This is a piece I’ve written, trashed, and rewritten multiple times over the years. In fact, my notes on the topic date back as far as 2012, shortly after joining AirlineReporter. This is a tough subject to discuss, and it is indeed not easy to put one’s self “out there” for commentary by the general (sometimes harsh) public. Twice in prior pieces, I have dipped my toes into discussing weight issues. First when I mentioned my need for a seat belt extender on a Frontier airlines flight review years ago. And again when writing about my first 5K. Both pieces spurred unacceptable, rude, “fat-shaming” comments which were deleted.
For years this polarizing and real issue has lacked balance and a fundamental perspective: that of the so-called fat flyer. As a frequent traveler who came uncomfortably close to dreaded the “passenger of size” classification, it’s time to add some commentary. So, I’m taking one for the team. Just a quick note – this post uses adjectives that could be perceived as derogatory towards fat flyers. I am intentionally using these to help readers understand the words we so frequently hear. These are my opinions and generalizations. As I’ve noted, this is a sensitive issue, and everyone’s experiences and situations are unique. No disrespect intended.
Welcome on board. You are the last passenger to join us on our Southwest plane. As frequently happens, the middle seat next to me is the last one available on our sold out flight. The armrest which is generally considered to be the personal space boundary between us goes down, barely. I am 6’1″ and medically classified as morbidly obese, or worse. I also manage to squeeze into my seat without a seatbelt extender. Southwest, as it turns out, has generously accommodating seatbelts across their fleet.
Just like those before you, you size me up then look around for better accommodations. This on-the-fly appraisal is something I’ve been through multiple times on this flight alone and something I will encounter hundreds of times throughout the year as I eventually requalify for my elite flyer status. Finally, you come to terms with the fact that you’re stuck with me for the next hour or two.
This is the beginning of your inconvenience.
My inconvenience as a fat flyer began well in advance of boarding. It will persist beyond today’s flight.
Fat people are more frequently pulled aside during security. The TSA’s nude-o-scopes have a hard time seeing everything with our extra mass. Precheck is no refuge either; ever accidentally bump the side of the metal detector? That’s a pat down! Then there’s the young child who points and makes an unfiltered comment. The transparency of youth is sometimes a beautiful thing. It can also sting. Perhaps the worst though is the walk down the jetbridge. In my experience, fat folks are incredibly mindful of their situation. Have you ever been on a jetbridge when it suddenly auto adjusts? I have no way of knowing if I’m at fault. Either way, it bothers me.
As you settle in, I’m sizing you up as well: I’m watching your body language to determine if you are going to be a jerk or if you might demonstrate some compassion and understanding. I’m also determining how big you are. If you too could stand to lose a few pounds, there’s a good chance our thighs may come in contact under the armrest. If that’s not fun for you, imagine for a moment how I must feel, experiencing it semi-regularly. Imagine the shame that comes with that.
You and the fat flyer, we’re in this together.
You might comment or use body language to signal to me that I’m imposing upon you. Rest assured that without any hints from you this is something I’m painfully aware of. I’ve had folks begin our interaction with statements like “you could stand to lose some weight.” These comments are obvious and unhelpful. But if it makes you feel better and helps you to come to terms with the fact that you’re stuck with me, I’m OK with it. We’ve just met, so you have no idea that over the years I have lost weight twice the equivalent to that of my seven-year-old son. Shaming doesn’t end with hurtful comments and body language though. I once had a passenger on an AirTran flight demand I give them the window seat so they could be more comfortable. I complied; it wasn’t worth further embarrassment resulting from a confrontation.
Because I’m a savvy fat flyer, the seat I occupy is one which I’ve researched in advance of our flight. If we are on a Southwest 737-700, chances are I’m in 6A, 9A, 14A, or 19A. These seats have optimal “window scoop” placement, allowing for maximum shoulder room. It’s cold in the scoop, but I know leaning into it will give you some extra room.
We’ve just pushed back. This is another uneasy time for me because there is a fair chance that our flight attendant will ask me if my belt is actually fastened. It is. But because I’m a fat flyer who hasn’t asked for a seatbelt extender it very well might not be. I could be a passenger who has given up trying to get the damn thing to click while feeling the stare from fellow passengers. I could instead be pretending my belt is fastened to avoid the embarrassment of asking for an extender within earshot of half a dozen fellow passengers. My belt fits, but I still get the question and folks around me turn to look. No ill feelings towards the flight attendant, they are just doing their job. No less, the shame of being a fat flyer continues.
In-flight service is tough for the fat flyer.
We have taken off, and it is now time for our in-flight service. I typically don’t drink soda but do fancy a ginger ale when flying. If you have demonstrated yourself to be a jerk, I’ll forgo the snack and order water in an effort to appease you. Pretzels and 100 calories worth of soda are not worth the snicker or eye roll in my book. Despite my appearance, I do indeed value personal responsibility. Sometimes this proof that I’m trying buys some relief.
In all but the rarest cases (Southwest’s new Meridian-equipped cabins are a welcomed exception) the tray table is useless for me as it sits at around a 30-degree angle resting on my knees. This means I can’t do paperwork, use my laptop or even have a place to sit my drink down. I’ve become proficient at balancing my cup on my knee to free up my other hand to open my snack. If we have some turbulence, I might try to squeeze my drink between my knee and the side of the plane. Spills all over my pants and my bag below happen more than I care to admit.
Are you a fat flyer? Here’s what you can do to better prepare.
Do your research ahead of time.
- If you prefer the window, keep in mind that not all rows are created equal. The seats I quote above are solid choices when flying on a Southwest 737-700. The window seats on the other side of the plane in the same row are likely to have different configuration due to the way plane interiors are set up. Keep in mind that the walls of the plane consist of recessed windows and protruding plastic ribs. The trick (especially if you are someone like me with broad shoulders) is to choose a row in which the recessed window portion of the sidewall aligns with the back of the seat.
- Even at my largest size, I still preferred the window. If I had gotten much bigger, I would have moved my preference to the aisle as those seats allow for a bit more room with the ability to lean into the walkway. It is worth noting that on many airlines the aisle armrest raises, typically via a switch hidden on the bottom near the back. Airlines don’t publicize this and results vary widely between airlines and aircraft. As an FYI, the armrest must be down during times when tray tables must be up.
- If you are unsure or think you might need a seatbelt extender, consider paying for early boarding so you can try the belt in advance of the rest of the cabin. If you need help, let the flight attendant know as soon as possible. The very best flight attendants are understanding and have mastered the discreet handoff as to avoid any unnecessary attention.
- Consider flying Spirit and paying a little extra for the big front seat (BFS.) The BFS is essentially a first or business class seat without the added cost and frills of the premium cabin. My wife and I have grown to love the BFS as the best balance of comfort and value in the domestic air travel market.
- When you know you will require more than one seat, consider buying an extra one or calling the airline to alert them of your needs. Airlines call fat flyers “passengers of size” – be sure to use that phrase when searching for any particular airline’s rules. In my research, Southwest seems to have the most accommodating policy which allows for a refund of a second seat’s fare after the flight. I haven’t had the experience of doing this personally, but Southwest’s customer service is top notch.
Want to be nice? Here’s how you can make a fat flyer’s day:
- If you are a kind person or skinny person or traveling with a child who needs their own seat, we fat flyers would love to have you next to us. Consider doing something nice by claiming that seat, so someone else doesn’t. You’ll be doing us a favor, you will be doing the last person to board a favor, and you’ll feel better having done something nice for someone else.
- Should you find yourself stuck next to a fat flyer and want to show some goodwill, offer a corner of your tray table.
- Offer a smile. I can assure you this will help put your fellow human’s mind at ease.
Final thoughts from a fat flyer:
When my size started to affect my enjoyment of flight, I accepted responsibility and started to do something about it. It is a journey which I began years ago, and I will likely be on for years to come. Weight loss is not possible for everyone. The reasons for size are vast and needn’t be discussed here.
I often quote from Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 5 comes to mind as I think about the narrative of fat flyers: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This simple lesson helps to frame thought and is something we could all benefit from. You will note that this piece was written from my personal perspective. My goal is simple: To help others understand my point of view. I intentionally avoided assigning blame but accepted my responsibility. At the end of the day, everyone deserves to be comfortable. Sometimes a fat flyer may cause some inconvenience for another passenger. Keep in mind this is a burden we carry with us every flight. In closing, I ask for just one thing; put yourself in a fat flyer’s shoes before making a bad situation that much worse.
If you have something to add, your comments are welcome. But please be tasteful. Harsh or abusive notes are subject to removal.