You Probably Don't Need To Sweat It If You Are Flying While Fat

Let's conquer this fear.

Jun 8, 2014 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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Sick, tired, and trapped in Wisconsin at the airport.

I recently had the worst airline travel experience of my life. Actually, I recently had the worst airline travel experience of my life AND a secondary mega stressful airline travel experience.

In May, I took two long-weekend trips to do really awesome things. I was super excited, and the trips themselves turned out great.

As you might know if you follow either of us on Instagram, Lesley and I wound up in rural Western Massachusetts for a self-designed writing retreat. It was totally an adventure -- and getting there in the first place was no certain thing because it wasn't until a cab dropped me off at the airport in Orlando at 3:30 in the morning that I realized: I'd left my passport in my other carry-on bag at home.

Massachusetts sure felt like kind of a foreign country given how used to Florida's flat landscape I am -- there are so many streams. But that wasn't why I was freaking out over the absence of my passport; I needed it because I didn't have my license. I'd lost my wallet (only the bare minimum, at least -- ID, debit card, and a little bit of cash) just a week or so before.

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Massachusetts has some picturesque chickens!

I was standing on the wrong side of security with a boarding pass and zero forms of identification.

Turns out, there's a procedure for people who don't have an ID. It involves being thoroughly patted down while your carry-on luggage is thoroughly searched. The fear of not being able to fly was, for me, worse than the process of being vetted as safe to fly. So instead of having my husband Ed overnight my passport to me at considerable expense, I sucked it up and flew home without an ID as well.

My next destination, about a week later, was Madison, Wisconsin. There's a feminist science fiction convention there -- Wiscon -- that I attend every year. It's also a great chance to hang out with Tynan.

I had some concerns but the flight out to Madison was actually pretty hassle-free and I figured I'd managed to get lucky.

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The view from the hotel in Madison.

Man, that luck did not hold up. I came down with my first case of con crud AND got trapped in Wisconsin by a series of thunderstorms that shut down not only the tiny Madison airport but also O'Hare in Chicago.

First, I waited at the gate. I got switched onto different flights a couple of times. I got on the plane and it taxied around -- and then we all got back off of the plane and sat and waited for someone to tell us what was going on.

No one from the airline ever did come to tell us. The passengers -- many of whom had been at the con together -- banded together in a quest for information. Some people stayed behind with the luggage and made phone calls to the airline. Other people stood in line to talk to the gate agent down the hall (who wouldn't talk to our crowd). Other intrepid passenger-adventurers went back through security to stand in line at the ticket desk.

I navigated all of this as best I could -- but I was also totally over-medicated on all the cold medicines I could find. In hindsight, maybe taking, like, four different things wasn't the great idea it seemed at the time. But I couldn't breathe!

Eventually, a friend and I managed to get to a different hotel (distressed passenger rate), where we slept for a couple of hours before heading back to the airport and our rescheduled flights. I got home a day late, and took a cab back to the soft and loving embrace of my bed, where I was relieved to pass out for several hours.

Here's the thing: As miserable as I was during these experiences, none of my misery was related to my fatness.

(There was one douche who lodged his elbow in my sidefat and just left it there while we waited with futile hope next to a runway. But he was the kind of guy who sat with his knees spread wide and his elbows all over both armrests, so I think he'd have been a terrible seatmate no matter what size I wore.)

Flying while fat is a point of consistent stress for a lot of fat people. In fact, I know a number of fat people who have simply resolved not to fly at all, abandoning air travel in favor of cars and trains and just not going anywhere. Many of these people wear smaller sizes than I do.

There seem to be two common fears when fat folks are faced with flying: being forced to buy a second seat and having a seatmate who is angry and rude. I don't want to brush these fears off -- they're based on the lived experiences of other fat people who fly, after all. It's not like people are making this stuff up.

But when we base our fears on this kind of annecdata, we sometimes wind up worried a whole lot more than we need to be.

(Oh, hey, how many of us remember that "I can finally fly to Paris" diet company commercial from a year or two ago? Talk about convincing fat people they aren't allowed to fly.)

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There was no aisle 13 on this plane because of important superstitious reasons.

There aren't any statistics on how many fat people have been asked to buy a second seat on a plane. I'm not sure that data has been collected. What I do know (though there are people who are fatter than me who have different experiences) is that I've never been asked to buy one and, in fact, more airlines are developing policies to accommodate "customers of size" in more respectful fashions. 

Southwest -- long reviled by fat people as the worst of all airline offenders -- actually now has a really good policy that means even if you proactively buy a second seat before travel, the cost of it will be refunded to you after travel.

But that's only relevant if you need a second seat in the first place. And you might be surprised to find you don't; I can put the armrest down. I don't love doing it -- I won't lie to you about that. But I can do it and I don't even need a seat belt extender on a lot of planes either. If you are smaller than me (and statistically, you probably are), you might not think flying is the same thing as hanging out in a relaxing easy chair but you're probably going to be just fine.

The other concern is a little harder to contain -- because, let's be real, people are often jerks. And if you're fat, you are probably both painfully aware of your fatness and how other people perceive it and already carrying around some psychic bruises because of how people have treated you in the past. The embarrassment of a seatmate who doesn't want to sit next to you can be hard to shrug off, no matter how much self-confidence you generally have.

Those people exist. But so do lots of other people, people who make eye contact and smile and then put on their headphones and zone out because they don't want to talk to anyone during the flight either.

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Standing in line forever.

I'm don't travel by air as much as Lesley does, but I'm still on a plane every other month or so, sometimes more often. By and large, I have traveled beside other people who are primarily interested in getting where they are going. Air travel is uncomfortable for pretty much everyone in the cheap seats (and I use "cheap" generously here, given the cost of tickets), and there's often a camaraderie that can be felt, especially on those tiny little jets that hop between major hubs and other cities -- O'Hare to Madison, I'm looking at you.

We're all in it together is what I'm saying.

If you're worried about flying while fat, I want you to know that you are probably going to be just fine. Travel can be stressful for so many reasons -- and if you have an alternative to air travel then I don't blame you for taking it at all, especially if you are on the larger end of the fatness spectrum (because second-seat refund policies won't keep you warm).

I just want us to make informed choices, instead of choices based on being afraid. Because it's a big world. And you deserve to see it, too. Safe travels.