protesting at medabolic centers and bariatric practices. I was holding a sign that said avoid the cut keep the gut. Some others had signs that exclaimed fatality stats and failure rates in bold red print.
    Good luck with the airline I for one dred flying fat. The seats are uncomfortable, the stewardess will take you arm off if you have the isle seat, and you get “the look” if you have to ask for a seat belt extender.

    1. I was just wondering about that. Is a ticket in business class double the price of coach? If not, it might be a reasonable option for some.

        1. Agreed. There’s also an issue with there being far fewer business seats than coach seats on any given flight. I don’t want my flight options significantly restricted — particularly if I’m traveling to a less trafficked location or due to an emergency — because an airline is unable to accommodate my body.

    2. Southwest doesn’t have business class seats.

      I & hubs will also be flying SW for the first time in July. No choice — they bought out Air-Tran (which we loved for their cheap upgrade to biz class.)

      Here’s hoping all goes well.

  2. I haven’t gone anywhere by plane in a long, long time. I prefer to drive. I have, however taken the train. I had some issues with comfort in the room for my legs. The worst part was the dining car. The booth seats and tables are anchored down and the space between the seat and table top was so small, I had to sit ‘just so’ for the table to be cuttin in under my ribs. It was still better than sitting next to a seatmate who reeked of stale cigarette smoke in her hair and clothing.

  3. Thanks Ragen for offering to take one for the team.

    I am that traveling business person who lives in dread of getting fat bumped and having my employer hear about it. I currently fly only a couple of times a month, but in the past, I have had positions dependent on flying 3 or 4 times per week.

    I hate that I have to dress in full professional regalia on flights to ensure my middle class privilege cancels out some of the fat stigma.
    Of course, this means I am wearing looser “flattering” clothes that make me more likely to get a pat down from the TSA. Grr.

    I’d like to know I can fly in sweat pants and no makeup, but I feel I need every advantage to keep my precious seat. For the record, I can put the arm rests down (tightly) and seldom need an extender (carry my own just in case).
    I know that if I were bumped on a business trip it would have a huge negative effect on my career.

    I avoid Southwest, which usually has the most convenient flights (and well priced) for where I am likely to go. Sure would like to not have to evade this issue with my employers.
    Let us know how it goes!

  4. If I haven’t told you lately…YOU ROCK!
    Also, looking for some traveling wisdom. I’m going to be traveling on Amtrak in the next few months. Does anyone know how their sits are? 17 hours is a long time to be crammed into a seat. Much appreciated!

    1. I found the amtrak seats to be a bit narrow, but you aren’t required to sit in a specific seat. Depending on how full the train is, you may have a set of seats all to yourself. I find that many folks put their ‘stuff’, bag/laptop/purse, next to them and people boarding just shoot past to an open space. However, you may notice that it’s filling up and be asked to allow someone to sit with you. I usually invite someone to sit next to me that looks like they will be comfortable with me. Of course, when I travel with my children, one of them always sits with me and we just cuddle up. As far as I know, they only have two seats side by side.. no sets fo three..

  5. I’ve been paying for 2 seats for years. I had no idea airlines refunded that. I’m flying for the first time in 5 years at the end of March, and I am absolutely dreading it. Even with two seats, airplanes just aren’t comfortable for people of my size.

  6. I’ve been avoiding SW for ages now due to their policy, despite them being the most convenient for me in many ways. I’ll be very interested to hear how it goes for you! Good luck!

    Oh, and I *always* carry a seatbelt extender on flights so I don’t have to ask and suffer the embarrassment. Of course, SW’s buckles are designed differently, so anyone who chooses to do this has to have a standard buckle and a special “SW” buckle. Ugh.

  7. Thank you, Ragen, for thinking of ALL of our needs. If I had to fly somewhere in an emergency, I’d be (at best) living on beans OR (not and) rice for the rest of the month from paying for one seat. The official Southwest policy has improved, yes, but it’s still discriminatory and prohibitive to many potential customers.

    I can’t afford to pay for a second seat. And since fat people are more likely than thin people to be un/underemployed, it stands to reason that I’m far from alone in this situation.

    Best of luck to your and your partner! And again, thank you for fighting for ALL of us, not just the ones who have discretionary funds at their disposal.

  8. What makes flying more frustrating is that the seats and belts aren’t anything close to uniform! My wife and I just got back from a cruise, and to get there we had to take 4 airplanes (2 in each direction). We’re both fat–I’m a guy about 5’10” and 310, she’s a bit smaller. Usually we can comfortably squash together with the armrest up and not bother the 3rd person much. Here’s how our 4 flights went–all on planes with 3-3 seating arrangements!

    Flight 1, US Air O’Hare-Charlotte: Originally had a third person in the window seat, but the plane wasn’t full so we were able to rearrange and get a row to ourselves. Before then, we were OK, no more uncomfortable than any other flight. I needed a belt extender, she didn’t.

    Flight 2, US Air Charlotte-Ft. Lauderdale: Window and center seats with a small Asian woman in the aisle seat. Relatively wide seats, everyone was comfortable enough, and no one needed a belt extender.

    Flight 3, United Ft. Lauderdale-Dulles: We rearranged so my wife and I took separate aisle seats and a smaller elderly couple took the window and middle seats next to me. These seats seemed smaller than average, but it was tolerable. But we both needed a belt extender.

    Flight 4, United Dulles-O’Hare: No rearrangement here, and the seats were tiny! We squashed into an aisle and center seat, but my back was halfway off the seat and I had to lean into the aisle the entire flight. But neither of us needed a belt extender!

    So how are we supposed to predict whether we need extra seats?

    I will say that though I’ve never flown Southwest, I’ve never had a problem with an airline or with an American passenger about my weight. The only awful flying experience I had was seated next to an extremely rude German man who spent the first half of the flight bitching about my weight. After I complained to the flight attendant, they moved me up to an empty first class seat for the remainder of the flight.

    1. I think Southwest is slightly more uniform than most airlines: I think they fly all 737s, so there’s a lot less variety in their seating. (It does look like they fly both 737-700s and 737-800s, though, so there is probably still some variety, but my experience with Southwest is at least a lot more consistent than any other airline I fly.)

      This doesn’t excuse the behavior, mind, but it does mean that the particular concern on Southwest of “How am I supposed to know” is at least slightly different. (It’s still not clear how you’re supposed to know before you *ever get on a Southwest flight*…)

    2. One thing I’m willing to recognize is that airlines can’t always afford to retire old planes. What *can* be changed, however, is how things are laid out in newer planes. That needs to be adjusted.

  9. So I guess when you are maligned and abused by others, once these others get an a-ha experience (usually because their business/credibility/etc. have been damaged by people justifiably complaining) you are just supposed to EAT SHIT, GRIN, AND ASK FOR SECONDS???? I’m so tired of the “don’t rock the boat” mentality. I’m getting out of the boat.

  10. I have avoided flying for years because of my fear of being maltreated. (And also a gradual slide into poverty.) I’m bigger than I was, but I’m hoping the appearance of that middle class privilege Chutti mentions above will help when I have to fly this summer. The interesting wrinkle in my case is that I can’t afford even one ticket, so a family member I’m traveling with is paying for me. This family member regularly shames me for being fat, so you can imagine how I feel about potentially having to ask this person to pay for two seats.

    I’m also on the job market, conducting a national search, and everything Ragen says about employers and potential employers applies to me. I wish I could just get past my anxiety about all of this, as it takes up mental space I badly need for other things.

  11. Amtrak coach is not so great, but if you get one of the rooms, it’s terrific – lots more room and they’ll bring the meals to you rather than having to squish into the dining car booths. …the biggest problem for us was the tiny bathrooms…but all trains have at least one accessible bathroom, which is far better.

    I have been buying first class or extra seats in airplanes for several years, but I recently flew for work and was allotted only a single coach seat. It was on Frontier, which I was pleased to find seemed a bit roomier than I remember plane seats to be, but none of the seatbelts fit.

  12. Safe trip, and here’s hoping that the extra-seat nonsense ends up being a nonissue. Are you speaking in Austin, or going back to visit?

  13. Very true. Even if the extra seat is refunded in the end, it is still unfair treatment.

    I was surprised when I mentioned this issue in passing on a blog post that I got reactions from fellow fat people wondering why I thought we should be treated the same & not have to pay for a second seat. I thought at least we’d all be on the same side! But I guess most of us have internalized a lot of years of fat hate, and that doesn’t go away overnight. I ended up writing more about taking up space while fat in another blog post, and really, you are one of my inspirations for turning things political instead of just being a personal/fashion blog. So thanks 🙂

  14. It would be nice if they gave you an option when purchasing your ticket to let them know that you will need a second seat without having to pay for it. That would make things easier for them, too.

  15. I hope all goes well on your flight. The last time I flew, I squished into my seat, but I fit okay. This plane was tiny, only two seats on each end. I can still vividly remember the glare I got from the person who was about to sit next to me. She requested to be moved, saying that sitting next to me was “unfair”, even though our bodies weren’t even touching. (Which is a miracle in any flight.) But the plane was full and she was stuck with me. She spent the next two hours giving me diet advice, and I pretended to not hear her through my headphones.

    Never again.

  16. Best of luck, and here’s hoping that they manage to be kind and sensible people and not oblige you to take advantage of the opportunity for activism. Not that you wouldn’t totally rock their world, of course; I just hope they’re better than that and you get to have a relatively pleasant time.

    I’m amazed that they actually took this step (disturbingly low bar, I know), and thank you for pointing out the residual bigotry hiding in the policy. I agree with @Lindsey, above, that it would be good if you could make some sort of no-cost note on your reservation when booking so that they knew about the situation and could take that into consideration when figuring out space and overbooking issues. Seems like the logical conclusion, and it neatly skips both expecting people to magically have twice the actually required money up front and making a gate agent do the juggling in real-time.

  17. Just for the record, it has been my experience that even when a second seat is purchased (I did so for an overseas flight, mainly for my own comfort, leg room as well as a little hip room), the airline will constantly try to put someone in that seat. I barely fit into the seats, albeit very tightly and uncomfortably (oh the joy of wide, non squishy hips) and I was allowing myself the room I bought, as well as being fine with my seatmate sharing said room. Then the attendant would come over and count my extra seat as vacant or try to put two unattended minors beside me (without asking) and I would have to announce to the plane that I purchased the seat. So frustrating. The unattended minor thing really got me because she just saw an empty seat, then asked if the other person in the row would mind moving, they offered her a drink voucher. Did I get offered anything for sitting next to two young boys for my 3 hour flight?? Nope. Thank god I had bought the seat….

  18. Just wanted to put this out there….

    I was watching the news this morning (which I really should stop doing because it pisses me off on a daily basis). Another story on fat people flying. Now a scientist has calculated that obese people burn more fuel when they fly and, therefore, should have to pay a tax or penalty on that extra expenditure.

    I was trying to find the article so that I could post the link, but it’s not on the website for the news channel I was watching.

    Anyway, just wanted to alert all of you that we’ve got something else coming down the pike in regard to air travel.

    Yay for us!!!

  19. I find it appalling that Airlines are not willing to budge on changing their current seats to seats that accomodate passengers. 17′ inch wide seats? Are you kidding, even thin people complain of the discomfort of airplane seats, and it’s ridiculous that airlines charge fees for everything, yet can’t afford to come up with roomier and comfortable seats, especially for Long -Haul flights….yet they can come up with “slim” seats so they can stuff more people in the plane. I find it pathetic that they claim “people of size” need to buy an extra seat due to “safety concerns”……Have they not noticed that people are larger and taller than 20-30 years ago? Yet they continue to use the same seats designed decades ago for a “smaller” population, this begs the question: Are those seats “safe” for todays passengers at all? Then we have the people that complain about fatties “spilling” into their seat……Which i understand…so..does this mean that i can complain about the person who is sitting next to me who seems like they haven’t showered in days or the person with the foul smelly breath be “forced” to purchase another seat? After all they are invading my space, right?

  20. What was surprising to me the last time I flew Southwest was that I did purchase the extra seat because I didn’t want what happened to Kevin Smith to happen to me. Well, my husband and I, both fat, both purchased the extra seat after we saw that the policy was that they would refund later (if the flight is NOT overbooked). Anyway, we were also flying with our children and were sure it was the right thing to do after many travel blogs talking about the horrors of childless people having to fly with children on the plane. So, we sat in the very rear of the plane, my husband and son in one set of three seats and my daughter and I in the other set. Southwest gave us a handy dandy sign to put up in the empty seat saying that we purchased that seat and no one could sit there. Lo and behold people kept coming back there to sit and were angry that the seats were not available to them. WHAT??!!! Seriously!!! You are angry because you cannot sit between a fat person and a child!! I was shocked after hearing so many people complain about that very thing. Incidentally, we were only refunded for one leg of the round trip flight because the other leg was overbooked.

    1. Hi Kerry,

      You do the “right” thing and people still aren’t happy :( I will say that Southwest has changed their policy – you now get refunded whether the flight is booked or not, and if you choose not to buy the other ticket you’ll be accommodated.



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