I’m Fat, and I Fly, and I Don’t Always Like Sitting Next to You Either

My usual flying experience is not unlike trying to fit 20 pounds of jello into a 10-pound bag; I fold my arms, keep my knees tight together. But the fact is I have probably been the gross fat seatmate in someone’s airplane horror story.
Publish date:
November 29, 2011
body politics, flying while fat, arm rest logic

The stories of fat terror in the skies tend to proliferate this time of year. Most of us who fly on any regular basis have experienced a bad flight here and there, and not always due to an undesireable seatmate, but the bittersweet mingling of internalized guilt over holiday indulgence plus a busy travel season seems to add up to a lot of tales of airborne misery perpetrated by some nameless grotesque of a fat person.

The sad story making the rounds at present is that of Arthur Berkowitz, who thought he’d hit the coveted empty-middle-seat jackpot on a cross-country flight from Anchorage, Alaska to Philadelphia back in July, only to lose out at the final moment when a last-minute addition boarded the plane and sat down beside him. Berkowitz’s new seatmate was very fat, and Berkowitz responded by refusing to buckle his seat belt, in violation of FAA regulations, and spending the seven-hour flight standing in the aisle and galley area of the plane.

Berkowitz claims to be coming out with his tale of woe now because US Airways failed to give him a refund. Oh, and also because of safety.

I doubt parts of his story for a few reasons. For one, I give a big side-eye to the notion that the airline would uniformly come down on the side of the fat dude if his size were indeed an impediment to the satisfaction of FAA safety regulations.

Every major airline has a clause in their contract of carriage -- which you tacitly accept when you purchase your ticket -- specifying that should an individual prove too big for one seat, said individual must purchase a second seat. It’s a bit of legal ass-coverage that many airlines rarely employ, but it’s there for just such an occasion as this.

What counts as too big? Most airlines judge this by whether the arm rest goes down. Ridiculous, I know. And not especially definitive, considering that flesh is pliable and just because an arm rest goes down doesn’t mean the fat person is comfortably fitted in the seat, nor that spillover will not occur. But this is what they’re working with, and so if the fat passenger truly could not sit in his seat with the arm rests lowered, then indeed the airline would have every legal right to oust him, and he would have had no recourse.

Berkowitz has estimated that the man weighed 400 pounds, and although how he could possibly know that remains to be seen, that detail hasn’t stopped much of the news coverage of this event from using a headline blaming the FOUR HUNDRED POUND MAN who forced Berkowitz to stand during his flight. “400 pounds” is one of those made-up numbers people throw out as being utterly inconceiveably massive; he may as well said the guy weighed ONE MILLION pounds for all the specificity the number imparts.

The fat passenger, apparently, was “apologetic” about the whole situation, and that doesn’t surprise me, because fat folks on planes know too well that we are one terse comment away from getting booted. I make it a point to be almost unbearably good-natured, friendly, and cheerful in an airline environment, even though this is not my usual state of being. I do it because sometimes going along as the jolly fatty is the safest air route to take.

I’m a great big fat person* who flies several times a year. According to the quick tally I just did, in 2011 I have flown 12 times (so far, with four more flights planned before the year is out), six of which were cross-country flights between Boston and various destinations on the west coast. I am not as frequent a flyer as folks who fly monthly for work, but I probably get far more than the average person’s cosmic radiation dose per annum as a result of my jet-setting wanderlust.

I think this makes me a pretty savvy airline consumer. I know the security theater; I have my shoes off and my laptop out and my bag o’ dangerous cosmetic liquids inside tiny tiny bottles inside a one quart Ziploc brand plastic bag set aside while most folks are still putting their boarding passes away. I’ve got a horseshoe-shaped travel pillow and a seatbelt extender in my pocket. I carry hand sanitizer. It’s a familiar routine.

For all of this flying, I have never once been asked to demonstrate my ability to fit in a seat. I have never had a gate agent or flight attendent even look askance at my girth, as though he or she was concerned about my capacity to make my body suddenly rectangular and less than 18 inches wide.

And yet, every time I fly, I have to worry that this is going to happen.

We’d booked our most recent flight back from Los Angeles a little later than I would have liked, and thus our seat selections were limited. I chose one of the only empty rows -- the last row of the plane -- putting myself in the aisle seat and my husband at the window.** I did this hoping that it would mean we’d have an empty seat between us, and it looked good when we checked in at the airport.

But then I saw an older woman standing up in our row as we boarded, talking to a flight attendant. When we got there, the flight attendant explained that this woman was traveling with her family (two grandkids and her husband, altogether, who were sitting across the aisle), and would I be willing to give up my aisle seat so she could be nearer to them?

I could not, in good conscience, refuse this woman access to her family. I said of course, no problem, I would take the middle seat. As I sat down, still maintaining my airplane-exclusive cheery disposition, I laughingly said to the woman, “The only catch is that I will probably have to go to the bathroom at least once!” I expected her to chuckle, or maybe even to thank me for my willingness to help her out.

But the woman’s demeanor was strange. She didn’t make eye contact -- not once -- and instead responded sharply: “Well, you should just go now, so you won’t have to go later.”

It took all of my self restraint to resist explaining that, in my defense, my frequent need to pee on planes (because I drink water like a damn fish, because the air is so dry, etc) is the very reason why I book an aisle seat -- an aisle seat I’d just given away for her benefit.

She sat down for a few minutes and the tension was palpable -- fact was, this lady wasn’t exactly svelte herself, but she also seemed irritated by my very presence, sighing heavily every time I made the slightest movement. Eventually she got up and disappeared. I sat in dread for a few minutes, waiting for her to return. When the flight attendant came by I caught her attention and asked if there were any seats at all left anywhere else on the plane -- I’d pay for an upgrade, I didn’t care.

The flight attendant looked apologetic and said, “I know, I’m already trying to work something else out.” Had the sighing lady complained about me? I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, except a little peeved that she had not spoken to me directly. (I have had positive conversations with fellow passengers about the unworkability of seating arrangements in the past, all of which were resolved by some seat-swapping that made everyone involved more comfortable. It is amazing, the magical things that can happen when people talk to each other.)

In the end, the flight attendant found the woman a different seat elsewhere, and my husband and I wound up with the empty seat between us, as I’d hoped. I wanted to feel relieved, but all I felt was guilt -- towering, overwhelming guilt at this embarrassment of riches. Also anger, at the guilt. I felt guilty because the airplane seat failed to accomodate my body sufficiently to satisfy the pinched-faced crabby woman beside me, whom I would never see again. I felt dehumanized by her inability to make eye contact and acknowledge that I am a person and not simply an inconvenient sack of fat.***

It sounds absurd to me now, but still I felt it.

You’ve probably been at the airport at some point and heard someone comment about a fat stranger, “Damn, I hope I don’t have to sit next to THAT guy!” Maybe you’ve made this joke yourself. I get it, really. Airplane seats are small, and trust me when I say that the fat stranger is as miserable than you are, if not moreso, as he has not only been forced into a situation in which he must be physically uncomfortable, but in which he also may be publicly humiliated at any time. Certainly some people would argue that fat folks deserve to be publicly humiliated simply by virtue of being fat, but those people are assholes.

I know a few fat people who automatically buy a second seat every time they fly; on some carriers, the airline will refund the cost of the second seat if the flight is not full. If this is an affordable option for folks who know with certainty that they can’t fit in one seat, then great, but sometimes it’s not. Flying is not always about jet-setting off to some glamorous vacation. Sometimes people have to fly for not-fun reasons, like for work. And sometimes people have to fly to get to their sick mom’s bedside before she dies.

I’m not altogether sure whether I fit in one seat or not. I suppose much of it depends on who I’m sitting beside. My usual flying experience is not unlike trying to fit 20 pounds of jello into a 10-pound bag; I fold my arms, keep my knees tight together, scrunch my shoulders, stick as close to the window or as far into the aisle as I can manage, for six hours or more. But the fact is I have probably been the gross fat seatmate in someone’s airplane horror story. There’s not much I can do about that.

On a recent flight back from New York, I sat next to an extremely tall man whose knee fell into my leg-area, its owner helpless to contain his limbs in the space the airline had allotted. I thought about how we’re less likely to get angry at tall people for being tall on a plane; instead we’re more inclined to blame the seat configuration itself.

No one is truly comfortable in coach, let’s be honest -- not even those who fit in a single seat with room to spare. And given that most commercial airlines in the US have been struggling to turn a profit for years now, it seems unlikely that any kind of creative reconfiguation -- seats meant for tall people, seats meant for fat people, seats meant for disabled people, and so on -- is in the offing.

It sucks that Arthur Berkowitz had a terrible flight. To his credit, his outrage seems to be chiefly directed at the airline, which is where any outrage on these matters belongs. But the cumulative social urge to lay the burden of guilt on the fat guy -- because he is fat, and culture tells us that fat people are bad, and deserving of ridicule and disgust -- is too much for many of us to resist. Some feel fiercely entitled to the arbitrary amount of space the airline has decided we deserve; some think it’s unfair for space to be distributed according to need, as why should a fat guy get to be as comfortable on a plane as a smaller person? Some think the fat guy should be punished with discomfort: see, this is what you get, for being so fat.

There is no easy solution; if one existed, airlines would have implemented it by now. But I do think it’s reasonable to expect airlines to provide reasonable accomodations to all bodies, without surcharging the people who require slightly more space than others. I also think it’s reasonable to ask that we all remember that the fat people on that plane with you are also people, and they are not always edging into your seat out of a callous disregard for your comfort. As unhappy as you may be with their companionship, I can assure you they probably feel even more self-conscious and miserable than you do.

And if you sit next to me, let’s talk about it. I may be fat, but I’m also really nice. On a plane, anyway.


* Extra points if you know this reference, dudes. Extra points.

** PROTIP: nobody likes a middle seat, and nobody likes being at the back of the plane where other passengers are constantly hovering around waiting to get in the bathroom. Thus, if you book a window and an aisle in the last row, if there is one single solitary empty seat on that plane, it’ll be that most hated middle seat at the very back.

*** It is possible that something else was up with this woman, causing her disposition to be so sour, but I doubt it, as she’d seemed perfectly cheerful until the moment she realized she had to sit next to me.