fitness · Weekends with Womack

Fat flying: the holiday air travel edition

Let’s face it: 21st century air travel ranges from mildly unpleasant to horrific on a biblical scale. As a person raised on the Jetsons, I fail to understand how we have been reduced to being herded like cattle from Pittsburgh to San Diego, Sydney to Melbourne, London to Hamburg, Ottowa to Vancouver. Seriously, I thought we were promised jetpacks by now. As it is, we don’t even get free snacks on board anymore, much less this:


Of course, in those days air travel was long, risky, expensive and available only to the privileged, as we can see in the photo above.

Why is airline travel no longer glamorous or exciting, but instead tedious at best and infuriating at worst? Part of the problem is this: there’s less and less room allotted per passenger on planes. Below is a table from a UK article that includes both pitch (how far seats recline—higher numbers are better) and seat width in inches.


So what do we see? Lots of seats that are less than 18 inches wide with less legroom. That is a reduction of at least 1.5 inches over the last two decades. The shrinkage of seats along with airline practices of cramming as many seats as possible in an already-small space makes everyone more territorial about the itty-bitty amount of personal space they have. This does not make for a congenial atmosphere. Of course you could spend $18,000 USD for this on Etihad airlines:


But that’s not an option for almost all of us.

For people who are larger-sized, flying can be a huge hassle, filled with uncertainty and disapproval, judgment and embarrassment. Why uncertainty? Well, here are some things fat fliers need to know:

1) What aircraft will I be flying? (e.g. Boeing 737, Airbus 320)

2) How wide are the seats on that plane?

3) Will I/how will I fit in those seats?

4) What are the policies for the airline I’m flying regarding seating of larger-sized passengers?

5) What is that airline’s record for implementing those policies? Are they feasible? Are they always/usually/occasionally/never enforced?

6) So what’s a fat flier to do? I can’t drive to Germany!

Let’s look at each of these.

For 1) and 2), you can go to to look up seat maps and aircraft assigned to particular flights. It will give you seat width and pitch for legroom. However, this isn’t guaranteed, as aircraft get substituted for maintenance and scheduling reasons. So you might get stuck with some other plane with a less feasible seat configuration.

For 3), the answer is: there’s not a way to tell ahead of time whether you will fit in the seat on your flight. Numerous bloggers and commenters about this topic have made the following completely reasonable suggestion: airlines have standards for carry on bags, so they have something like this for you to check to see if your bag fits.


However, airports don’t have sample seats for people to try out before they proceed to the gate. And, since seats vary in width and pitch, this would be hard to do. Of course a natural suggestion would be, “how about we standardize this, eliminating that uncertainty?” Airlines don’t agree, as they are constantly looking for ways to squeeze more passengers into aircraft. In fact, this “saddle” seat has been proposed for some short (less than 3 hours) flights for ultra-dense packing.


No comment.

For 4), the airlines have policies posted on their websites, and on this site the information is collected for many airlines (it’s only current to January 2015, though). Most airlines say that customers must a) fit in the seat with the armrests fully down; b) be able to fasten the seatbelt, with extender if need be; and c) not “significantly encroach on the adjacent seating space”.

Of course, because of the problems with 1) and 2), you may not know whether you meet these criteria.

But for those who think they might not, the general policy is for those customers to purchase another seat. For the record, the consensus is that Southwest has the best policies (found here ) for what they call “customers of size”. You buy an extra ticket in advance (and there are instructions for how to do this online—it’s trickier than it sounds). Then, after the flight, you can request a refund for the extra seat you bought (this is also trickier than it sounds, but people have reported that it does work). Other airlines are less clear and less forthright about refunds, but knowledge is power, so looking it up ahead of time is a good thing.

For 5): Sigh. On all sorts of blogs about this issue, people report that airline employees commonly break every rule in the policies—they will seat people when the armrests don’t go all the way down, they will try to seat passengers in the extra seat purchased by a larger person, and if any discussions get confrontational, the squawking customers get escorted off the plane and maybe arrested. This causes uncertainty, embarrassment, anger, and major discomfort for everyone involved. This seems in large part avoidable through better training of airline employees, better information offered to passengers of all sizes. And, (call me a cockeyed optimist, but) if businesses promoted an atmosphere of professional courtesy and civility, maybe more people would follow their model. I know, I know. But a girl can dream, can’t she?

For 6), Ragen Chastain of the great Dances with Fat blog offers a bunch of suggestions for airlines to follow. They are very clever and creative (you can read them here), and include ideas like making seats of different widths and charging more for them. Another is letting passengers check a box if they don’t mind sitting next to a larger person, with possibly a small rebate. The nice thing about her suggestions is that they also solve the problem of tall or big people whose shoulders are wide—they don’t just focus on hips and waist measurements.

So even though one seat size doesn’t fit all, there should be some better ways to carry us all to our destinations with a modicum of comfort and dignity.  It’s time for the airlines to put together some humane, feasible, simple and comprehensive policies about transporting people of different sizes and shapes home to Grandma’s house or wherever they are going.  And then to train their employees to follow them.  And also to inform ALL their customers so they can fly with fewer worries.

Although I’m still waiting for those jetpacks.


7 thoughts on “Fat flying: the holiday air travel edition

  1. Good post and great tips. I hope people can use them and travel better. The airlines should really stop developing even more uncomfortable chairs. I’m looking more from a ‘disabled person’ perspective and those saddle chairs would make it impossible for a lot of people with back or leg or whatever pains and problems. And if they didn’t have them, they will get them… It doesn’t look ergonomical. I’m glas you could shed a light on this, otherwise I probably would have never knows about these developments over the years and also how troubling it can be for ‘plussized’ people to fly (I write ‘plussized’ since it’s not only us getting a larger size, but them making sure things are in even smaller sizes than before as well).

  2. “Of course, in those days air travel was long, risky, expensive and available only to the privileged”. Time hasn’t changed things. Travel can STILL be incredibly long. Due to airline mergers, it is increasingly difficult to fly to many US Cities direct. So it takes longer. In some ways, I would rather drive. Risky. Yup. Due to safety issues, it can be a bit risky these days–but it’s still faster. Expensive? You bet your ass it is. The price of fuel AND the monopolizing of certain airlines has allowed them to hike up their prices. Privileged? Well–only the wealthy can fly first class or charter a private jet. As far as “fat shaming”. I like to call it “people shaming” Honestly, it doesn’t matter how wide the girth of people are anymore. The airlines are milking every single cent from us. Trust me, my Frenchman is as thin as a baguette and he complains about the lack of room. I’ve come to terms with this. I’m on the plane. My average flight time from Philly to CDG is 7 to 8 hours. I’ll deal with the uncomfortable situation because the end result puts me in the City that makes me happiest. What I can’t stand it the monetary price I have to pay. Nice and thought-provoking post!

  3. I love traveling and hate commercial airline travel, and have seriously researched getting a pilots license and renting/sharing a plane. Ridiculous and expensive, yes; but stressing over if my butt is going to fit in the seat every time I want to go somewhere is ridiculous too.

  4. Philly Dance Fitness decided to use your post as a way to fat shame people into coming to their classes. Great.

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