Air Travel With Added Saddle Bags

Reality and PerceptionReader Pauline let me know about a conversation on the site Etiquette Hell about flying while fat.  The conversation is indented and may be triggering, you can skip it and still understand the point of the blog:


I travel to the US twice a year. I would absolutely love to be able to afford first class or business seats, but I can’t. I always fly coach. The problem is this: I wear American size 22 pants, not because of my stomach; it’s because of my hips. They’re large and I have huge saddle bags. I always book an aisle seat to make sure only one person will be bothered by my saddle bags. And even though I try to lean to the opposite side as much as I can, part of my thigh still spills into my unlucky seatmate’s seat, making me very embarrassed. I read airlines/flights forums where people who could have easily been my seatmates complain about the passenger of size who should have booked a first class seat and let me tell you: Do I feel guilty! but I just can’t afford it.

So I have a few questions for all of you fellow E-hell readers and Ms E-Hell Dame: what should I do? What’s your opinion on the issue? Do you have similar stories? Have you been the “offender” or the “offended”?

Just for the sake of information: I’m 5″7 and weigh 270 pounds. When I weighed 230 I still had huge saddle bags. 0510-14


When I fly, being a BBW, I always go first class on an aisle seat.   That is just the cost of travel for me, imo.   In the pre-boarding seating area, I can tell which passengers the other flyers are secretly wishing they are not seated next to (squirming children, wailing babies, and big people) and I prefer to be as accommodating as possible to my fellow travelers so that I am not perpetuating stereotypes and prejudices.  In other words, I 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”.   That may mean flying first class or buying two plane seats side by side.

That isn’t the advice you were probably hoping to read but it’s one I firmly believe in.   And I don’t think this just applies to fat people but physically fit and athletic men or tall people can also easily usurp more space on a plane than their ticket allows.

Let me start by saying that she, and every other fat flyer, is allowed to believe and do whatever she wants.  If she believes that “not perpetuating stereotypes and prejudices” means paying more than a thin person for the same customer experience that’s her right. My issue here is that she is saying that, as an etiquette expert, she “firmly believes” that doing so is good etiquette.

First of all, the idea of choosing our behavior so that we don’t “perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices” suggests that if people choose to stereotype us or hold prejudices against us, we are responsible for “solving” that by mollifying our bigots with our  behavior.  The problem with stereotyping and prejudice is the stereotyping and prejudice, not the victims of it.  The solution to prejudice is neither weight loss nor paying twice what our bigots pay for the same service.  People are allowed to hold personal stereotypes and prejudice but they should not be allowed to institutionalize them and the groups who are the victims of their bigotry are not required by the rules of etiquette to participate in our own oppression to make them happy.

To agree with her, we have to believe the idea that some people deserve seats that they fit into and others don’t- such that those who are fat, muscular, tall, broad-shouldered etc. should have to pay more than people who aren’t fat, muscular, tall, or broad-shouldered to get the same customer experience – specifically transportation from one place to another in a seat that accommodates us. (I’ll point out that while many fat people have been thrown off planes or forced to buy a second seat for being fat, there is no policy about tall, broad-shouldered, or muscular passengers and I’ve never heard of one of them getting thrown off a plane or asked to purchase a second seat for taking up “more than their space”)

I happen to fit in one seat (my fat goes front to back more than side to side.)  That gives me some privilege when it comes to flying and I think the appropriate use of that privilege is to say “Why aren’t all the passengers getting the same experience that I get, and how can I hep them fight for that”  rather than saying “obviously people my size and smaller deserve a better/cheaper experience than people who are larger than us or shaped differently.”

This argument seems to me to also be an extension of the “good fatty/bad fatty dichotomy.”  “I am willing to pay twice as much as the person next to me for the same customer experience so that I don’t perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices” sounds very much to me like the way that many fat people feel that we have to justify our requests to be treated with basic human respect (ie:  I have a juicer, I exercise, and I only eat vegetables that were dried with a towel knitted by someone’s Nana, so I deserve to not be bullied.) Both are a version of “I’m not like those other fat people so I deserve to be treated better than you would treat them”  I think that’s bullshit in any guise.

The belief that fat, tall, muscular or broad-shouldered people are obligated to buy two seats or pay for first class or we don’t deserve to fly, has a number of ramifications. If an employer wants to fly candidates to a job interview it will cost them twice as much to interview one of us, if a job involves travel it will cost the company twice as much to hire one of us, if we want one of the jobs that helps us engage in activism or puts us in front of people (speaker, performer, stand-up comic etc.) it will costs venues twice as much to book us.  People who make this argument are saying that it’s acceptable not just to say that fat, tall, muscular or broad-shouldered people need to have twice as much money as others to take a vacation, but also to do our jobs, attend a wedding, graduation, or even a funeral.

I think that if you don’t want civil rights, then you fight for everyone to have them, and once they do you choose not to avail yourself of them. Nobody is saying that if airlines give all passengers the same experience regardless of size that she has to take them up on it, she is still welcome to purchase two seats or a first class seat.  I think what isn’t  cool is to make a decision that just because you can afford to pay twice as much, or because it’s ok with you that you don’t get the same customer experience as people who don’t look like you, you suggest that good etiquette requires that everyone who looks like you agrees with that.  It seems to me that she might be getting internalized oppression confused with etiquette.

As a member of a few groups that many people choose to stereotype and hold prejudices against I understand that those people would prefer that I at least shut up and, even better, if I wouldn’t mind being participating in my own oppression by doing whatever they think I should do.  In this case that includes paying twice as much as them for the same experience, or acting like the problem is that fat, tall, muscular and broad-shouldered people exist, and not the fact that they built planes as if we didn’t, and make policies as if we don’t deserve the same experience they give passengers who aren’t fat, tall, muscular or broad-shouldered.   As an activist, I’m completely unwilling to do that.  People are allowed to be prejudiced and suggest that they deserve a different experience than I do because we look different, but I do not have to participate in that, and I won’t.

For the record, I fly all the time for speaking engagements and I cannot recommend Southwest Airlines enough. They did some super shitty things in the past, they were asked to make changes and they did.  I boycotted them until they made the changes,  and now I fly with them as much as possible and recommend that my friends support them as well (no, I don’t get anything for promoting them, I just appreciate that they are committed to giving me the same experience as their thin passengers.)  Their passenger of size policy can be found at

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28 thoughts on “Air Travel With Added Saddle Bags

  1. This problem is entirely due to the changes made by the airlines. The width of seats, measured as the space between one armrest and the next, went down from 23 inches in 1957 – yes, in Economy class! – that is 58.4 centimetre- , to a meagre 17 nowadays. And guess what: the airline Emirates is even planning to have new seats that will be just 16.4 inches, isn’t that great…. Also, the space between one row of seats and the next (important for being able to stretch your legs a bit, especially on long flights) went down from 34 inches to 31. The same goes for seats in trains here in Europe – I travel via train quite a bit, and I thought I had problems with claustrophobia until I heard from other passengers that indeed, yes, the train companies have installed new seats that are smaller! Here you can find a chart where you find the seat width for a list of airlines (hey, seats in Air Canada are 20 inches standard, not 17! Hallelujah) :

    1. Thank you for the links. I believe I like Business and First Class seating best, but I have never flown them. I will check prices, but I think if I were to fly regularly, it’d be economy.

  2. Plane seats are too small and are only getting smaller. A few months ago my dad and I took a trip to Montreal to see a concert. We are both very thin people and we had seats next to each other. When we got on our first flight, I had to take a few minutes and adjust to the limited space. I felt slightly claustrophobic and as though Dad and I were bursting each other’s personal space bubbles. I can’t even imagine what it feels like to try to occupy that space as a large person, or even a so-called “average-sized” person. They are trying to stuff as many people as possible on to each flight as though we are sardines in a can, all so they can make more money. Apparently even Air Canada is starting to design some planes with less space. Hopefully this will all backfire if there are enough complaints and backlash.

  3. I don’t have a lot of money, so if I ever did have to fly, I would have no choice but to fly coach. Why can’t they just make some seats that are wider than others? They care more about cramming in as many people as possible than the customers being comfortable. The bottom line and the all-important dollar is all that matters to these people.

  4. I can all but guarantee you that Actual Etiquette Expert Miss Manners would not consider it proper etiquette to demand that certain passengers pay twice as much to fly. She would, rather, encourage people to do their best to be thoughtful of one another whilst crammed into too-small seats and especially for those revolted by a fat seat mate to do their best not to betray their very rude assumptions. Further, she would blame the whole sorry mess on the airlines for making the seats smaller and smaller… which is where the blame belongs.

    Me? I can’t afford to fly at all. Anywhere. In any seat. But when (knock wood!) finances do allow it, there are several trips I dearly want to make. When that time comes, chances are I won’t be able to fly first class or business class. I’ll be back with the sardines, doing my very best not to hyperventilate over the squashing.

    But it is absolutely my right as a customer to be given the same services for the same price as my fellow passengers, and I am not giving that up.

  5. I read the etiquette hell blog yesterday and felt that poor woman was given horrible advice by both the official “advisor” and in the comments. I’m so glad you chose to blog about this today.

  6. I recently flew for the first time in 10 years. I’d sworn off flying but the chance to speak at a national professional conference was too tempting. It was an unpaid gig but they did say they would reimburse my airfare up to a certain amount. After much anxiety, I finally booked a 1st class seat because I was so anxious about being asked to buy a 2nd seat last minute (& having to explain it for reimbursement) or being bumped from a full flight & missing the conference. When I sent in my reimbursement I requested that they go over the usual amount as a “disability accommodation.” (Granted, there would be no disability if they would just put in seats the size of an actual adult human.) Waiting to hear back. However, even if first class, the rows were so close together that I had trouble getting in/out of the seat, and not because of my size. I also wonder if airlines realize that loading/unloading might go a bit quicker if the aisle had enough room for an average adult to stand, turn, bend, reach. It’s reached the point that I’m surprised the FAA hasn’t told them to allow more room as a safety measure.

  7. Ragen, you never cease to amaze me. I always knew that I despised being forced into the good fatty/bad fatty dichotomy. But that’s because I despise being told what I “need” to do.

    It honestly didn’t occur to me until I read this particular piece that participating in that dichotomy as a fat person — be it passively allowing myself to be labeled as the “good” fatty or actively trying to fit the “good” fatty mold for approval — is just as crappy as trying to force that dichotomy onto other people. Allowing myself to be dragged into a game of “but-not-me-I’m-a-better-fat-person-than-that-other-fat-person-over-there” isn’t just me being complicit in my own fat shaming. It’s me doing the same thing to the “unworthy” fat people that I don’t want done to me.

    Wow. I’ve got lot of thinking to do about that one.

    Mind. Blown.

  8. Honestly that reply is galling from the get-go. The questioner said point blank that she can’t afford the extra cost of First Class. Yet the advisor just speaks right over her, basically demanding that she do something which she’s already said she can’t do!

    Because we can just wish class disparities away. Y’know, the same way we can wish disparities in body type and dietary needs away.

    [bangs head on keyboard]

    1. Reminds me of my husband’s trip to the doctor a few weeks ago. The ortho had recommended some really expensive orthotics for him, and scolded him for not having made an appointment for them yet, because “there’s no reason to wait”.

      Uh, yeah. There are a bunch of reasons. Several hundred of them in fact, that would be applied directly to our deductible and come out of our pocket to the exclusion of buying groceries and paying the electric bill. Is it really that hard for folks to understand?

      1. DX I have never understood why orthotics need to cost more money that a summer chateau in France. <– has had pancakes for feet since childhood

        I really think sometimes people just think they can help us "positive think" our way out of anything and everything that's wrong. Or "power through" or whatever they're calling it these days. Sorry to hear about the tough time you're having. I've been there.

    2. Among all the other facepalms in that advisor’s reply, I suspect that she’s just justifying an expense she wants to splurge on. Flying first class is more comfortable than flying coach, no matter what size you are, but it’s also so expensive that it almost feels dirty. Solution? In her own mind, tell herself she’s just being polite. Fine, whatever floats her boat, until that ludicrous justification made its way out of her mind and online. As my husband sometimes puts it, “Honey, that was out loud.”

  9. I have joined you in moving Southwest Airlines from the “boycott” column to the “buy whenever possible” column. Primarily for their customer of size policy.

    As a major bonus, two checked bags and one carry-on (plus purse or such) — no fee.

    As another bonus, if you change a reservation for one of a lower cost (even the same flight), you get the extra money you already paid back as “travel dollars”, which you have a year to use on a future flight. Other airlines charge you a fee.

    Southwest is the only airline I know of that has “respect” in their attitude and service policies — toward all customers.

  10. I wonder if the etiquette guru from eHell would say that little people, small people, and amputees should expect to pay less for their airline tickets. Or maybe the polite thing for them to do is to ask to be sat next to a very large person so the space they don’t take up is not wasted.

    I think part of the problem is that we talk about buying a seat on a plane, when what we used to buy is a plane ticket. we desperately need a societal brain shift.

  11. I had to stop reading Etiquette Hell after one too many question whose responses seemed to be oozing with unexamined assumptions and unhealthy expectations.

    As far as I’m concerned, the amount of space you need to fit your body is the amount of space you need and the amount of space you should get! If you’re taking up more than one bus seat (I don’t fly much) because your hips or shoulders or any part of you is too wide to fit, no problem – I’m happy to stand. (Of course, if you’re taking up more than one seat because you’ve given your backpack the seat next to you when the bus is standing-room-only, I’m going to give you a pointed “Excuse me, I’d like to sit down.”)

  12. Thank you for mentioning that Southwest has changed their policy! They are the ones who left me a humiliated puddle of human when I went on vacation in 2007 and I haven’t flown since then, but seeing their new policy I may try again! 🙂

  13. My lifelong dream was to go to Hawaii. Everyone knows how expensive that is. My husband surprised me in 2010 with my dream trip! The biggest part of the cost was the plane ticket, so we definitely couldn’t afford first class. When we booked the trip, I had no idea I would get pregnant, after being told I couldn’t. I ended up being 6 months pregnant on the trip. Luckily, at the time I was around 260, and could still fit in the seat then. But I only barely fit. I have also flown at 300 and was STUFFED in. Now my husband, on the other hand is a whopping 6’10” tall, and he is a big guy. He can’t fit in too many places. Needless to say he had no room on the plane. It was a miserable 11 hour flight. Should he have to pay more for not fitting in the seats when it is completely beyond his control? And should I? NO. I don’t believe anyone’s weight is truly in their control, but I know society thinks differently, so I’m sure if people saw me on the plane (I’m around 330 now), they’d definitely think I deserved to pay for 2 seats since “I did this to myself”. They might look at my husband with a little more understanding since he’s tall.
    Which is totally ridiculous! NEITHER of us, or anyone else, should have to pay for extra seats or first class seats just because they don’t fit into the tiny 17 inch airplane seats. At my smallest, I weighed 150, and you still couldn’t call those seats roomy! No one should be deprived of travel just because they can’t afford to pay extra.
    We just took a train trip to Chicago, and I have to say, we were amazed at the amount of space on the train. The seats were wide enough and had tons of leg room for my husband. If the trains can do it, why can’t the airplanes?

  14. I too am a “saddle bag” woman and am extremely fortunate that I can afford to buy first class seats for the 1 plane trip I make a year. The first class seats aren’t that wide anymore either; on a Boeing 737 for Delta (which is typically what I end up flying), the first class seats are 21 inches wide. 21! These are still a bit of a squeeze for me, and it is only made up for by the increased leg room and arm rests that are wider and that I don’t have to share.

    So I’m pretty much paying twice as much for a seat that is still too narrow.

    Something has really got to change. Airlines need to start treating their passengers like humans.

  15. Not likely to happen any time soon, the airlines treating passengers like humans. I saw an airline analyst on the news a few months back who described passengers as self-loading freight.

    1. That is a disgusting comment. Not yours, the analyst’s. What better way to dehumanize us all than to compare us to freight. Just like the cattle cars used in the Holocaust, Jews were treated as nothing more than animals.

  16. i blame capitalism; the unmitigated greed to shift the bottom line further and further down no matter how inconvenient it is to regular folks, as long as the stock holders laugh all the way to the bank. it’s incentive for companies to apply cookie cutter standards to people, and that never ends well. seats and legroom in airplanes have been getting smaller throughout my life, and i’ve actually heard plenty of people complain who do not consider themselves fat; few people like to be THIS close to total strangers for several hours.

    i’m voting for greater acceptance of differences between individuals instead. airlines should come up with a flexible arrangement that can change on the fly; that way they could accommodate a large variety of space requirements — not only fat people need more space, but pregnant ones, muscular, tall ones, and disabled people with support paraphernalia. and some need less space (kids). one size never fits all; surely we could be more creative than we currently are.

  17. Southwest’s policy sounds really awesome and respectful! I am curious, though, about how they handle it when someone requests a second seat at check-in, rather than paying for a second ticket ahead of time, and the flight is full. I would imagine the best first-line option would be asking for volunteers to be bumped to a later flight, and offering some kind of compensation, like airlines often do when flights are oversold. But what if no one’s in a position to volunteer? Does someone just automatically get bumped, or does the person who needs a second seat have to wait for a later, less-full flight? Do they decide it case-by-case, based on time of check-in or other factors?

    To be clear, I definitely don’t think that people who need more space than one airline seat offers should have to pay for two tickets. When I purchase an airline ticket, I assume that I’m paying for transportation by air from point A to point B, with reasonable safety measures and a seat that fits me. Probably a cramped and uncomfortable seat, in most modern airlines, but one into which I can physically fit my body and fasten my seatbelt. And that’s what everyone else who pays the price I paid should get, too. If you need a seatbelt extender, a second seat, space to store your medical equipment, or whatever else, then you should not have to pay extra for that, because, as Ragen has brilliantly phrased it in other posts, you’re not asking for something “extra,” you’re asking for what everyone else already has.

    But it still sucks to be bumped from a flight, whether it’s because someone else needed a second seat or because you do, and the airline couldn’t/wouldn’t accommodate you. Ideally, people who knew they would need a second seat (hard to even know for sure, since airline seat sizes/dimensions can vary pretty widely, but that’s another story) could just indicate that when they booked their ticket, and reserve it free of charge. But I could totally see people who didn’t really need a second seat abusing that and booking the second seat purely for comfort-related reasons, which of course wouldn’t be profitable for the airlines. I also thought about a nominal “holding fee,” some relatively small additional charge to guarantee a second seat, just to discourage abuse of the policy. But then people who need a second seat are still paying extra for it, and that’s still not right.

    Again, to be clear, I think Southwest’s policy is great, I really appreciate them instituting it, and I will try my best to patronize them whenever I can (I usually only fly once or twice a year, but still). I’m just curious what people think about these questions, and what people’s ideas are for making flying as fair and accessible as possible for everyone.

  18. For those who are unlikely to ever fly 1st class, I found a cool video of a British Airways 1st flight from London to Bangkok.

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