Flying While 400lbs

I wasn’t going to write about Kevin Smith being bumped for fatness because I felt like I’d written enough already on airline stuff.  But I’ve been contributing to the Kevin Smith thread at Shapely Prose.  Then tonight I wrote up a huge long comment on my airline experiences at We Are The Real Deal and … it’s a post in itself.   So.

Observations:

  1. Per the airline definition of “fit” (armrests down with seat belt on) I can “fit” in a single coach seat. This is partly because I have an “apple” body shape. It’s not comfortable — compression occurs — but it’s doable.
  2. My shoulders are pretty wide, though. When I last flew in a single coach seat (2 and 3-hour flights, same clothing size as now) I’d get a window seat and lean on the bulkhead to keep my shoulders and elbows out of my neighbor’s  way.
  3. It’s very possible that I could end up next to someone (a gent with very long legs who’s “straddling” the seat ahead to keep from crunching his knees?) who has to touch my fat thigh and risk fat cooties.  Or who also has wide shoulders and keeps brushing mine.  Or I might get reassigned to a middle seat between people who don’t want to brush my shoulders.  If they complain about me, what do you think is going to happen?  I buy a second seat or get bumped.
  4. The man of the house is slimmer in the hips and fits into a coach seat much easier than I…but his shoulders are wider than mine, and has much more difficulty not brushing his neighbors’ shoulders…
  5. Which makes me wonder why hips that don’t fit into 17″ are a huge problem, but broader than 17″ shoulders are fine. This couldn’t possibly have anything do with broad shoulders being a desirable trait among men, could it?
  6. I have been known to book 2 coach seats for a cross-country flight, primarily for my own comfort. Once was with United, in 1996, before United had its “passengers of size” policy. The more recent times were with Alaska, last fall and in 2004.
  7. I’ve never had a travel or airline website allow me to book 2 seats for 1 passenger.  I’ve always had to call the airline directly. Each time I’ve ended up on hold while the agent looks up how to book 2 seats for 1 person.
  8. Each time I’ve bought multiple seats, I’ve been cautioned that they might not be together when I fly. (??) Yes, even when purchasing as a “passenger of size” policy — the policy which says big people must buy two seats? after telling the agent I weigh 400 freaking pounds? — I’ve been told this.
  9. Cassi commented on an earlier post that she had purchased two seats in advance and was told “Oh, we’re overbooked, so we’re bumping your empty seat” at the gate.
  10. There are reports of people flying to one location in a single coach seat with no problems, but being told they have to buy a second seat to get home. Or to take their connecting flight. In other words, the policies are applied inconsistently.
  11. I also sometimes fly first class. The seats are still tight, but they are more comfortable, especially for my legs and shoulders. (I wear a 30″ inseam.)
  12. I don’t fly often. Yes, I can afford to buy an extra ticket or even fly first class (first class on Alaska is often not much more than 2 coach seats – unlike many other carriers).  But it is an optional expense, and I usually opt not.  I’ve gone years between flights.
  13. My current job doesn’t require travel. I’ve traveled for business before (wearing the same clothing size as now) and it’s not bad, but that was before the “passengers of size” policies. I’d hate to be stuck in an airport explaining to my boss I’d been bumped from a plane as “too fat” and that I’d need an extra ticket to get home.

Conclusions?

Airlines really want the problem of people who don’t fit to a) go away or b) get monetized. If there’s a complaint, the fat person is kicked out and made to pay a penalty. If there’s no complaint, then they ignore it. This capricious and inconsistent application of the policies is one of the biggest problems I have with such policies.

If you haven’t flown lately, how do you know in advance whether you’ll fit?  Sure, you can take a tape measure and start measuring seats, but unless you have a 17″ (or 17.5″) wide seat with armrests at home or work or otherwise readily available (movie theater?) you may not know.

At the same time, airlines don’t see any reason to make it easier for people to book two seats. And remember, just because you paid for two seats doesn’t mean you’ll actually get them. (Again: capricious and inconsistent. It’s like a theme or something.)

“Passenger of size” policies do make it possible to get a refund.  I did receive my refund from Alaska for my most recent trip.  But finding the form to let me request it wasn’t easy, and the people answering the customer service lines didn’t seem to know how it works either.

Some airlines are also advertising “premium coach” or “business” seats that have extra legroom. They get more money and “Hey, we have an option for tall people!”

Finally: If you haven’t read Kate’s Broadsheet piece on flying while fat, I suggest you do.  (And as always, sanity watchers warning on the comments.)

25 thoughts on “Flying While 400lbs

  1. It is hard to purchase two seats and you always have to pay more because you have to book by phone. Also, you do not double the frequent flyer miles, which pisses me off.

    Once I bought two seats on Northwest. Flight was overbooked and attendant brought a family on the plane and made me tell them to their face that I would not give up my seat to their little girl. I asked if i would be refunded and attendant said no, so i said no to the little girl. The mother understood, but the dad was a complete jerk about it. The flight attendant was a complete bitch to me the entire flight. She yelled loudly, “Just because you bought two seats, doesn’t mean you get two meals!” I never asked for the two meals, she just wanted everyone to think I did. Other passengers complained about how rude she was as well. It was such a horrible flight and I have NEVER flown Northwest again.

    • Also, you do not double the frequent flyer miles, which pisses me off.

      That may depend on the airline. Alaska initially credited me with the frequent flyer miles, then removed them when they gave me the refund. United gave me double frequent flyer miles (that was in 96, so their policies may have changed).

      Flight was overbooked and attendant brought a family on the plane and made me tell them to their face that I would not give up my seat to their little girl. I asked if i would be refunded and attendant said no, so i said no to the little girl.

      The ATTENDANT was rude, and so was the father. If they want to “bump” your extra seat you should get a refund.

      Contrast with my two seats on United — the attendant insisted on giving me two meals, saying “Eat double what you like and leave the rest, I certainly would.”

      • Southwest does not credit double the miles for passengers who are forced to buy two seats. They also put the onus on the customer of reserving the second seat directly next to them — they give them a reserved placard which the customer must then place in the seat next to them and then defend to other customers who want to sit there. If you’re at the back of the boarding line, you must then pester already seated customers to find two seats directly next to each other.

        • Sounds like yet more reasons not to fly SWA!

          But then I’ve never been tempted to, either. Partly it’s due to their anti-fat policies, but they also don’t have much of a Seattle presence.

          (OTOH, my local airport is THE biggest hub for Alaska Airlines. I flew nonstop to Orlando, for example.)

      • On United, I have only had one bad experience. Otherwise, they have been fine to fly. Alaska, the same.

        My fave is Jet Blue. I have had platinum treatment on that airline.

    • My friend the pilot tells me the cabin is pressurized to the equivalent of 6,000 to 8,000 feet. While much safer than the actual cruising altitude, this is still high enough to cause altitude sickness or hypoxia. I got altitude sickness at 8,000 feet driving up Mt Haleakala after a week at sea level, so it is a concern. I’m careful about alcohol, make sure I have maintenance asthma meds on schedule, and have my inhaler. (I’m also good at popping my ears to deal with changes in pressure.)

  2. It boggles my mind that even if you buy two seats, they don’t guarantee adjacent seats. What’s the point, then, other than punishing the fatass? I think a lot of Americans are furious over the idea that somebody, somewhere could be getting something for nothing; that’s the only reason I can figure airlines getting away with not keeping a couple of extra seats in reserve on each flight. Look at all they eat that I don’t get to eat because I’m being good, and then they get an extra seat, free! Waah! It’s not fair!

    (But for some reason, people’s tax dollars funding some CEO’s private jet doesn’t bug them a bit.)

    • Well, to be fair, I think the CEO jet/tax thing bugs lots of people too, but yeah the “that’s not fair!” whine is annoying. Mostly because it’s applied capriciously. That’s the part that really grates my cheese.

      My husband rarely ever takes crap from seat mates even though he’s really too large to fit in one seat. He can buckle up, but his shoulders protrude well into the seat beside him. Fine if I’m there so he can just put his arm around me, but most strangers should find it annoying, assuming the problem really is that is just awful to have a stranger in your space. After all he’s well and truly in ‘their’ space. Heck most of them spend half the flight with his armpit in their face (he’s tall as well as wide). But interestingly having a big, athletic, good looking guy’s shoulders (which are hard are friggin’ rocks, I might add) touch you is somehow way less intrusive than having my soft squishy hips touch you. WTF?

      And that whole “fault” argument that fatties brought this on themselves? Yeah, it’s crap, too. Because those shoulders of my husband’s? Those babies are NOT there by accident. Keeping them that large requires enormous effort and boatloads of protein powder (buy stock in GNC, people, he’s single-handedly keeping them in the black). When he lays off during the off season, they shrink by a good couple of inches, because that’s what happens when you’ve pushed your body past it’s natural limits… given the chance it returns to it’s natural state. (Wait where have I read that before? It sounds so familiar.) But not once has anyone said, “oh for fucks sake, why did you DO that, you gluttonous protein guzzling gym rat! Just STOP eating and training, so I can have my space!!” Nope, most people just smile indulgently at the “poor guy” and make small talk about the ridiculous size of the seats.

      Know what else? On several occasions he’s even been bumped UP from an economy seat to a business class seat (on flights that offered no business class service, so there was no up-charge) because he’s large, but in a socially acceptable, indeed even socially admired way. Gate agents and flight attendants who eye me with disdain smile at him and try to help him navigate the horror of tiny seats. He’s always taken the upgrade, because… well, because he’s a big guy who needs more room, but he says it always makes him squirm because he knows that if his weight were distributed differently (and he knows full well that’s a roll of the genetic dice) it would be a whole different ball game. And that is why airlines with “person of size” policies suck.

  3. I had to fly when I weighed 420lbs… I’m 6 foot tall and pear-shaped, so you can imagine the discomfort on an economy flight… Miraculously, I managed to sqeeze myself into the window seat with the aid of a seatbelt extender, but my legs were crushed by the seat in front (that’s still a problem even though I’m now less than 280lbs and at one point weighed 175lbs). By the end of the flight, my I couldn’t feel my legs, but luckily sensation came back before I had to get off the plane. Although I regained a LOT of the weight I lost (not all, but I went up to 350lbs by the middle of last year) I couldn’t cope with being that weight again – or the humilation of taking a flight at that size. :o( Kudos to those who can!

    • As you note, a lot has to do with height and overall body weight. I think it’s pretty surprising that I can sit in a coach seat with armrests down AT ALL. Pear-shaped person would have a much more difficult time.

      Totally agree on the leg-crushing too.

  4. I just watched the KS SModcasts on this whole thing and one thing really stands out to me and that is that it seems like he was singled out because he had originally purchased an extra seat. He, like my husband and I, doesn’t do it as a necessity, but as a comfort thing (because he can afford it and doesn’t like people chatting him up). They want people to buy the seat when they want them to, but now they’re using the fact that he’s done it in the past to single him out. Like once you’ve done it once, it’s an obligation. It’s as if they now have a record of him (and me!) admitting that we’re a tight squeeze and we know it, so they can bump us with impunity. That makes me less likely to want to buy the spare seat in the future. I don’t like the idea that I’m setting a precedent that will be used against me.

  5. I am all about the not touching strangers, because I actually do suffer from OCD and assorted anxiety disorders that will mean I will be miserable, suffer panic attacks and might eventually well work myself into a state where I am literally puking my guts out, if I have to touch a person I do not know. This is however my problem and the reason I never ever fly unless I have someone I know with me as a barrier against strangers. Because you know what? The way most planes are these days, I’d touch my neighbour even if it was a 30 pound three year old little girl. It’s just ridiculous that airlines actually get away with arbitrarily coming up with the minimum amount of space a 5’5” 130lbs person could possibly be squeezed into and then penalizing everyone who dares to not fit the mold. Current air travel is the most horrible form of torture invented. AI needs to look into it.

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  7. Okay.. I also weigh 400 lbs and I have a feeling that some people may not agree with me on this..

    I recently had a 15 hour international flight on American.. And they recently had an incident where a flight attendant took a picture of passenger without his knowledge and posted it on the web. http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/unusual-attitude/2009/11/passenger-creates-big-debate-a.html
    So I was spun up about my upcoming trip..
    I called American and they said “use your best judgment”.

    In a way, I appreciate that at least Southwest has a clear policy.. I did order that second seat in economy class on the international flight – and thank you Jesus I did… but an official policy would have cut down on my trepidation..

    I only wish they had a place where you could sit in a seat.. and try it out.. Its been 4 years since I have been on that airline.. and I don’t know.. For my next trip I booked an extra seat.. and we will try. but the truth is. for personal flying.. i would not be able to afford it.. and for business travel, I pay for the second seat myself..

    (would that be tax deductible? )

    I admit though, I agree with the linked article.. I find myself more and more reluctant to fly.. I have bought my own seatbelt extender.. but I always worry that I will thrown off a flight.. and I hate the huffing of someone who sits next to me.. but sometimes you just have to fly..

    I did meet and get real cozy with a nice Somoan man once.. we took the the we are in this together attitude.. and it was fine!

    T

  8. Hello..

    I first want to say thank you for having this blog. It’s nice to know there are other people out there who face the same issues.

    I’m about to fly in a couple months and really scared about how it’s going to go! I haven’t flown in years and I know it’s going to be a tight fit! I purchased a first class ticket and I believe they said the width of the seats are 21 or 22 inchs with 28 inchs all together space. So I’m hoping it won’t be to bad. I’ve been trying to lose weight before the trip and actually have dropped 30 pounds (I’m now 375) and I’m trying to lose another 30 before the trip. So I could be around 350 and 6’3.

    Do you guys have any tips out there or do you think I’ll be fine flying. I was looking into buying a seat belt extender so I can just slip that on right when I get on. Ugh flying isn’t supposed to be this nerve racking

    I’ve really thought about backing out of the trip cause I’m so worried about flying. Well I hope I can get some good tips and once again thank you for your site!

    :)

    • It’s not just the weight, it’s also the dimensions. Take a tape measure to the chairs you have at home – how wide are they? First class seats are usually 22″ wide and well padded.

      Being 6’3″ you will probably need the extra legroom of first class :)

      Re: seat belt extenders, I’ve never had a problem getting one from one of the attendants (they’re used in the safety demonstrations). I mention it to an attendant once I’m seated. HOWEVER, if you would be more comfortable with your own extender, they can be ordered from Ample Stuff and Living XL.

      Good luck! Also, be sure to check out the TSA site on how to pack your carryon ;)

  9. This is my first time stumbling onto this blog. Thank you for creating it.

    I flew Air China to Beijing about 3 years ago and Cathy to Thailand 2 years ago. Both these flight were miserable for me. I’m 5’1″ 181lbs. The seats were terribly small and there is no leg room at all. The person in front of me literally slept in my lap the whole flight. (That’s about 16 hours flight.) The same trip I went to Thailand, we flew Thai Airway to Taiwan. The seat were much bigger. I think it also has to do with which airline you choose and the model of planes they use. Personally, I will not fly Air China or Cathy to anywhere again. The stewardess were rude when I asked to have my seat changed when the plane was practically half empty.

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  13. I’m 5’7 and 388. I’ve never actually had anyone be rude to me, either gate agents, airline employees or other passengers. I always fly SWA and use their customer of size policy or fly first class on another airline. I don’t pay for the extra seat on SWA. I’ve flown about 24-30 times in the past two years. Everyone’s always been nice to me. But then I’m not embarrassed to ask for a seatbelt extender and I have no problem explaining to someone that that seat is reserved. I don’t ever feel ashamed of my weight, and I make no apologies for my size. If anyone has a problem with it, they are certainly free to say so, and I’m certainly free to politely but firmly tell them to fuck off. :) That’s how I look at it. :)

  14. at about 100kg, I’m small enough to fit into budget airline seats (in europe — don’t know what size the seats are in the US), though it gets pretty uncomfy after 3 hours. but the problem i have is that the toilets on planes do *not* have much room and if I go up say, a dress size and a half, i won’t be able to use them. how is that even legal.

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