I 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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