The Many Ways Airlines Mistreat Fat Passengers

flying experienceIn the United States, every airline but Southwest forces people who don’t fit into the arbitrarily sized seats (or who require an extension for their arbitrarily sized seatbelts) to pay for a second seat. This is absolutely wrong. The airlines are in the business of transporting people from one place to another, and that requires a seat that accommodates them.  They should not be allowed to be in the business of arbitrating how large a human ass is allowed to be in order to avoid being charged twice as much for the exact same service.

Internalized fatphobia means that there are fat people who believe that they should have to pay twice as much for the same flight, but let’s be clear: when fat people ask to be accommodated, we are not asking for something “special” or “extra,” we are asking for what thin people on the plane are already getting – travel from point A to point B in a seat that accommodates us. (And, of course, fat people are not the only ones who deal with this horrifying treatment due to racism, religion, and disability is far too common.)

If this only impacted fat people’s ability to travel for fun that would be enough to change it. But it’s also more than that.  It can drastically affect fat people’s ability to get work, attend weddings, funerals, and other important events, and access the world in the same way that thin people do. I’ve written about this part of the issue before.

Today I want to talk about the things that someone who is not fat, doesn’t have fat friends, or isn’t trusted enough by their fat acquaintances to have these conversations might not understand.

Let’s just start here: Even if someone was willing/forced to pay twice as much and buy two seats for the same flight,  it’s not like you can just go online, buy two seats, and then everything is hunky dory. It’s not like that At. All.

Seat Sizes:

Seat sizes are different from plane type to plane type, and even from row to row on the same frickin’ plane.

So, instead of just booking a ticket, fat people have to:

  • Drill down on each ticket option until you can find out what kind of plane you’ll be flying on (how you do this is different on almost every site, and it often requires a significant investment of time)
  • Go to a site like SeatGuru to see which seat will work for you.
  • On many airlines you then have to PAY EXTRA (that will be a theme in this post) in order to select the specific seat that will work for you

Sure that’s a pain, and it costs a little more, but it’s worth it for the peace of mind, right? Wrong! Not just because it’s total crap that fat people should have to do this much work and pay extra, but also because there is no peace of mind because there can always be a last minute “change of equipment” (they end up using a different plane) or they have to change a seat assignment, or the website you used to research got it wrong and you’re back at square one, except you’re at the airport with possibly limited options, dealing with someone who may have so much weight bias that they are disinclined to help you, and risking losing the money you spent on the tickets and/or the trip you are about to take.

Seat Belts

Seat belt lengths are different on different planes. As far as I know, there is no way to research this. It’s significant because some airlines’ policy is that if you require a seatbelt extender, then you must purchase an extra seat (even if you are not overlapping into the seat(s) beside you because you have, say, narrow hips and a large belly.)  Except you may not know if you need an extender until you get on the plane and find out that, unlike the last 10 times you flew this airline, this plane has shorter seatbelts. Hope you have an extra $500 on you, and that there is an empty seat on the plane, and a flight attendant who is willing to help you.

Getting a second seat can be incredibly difficult

Even if someone is willing/forced to purchase a second seat, the process is still incredibly fraught:

With many airlines, even though you have to pay for two seats – including all taxes and fees – you only get a luggage allowance for a single seat. That right there is some petty bullshit. Especially since people whose clothing is larger and heavier are already at a disadvantage when it comes to luggage size and weight limits.

Some airlines require that you pay TWO seat assignment fees, or they won’t guarantee that the two seats that you purchased will be together. They will literally book your seats in two different rows.

Some airlines and many discount sites have no way to purchase two seats for the same person online, meaning that you have to call and book through their reservation desk and pay full price, without access to deals offered through discount websites and with the possibility of dealing with some judgmental fatphobic asshole at the reservation desk.

Paying with a refund

Some airlines offer a refund of the second seat if the plane is not fully booked. Southwest offers the option of paying for your second seat to reserve it, but guarantees a refund even if the flight is fully booked (to be clear, they also offer the option of booking one ticket, and then just going through the full-service line when you arrive at the airport and getting your second – and third if you need it – seats then. From that point forward your seats are treated like one seat, so if there is an overbook situation they simply follow the normal policies of asking people to accept travel vouchers for taking a later flight. This is the option my partner and I use all the time and we’ve never had any problems.)

In the first instance, the problem is that many people aren’t in a position to pay either $500 or $1,000 for a flight, which they’ll find out on the day they fly.

Even in the case of a guaranteed refund, not everyone is in the position to loan the airline 100% of their ticket price. Especially for those of us who fly a lot for work. In the case of speaking gigs, often the travel is reimbursed, so I book my own flights and get reimbursed after the talk. I want to be a good steward of the money of the people who hire me, so I book pretty far in advance to get the best price. If I’m speaking a lot (and I fly enough to maintain “Fly By” status on Southwest, which is their frequent flyer program) I might have 2-4 flights a month booked over a 6 month period. Even if we assume 2 flights a month, and just $200 per flight (though it’s often more) that’s $2,400+ that I would be lending to an airline on a rolling basis. (Though, and I can’t stress this enough, you DO NOT have to pay for your second seat on Southwest, you can simply book one seat and have your second – and third if necessary – seats assigned to you at check-in.)

On The Plane

Despite the fact that they knew fat people existed when they built the planes, they are still building them like fat people don’t exist, which means that after purchasing two seats for full price and paying two seat assignment fees (and only being given the baggage allowance for one seat) you may still be in for an excruciating flight.

On many planes, while the armrest raises up, it doesn’t fully recess between the seats, meaning that you get to fly for however many hours with the armrest painfully poking into your back.

On many planes (some with the same armrest issue as above) the clips that the seatbelts clip into are metal and stick straight up out of the seat, meaning that if you are sitting across two seats, you are sitting on hard pieces of metal.

If you are a tall fat person and you want to sit in the bulkhead to try to avoid becoming a flying yoga pose, you are likely out of luck. Because typically the trays are in the arms in bulkhead seats, meaning that instead of just the armrest there is a full arm that is completely stationary. This becomes a deal breaker for many fat disabled people/people with disabilities who need the extra legroom. The airlines have created a situation where a passenger can be disabled (though not without another set of airline-created difficulties) or fat, but not both.

The Bathroom

Ok, so you paid twice as much as the person next to you to make the same flight. You have spent three hours – so far – with an armrest jabbing into your upper back and seatbelt clips jabbing into your lower back. You received the same baggage allowance, drinks, and snacks as the person beside you – even though you paid twice as much as they did (or more if they were able to book on a discount site) for the trip. Now you have to pee.

More bad news. in an effort to jam in more travelers, with no regard for comfort or safety, the airlines are making their bathrooms smaller. So small that some people who don’t need a second seat still cannot use the bathroom, or cannot use it completely. Things like wiping, changing a pad, tampon or menstrual cup, changing a baby etc. can be rendered completely impossible, so you’ve paid twice the price and you can even use the restroom.

Sometimes They Take Your Seat

Sometimes an airline that has required that you purchase a second seat (often telling you it’s “for your safety”) learns that they could sell your second seat to another passenger at the last minute, and so makes the determination that you don’t need that second seat after all (safety shmafety amirite?) so even if you didn’t want to end up squished up  next to some last-minute traveling fatphobe, here you are.

What About First Class?

Even for those who can afford first class (which is supposed to be about paying for extra amenities, not just a seat that accommodates you, like others on the plane already get,) those seats generally have full sides – meaning that instead of having armrests that someone could lift or slide their hips/thighs under, they are more like an armchair which means that there is no wiggle room and even if you can smash yourself into them (ensuring a phenomenally painful flight) you may stand up to find that your lower body has been molded into the very likeness of SpongeBob Squarepants.

In Conclusion

The truth is that no matter how much time we are willing to spend, or how much money we are willing to pay, there is literally no way for a fat person to guarantee that we will have the same experience as a thin person when it comes to flying.

If thin people faced this kind of difficulty and expense just to fly, they would riot. And rightly so. (And this is where I’ll note that in my flights I’ve seen plenty of dudes with broad shoulders that FAR exceeded the width of their assigned seats, and I’ve NEVER seen one of them asked to purchase an additional seat.)

The fact that it’s being done to fat people in a fatphobic world does not make it right. People come in lots of shapes and sizes (and dis/abilities) and just like they are forced to follow safety guidelines, airlines should be forced to accommodate all passengers on an equal basis.

Southwest gives people as many seats as they need for the price of a single seat and they’ve been profitable for 46 consecutive years. (that’s not a typo.) Canada has a One Passenger One Fare law and the airlines haven’t gone out of business, so before someone gives a long-winded justification about how “it can’t be done profitably” and “won’t somebody think of the poor airline execs earning 7+ figures a year,” let’s just be perfectly clear that the idea that it can’t be done profitably is pure nonsense. It can, and it should.

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9 thoughts on “The Many Ways Airlines Mistreat Fat Passengers

  1. Yes, it is helpful, if terrifying. I have not been on a plane in…?…37 years. And I love planes, but Dude, pass! And I think there is a typo in the paragraph two of the Bathroom part. “You can even use the bathroom”, I imagine is can’t?
    I can actually imagine the hassle here. Maybe being broke is good for me, helps me see just how out of reach the things I want are…
    I think people became chattel to airlines in the Seventies, now it’s any way they can squeeze a body on a plane (how ever uncomfortably) for as much as they can get. The glamorous days of air travel are long gone, but the modern age seems positively dehumanizing, for profit.

  2. Many of Southwest’s flights are completely full, so if you wait to get to the airport to request your 2nd seat you’re out of luck.

    I can fit in seats with the armrest down, but NEVER get a seatbelt long enough to buckle. Never. So, since I only fly SW, I bought my own extender. That is technically not allowed, and they can ask you to remove it and give you one of their own. This has only happened to me once in 12 years. But when they bought their newer 737-800 planes, they changed the seat belts, so my extender doesn’t work on those planes. The planes themselves are roomier, which is nice, but now I have to ask for an extender. Grrr.

    1. Nope, that is absolutely incorrect (though it’s misinformation that is commonly spread so I completely understand why you’ve heard that it’s true.)

      If you get to the airport to request your second seat and the flight is full, they still give you the second seat, and if everyone shows up then they do the regular procedure on overbooked flights of offering payment for people to take a later flight. It has happened to us on multiple occasions. The reason it typically works out is that they overbook their flights anyway, and typically enough people don’t show up that it’s not a problem.

      If they tell you that you can’t have a second seat because the flight is booked, ask to speak to a manager and refer them to their COS policy


      1. Thank you, I did not know that. I usually ask at the gate if the flight is completely full and if they say yes, I don’t ask for a second seat. As I said, I can fit in one seat, but it’s certainly much nicer to have two. Especially for long flights. I can put up with almost anything for an hour, but if it’s a 4 hour flight I will start asking for the second seat.

      2. I’ve always wondered who are these people who don’t show up for a flight?! I fly only about a few times a year. And if I’ve paid that much for a flight, you KNOW I’m going to show up. I’m not throwing that money away! Plus, when it comes to travel, I’m a little ball of anxiety so I will be there early, all paperwork in order, completely ready to go.

  3. Even first class can be a challenge. Got rebooked due to a delayed flight and they bumped me to economy. I spent an hour plus on the phone in the airport with customer service trying to find a flight with first class or 2 seats but no go. I ended up renting a car and driving overnight so I could be onsite for work the next morning at 8am. Yes, this was a work trip. And yes, I paid for my own upgrade because work doesn’t have a clear policy on how to deal with COS and airlines. So much stress!!

  4. I just want to reassure people that most US airlines do not require you to purchase an extra seat just because you need a seat belt extender. I don’t know which ones do; I haven’t heard of it but I don’t travel as much as you do, Ragen.

  5. I’m truly tired of the “make a buck regardless of what happens to people” mentality. I don’t know if it has gotten worse or I’m just more aware.

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