Flying by the seat of my pants

I’m going to take a break from my customary Tim bashing, political commentary and tempered media criticism to weigh in on a news item that touches upon one of my pet peeves: “Woman sues airline for humiliation over her weight“.

There have been quite a few similar stories over the past couple years about super-sized passengers angered and humiliated by airline employees who suggest — or require — that they buy a second seat. I don’t want to come across as insensitive to the needs of the avoirdupois-challenged, but speaking as someone of modest girth who flies cross-country three or four times a year, I applaud the airlines for finally acting on behalf of us boney-assed fellow travelers.

I cannot tell you how many times I have been seated next to a person whose buttocks were bigger than their seat cushion. They have for the most part been pleasant people, but while I don’t mind passing the time sharing conversation, I deeply resent being forced to share my allotted space. The laws of physics being what they are, I have at times involuntarily surrendered as much as a quarter of my seat to the stowaway in my neighbor’s thighs.

Since I usually travel with my young, window-gazing daughter, I am invariably seated in the middle. Fortunately I can usually flee encroachment by lifting the armrest between us, and sharing the combined space with my daughter’s cute little tuchis.

However last fall, while traveling alone, I happened to witness a brief confrontation between a ticket agent and a particularly wide-bodied, late arriving passenger. It was a full flight, and the agent meekly urged the passenger to switch to a later flight where she could be “better accommodated.” She tersely refused.

As luck would have it, she was given a middle seat… next to me.

Now I’m not exaggerating: her ingress and egress was only possible by lifting both armrests, which during flight were clamped backed down on slabs of gluteus overflowus like animals caught in a trap. For five and a half hours I was forced to share my seat with one her hypoxic appendages, which I imagined turning blue and lifeless by the time we arrived at the gate.

Her discomfort was clearly greater than mine, but my empathy was tempered by how unapologetic she was by her intrusion. I was seated on the aisle, and on boarding she asked if I would switch seats with her, “for obvious reasons.” For equally obvious reasons, I declined.

So each time she struggled in or out, she made a point of turning towards me and grumbling about how they made the seats “too narrow.” I desperately wanted to retort, “No, you made your ass too wide”, but held my tongue for fear she would lift the armrest in retaliation, unleashing a flood of cyanotic adipose in my direction.

It must be humiliating to be publicly told that your haunch is too large to fit in a single seat, but what is the alternative? Few gates could accommodate a separate sound-proofed “fat room”, and I’m not sure that would draw less attention. Or perhaps the airlines should strictly adopt the cartoon-character measuring posts long used at amusement parks? (“Your ass must be smaller than Barney’s to ride.”)

There are now several lawsuits accusing airlines of discrimination, but this is more about geometry than bigotry. If the seat of your pants is wider than the seat on the airplane, you simply do not fit. It may be embarrassing to be asked to purchase a second ticket; it may even be a substantial financial burden. But it is unfair to your seat-mate to cram yourself in regardless. I pay for my seat, and I have no obligation to share it, regardless of whether my scrawny ass actually fills its dimensions. Besides, when it comes to airplane comfort, whatever spatial advantage I might gain from my boney bottom is surely offset by its lack of adequate padding.

Perhaps my comments are unduly cruel, but I prefer to think of my position on this issue as rather nuanced. I myself have several friends and family members with whom I could not sit comfortably on a long flight (although admittedly with some, it has nothing to do with their size.) So I hope this is not perceived as an attack on fat people.

What it is an attack on is the failure of some people to recognize that one’s unfettered personal freedom ends at the point where it infringes on the personal freedom of others.

So in an odd sort of way, I guess today’s blog might be about politics after all… about that delicate balance between individual liberty and obligation to society that is at the core of much of our political debate. Or more bluntly, about the everyday competition over scarce resources. Or maybe it’s just about tort reform.

Oh what the hell… it’s about how incredibly uncomfortable it is to have a really fat person sit next to me on an airplane. Can’t a guy just vent sometimes?


  1. 1

    matt spews:

    I just wanted to say that you right on. If you too fat to sit in one seat you should have to pay for two seats.

  2. 2

    Damnaged spews:

    I just whanted to thank you for the following…

    1) Pointing out the blantly obvious to those who cnat see their toes with out mirrors.

    2) Sticking up for us gluteus minimus, not being required to share.

    3) making me laugh out loud in an office full of cube cows and not being able to share in fear of a mass stampeed.

    You rock!

  3. 3

    FatCow spews:

    I, on the other hand, was outraged by your stance. As someone who is supersized, I will give you a little perspective. The woman wore a size 22. As someone who has been up to a size 24, I can tell you that a 22 can fit into a seat just a little tightly. I was uncomfortable at a 24, but the armrest stayed down. If I could have pulled my arms in, I would have. Now at size 20, I am perfectly comfortable. What\’s at issue here is the people at the gate humiliating her, not her size. This is discrimination. Until they put up a plexiglass sign with marking that says \”Your ass has to fit here, or you have to buy a second seat, they are just guessing. This, however, would be discrimatory toward women, who tend to carry their weight in their backsides, vs. men who carry their weight in their torsos or abdomens. Last trip I was on, I saw a man who was at least 350 lbs get on, who had very wide shoulders, but as usual, a tiny ass. I wouldn\’t want to be his seatmate either. I think it is also significant that they were harasssing a woman. No doubt if they would have tried it with a man, they might have gotten their lights punched out.
    It would be ideal if all of us \”biggies\” could afford to travel first class, in which case most of these arguments would be passe, but we can\’t. And if we can\’t afford first class, how can we afford two seats in coach? My point here is that until they have some objective guidelines, such as everybody who weighs more than 250lbs buys a second seat ( and that includes linebackers, who are big but not fat) or buys a first class seat, they should not be harassing people. And lately, it seems there is no such thing as a plane with extra seats on it anyway.

  4. 4

    Goldy spews:

    How to respond? I\’m sorry if I outraged you, but then… being outrageous is part of the schtick of this blog. It\’s the horse that brung me.

    That said, I\’m not sure if humiliation really is the issue here. Your suggestion of an objective guideline certainly makes sense, but its application would be no less embarrassing. In the end, it really comes down to personal responsibility. The woman in the incident I recounted clearly knew she didn\’t fit in a coach seat… in fact she instigated the confrontation with the ticket agent by demanding they move other passengers around so she could sit by an empty seat. It was only then that the agent said they could accommodate her request if she waited until the next flight… and matter-of-factly suggested that in the future, the only way to assure an empty seat was to purchase two tickets.

    As to the article I cited, I merely used it as a springboard — I have no idea what a size 24 is. But I assure you that the woman I mentioned was well over 300 pounds. And at least as rude to me in person as I was to her in my blog.

    Anyway, I stand by my thesis that it\’s not discrimination to make somebody who doesn\’t fit in a single coach seat buy an extra ticket. It\’s geometry and economics.

  5. 5

    FatCow spews:

    Ok, I sympathize with you sitting next to the 300 lber. I feel the same way when I sit next to a linebacker, and they push my arm with the nerve damage forward. But the woman in the article, a size 22, probably weighs about 230. Maybe, depends how much muscle vs. flab she has. And she was on her way back from Florida, nobody has said anything on the way there. She was seated between her two kids. If you can\’t slop over on your kids, who can you slop over on? After all, heaven knows they slopped all over you for years. This is still, IMHO, egregious, and dammit, yes, humilating. Where were these fat police when your 300 lber boarded?

  6. 6

    Goldy spews:

    Again, I was writing more on personal experience than that particular news story. But I wonder if your explanation actually argues against the notion of enacting objective standards? A person who normally could not fit in a single seat, would have no problem sharing a row with her two small children.

    That\’s why I say this is about personal responsibility. Most people who are too large to fit in a single seat know they are too large to fit in a single seat, and know they must be imposing on the person next them. Out of courtesy to others, they simply shouldn\’t cram themselves in regardless. And they certainly shouldn\’t sue the airlines for being forced into the situation of imposing this courtesy.

  7. 7

    marie spews:

    i am 285 lbs. a woman and not very muscular, just chubby…chuckle, chuckle, i plan on going on a crash diet before my plane flight coming up in 3 weeks, the width of the seats on jet blue are l8-l/2 inches..have to squeeze in next to my hubby.