JL, a self-described "fat flyer" at an AvGeek event in 2012 when he was near his peak weight.

JL, a self-described “fat flyer” at an AvGeek event in 2012 when he was near his peak weight

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.

Fat flyer JL with former Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson.

Fat flyer JL with former Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson

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.

JL boards AirTran's final flight and shakes the hand of Gary Kelly, Southwest Airline's CEO.

JL boards AirTran’s final flight and shakes the hand of Gary Kelly, Southwest Airline’s CEO

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.

JL pauses for a moment to take a selfie during his first 5K in 2015. He trained for nearly a year and yes, he jogged the whole thing.

JL pauses for a moment to take a selfie during his first 5K in 2015. He trained for nearly a year, and yes, he jogged the whole thing.

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.

Spirit's Big Front Seat ROCKS.

Spirit’s Big Front Seat ROCKS

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.
JL at the unveiling of Southwest's Missouri One, a plane dedicated to his home state. - Photo: Joe McBride.

JL at the unveiling of Southwest’s Missouri One, a plane dedicated to his home state. – Photo: Joe McBride.

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.

Managing Correspondent - Lee's Summit, MO. JL joined AirlineReporter in 2012 and has since become one of our most tenured and prolific writers. His passions include catalyzing AvGeek passion in others, spending too much time on Twitter, and frequent travel. While he's always looking for the next big adventure, home is with his growing AvGeek family in Lee’s Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. Email: [email protected]

http://www.airlinereporter.com
A Room With A View: Delta Sky Club at San Francisco Airport
20 Comments

I am really happy you shared this story JL. As a person who is 6’1 and has been between 220lb and 270lb, I have felt the pain of flying large. It is really easy for people to say “if you don’t like it, just lose some weight,” but it is not always that easy. Honestly, I do not always watch my weight like a hawk and it takes flying to make me realize I have put on a few pounds (“are these seats smaller, or am I bigger?”). Thanks for sharing and happy flying!

David

That’s an absolutely TOP post JL…….thanks so much for writing it! As the airlines squeeze more and more people onto planes we can start to get a little territorial over our sardine can sized space……we become so focused on trying to get comfortable and keep every square inch of what we consider ours that we forget about the person sitting next to us or behind us……it really helps to read what you wrote to understand a different view point.

Thank you for the encouragement and for considering a diverse perspective.
Be well!

JL Johnson / AirlineReporter

Thanks for this story, JL. It really resonates with me. I have always loved to travel, but in my golden years I have blown up to 305 pounds (I am 6’2″) and I no longer can fit into an economy seat. It is too uncomfortable for me, and too uncomfortable for my seatmates, including my poor average sized wife. So I have had to give up travel. Now I am looking into bariatric surgery. If I could just manage to get back to 225 pounds, I think I could resume traveling.

Benjamin Granucci

All the feels with this one. It’s well written and doesn’t pull any punches. Flying while fat can really suck, or it can be tolerable. For me it all depends on the attitude and size of my seatmates. One of my least favorite flights in recent memory was a turbulent 737 ride from ORD to SEA with myself in the window and 2 other broad shouldered guys in the middle and aisle.

While I generally don’t feel physically uncomfortable on flights, I book away from CRJ-200s because I just don’t fit in a window seat (and didn’t when I was considerably lighter). I also favor A320s over 737s on the same route.

JL, you’re a rockstar. Nicely done.

Nicely done, but as a person who is 6’3” and 200 lbs I’m not fat but I am a big guy. I fit easily between the arm rests in a standard economy seat, though without any room to spare. I also have long legs that are routinely up against the seat in front of me. When I fly economy, I need all of the room I paid for and there is nothing to share.

Because of my long legs I always try to fly Comfort or First/Business Class to accommodate my height. Yes, I pay extra for that but I really have no other choice.

All I ask is for those who are passengers of size to consider the rest of us. When I have to book an economy seat I have no idea who is next to me. If you need two seats, book two seats.

Thank you!

Understood and agree, Tom. Thank you for reading and taking the time to leave a thoughtful and respectful comment.

JL Johnson / AirlineReporter

This was really thoughtful and well-written. Thank you for the reminder that we don’t always remember to think about what other people are going through.

Steve Brecken

Jl…Great job and bravo zulu for putting yourself out there. We’re all in this together so I try to be respectful and friendly to all my cabin and seatmates as we endure our flight time together. You’re welcome to share my tray table anytime the opportunity arises. The conversation and friendship alone are well worth a few hours of cramped quarters.

Steve Brecken
Director, Global Media & Analyst Relations
Honeywell Aerospace

Steve, you rock! Thank you for reading and for the thoughtful comment.
Always great to interact with you.

Great article.

I particularly liked the “Here’s how you can make a fat flyer’s day” section. I never would have thought of the first two ideas otherwise (and commit to doing them).

Thanks JL. Your stories are always great, but this one takes it up a level! I’m not fat, not big, not tall, 5’8 with short legs, so I fit pretty well in even the tightest economy seats, but I still find it cramped and uncomfortable, so I’ve always tried to be thoughtful of what it must be like for bigger people. Respect and empathy go a long way!

Thanks for reading and the thoughtful comment, Howie. Really appreciate it.

Be well,

I’m a fatty and have moved on to the customer of size life. I make sure my travel is with Southwest and I get the extra seat. I always take the window seat and pray that I don’t have to explain the middle seat is mine. My hope that some other big person or tall person will take aisle seat so they can get a little comfort as well but it usually goes to a small woman.

I used to pay to get A group access and take one of the emergency aisle seats but I got stopped by an agent that gave me a second customer of size seat and since then to avoid that awkwardness I just do the extra seat.

So in the past I have called and made the reservation with the second seat but I got told by the ticket agents at the airport that the phone people have no idea what they are doing and to always get the second seat upon arrival at the ticket desk, so that is what I do now. Some poor sap probably gets bumped because of this, I don’t know if I should feel bad or not. YMMV

Adrian in NZ

Greetings from New Zealand! I so appreciated your article. I know some of your pain. I currently weigh 117kg (257lbs) but have been as heavy as 130kg (286lbs). At that time, I remember one flight where I was in the middle seat and things were rather tight. I have never needed an extension seatbelt or extra seat but I have had to pull the seat belt to it’s furthest extent a few times, especially on Asian and Middle East airlines. it’s always satisfying when I don’t quite have to. I also usually don’t sit in exit rows as thr seats are narrower. A little bit of understanding goes a long way.

Hi JL, I have not been on the site in awhile and was so happy to find this story. I make the rounds on a handful of AVgeek and travel/cc sites and have become really worn down by the constant drone of “what can I get for free” or “who serves the best wine/snacks”. I understand that this is America and we love free stuff but it makes me sad. I think that we live in a time were we are blessed with the freedom to travel almost anywhere at low cost and everyone should be able to enjoy it. I appreciate the tips at the end of the article and now consider them part of being a good citizen of the sky.

Scott, thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment. Folks like you are the reason we do this. Be well.

Hi JL,
As a frequent (and skinny) flyer, I never understood what larger people went through on planes. The eye rolls, territorial behavior, sighing, and outright annoyance at sharing space with people larger than I…I am guilty of all of it. Every single miserable behavior.
I appreciate your candid approach to this personal topic. Moving forward, I will try to remember we are all just trying to get to a destination. I’ll share a smile instead of sarcasm and try to remember to pack humanity when I pack my carry-on. I can’t guarantee a corner of my tray table though. Let’s be honest, those things are made a tad smaller than a saltine cracker.

The last three flights I have taken have involved sitting next to people of size who were inconsiderate of the imposition their overflowing bodies create for others. One passenger was so egregiously usurping my space on a long flight, that as soon as the seat belt sign went on, I spoke discreetly to an attendant who said: “Yeah, I noticed that earlier, Sorry.” and reseated me. I gave up a window seat to sit in the rear of the plane in a seat that did not recline, which was an improvement for me, but left the large person sitting comfortably in two seats they didn’t pay for. The other situations involved me squeezing myself away from my seat-mate trying to get comfortable. The latest flight found my entire body from shoulder to knee covered in the other person’s sweat. They were unable to belt their seat belt, could not put down their tray table, and body fat concealed the armrests. A few suggestions from me: If you are large, buy a business class seat or a first class ticket, or an extra seat. My son is 6’8″ and we buy him seat upgrades because we don’t think it is reasonable for other passengers to be discomfited by his frame. DO NOT book a middle seat under any circumstance, but instead look for an aisle or window seat. What you can expect from fellow travelers is that they are polite, nothing more. Maybe you will be lucky enough to find a neighbor seated next to you who is tolerant and compassionate, but don’t count on it, nor lament its absence. The remedy for your situation rests on you taking responsibility for your size and BUYING APPROPRIATE space.

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