Saturday, April 18, 2009

Too fat to fly (but not too tall?)

My daughter took a flight recently and sat next to a man who she guessed was over seven feet tall. No lie. And because there was no elbow rest between their seats, she spent the flight hunched into a corner of her seat.

You can be damn sure this gentleman was not charged for two seats. And yet anyone who now flies United who takes up more than his or her allotted seat centimeters due to weight will be charged for two seats. So flying fat will cost you double, but flying tall won't.

I find United's new policy offensive and discriminatory on many levels. If you do too, consider following the directions in the form letter below, which was created by Marilyn Wann, to protest. Because you better believe that if United gets away with this, all the major carriers will start imposing a fat flyers' penalty. And who's to say what's "too fat" to fly with a single ticket? Down the line, could ticket agents be whipping out BMI charts when you get your boarding pass? I put nothing past this fatphobic society (and the airlines desperation to turn a profit).


United Airlines is the last of the major carriers to announce proudly a policy of charging fat passengers double.

They say they received 700 complaints last year (out of 80 million passengers carried) from thin people who did not like having a fat person sit next to them and perhaps take up some of their seat space.

I am convinced that the 700 fat seatmates who didn't complain were not too happy about the situation, either. People in the fat pride community have decided to try and beat that 700 complaints statistic.

I'm writing to ask you and the people you know to complain at about this costly and discriminatory targeting of one demographic group. If this policy stands, it means fat people have less right to interstate air travel than other people. Everybody deserves a safe and comfortable chair on an airplane, at an affordable price!

Here's the link for Customer Relations.

Expect to be asked to fill in some irksome required fields:
- If you don't have a United frequent flier number, you can use mine: 00229870823.
- For flight info, I just put 4/15/2009 (the day United announced its policy).
- For departure and return cities, I put San Francisco in both slots.

Please copy your complaint letter to my e-mail address, so we can keep count as we approach and pass 700.

Thanks tons! - [insert your name and e-mail address]



Anonymous said...

While I agree with you on some level, however there is a huge difference between someone who is overweight and someone who is tall. Most overweight/obese people can lose the weight, while someone who is tall cannot simply lose some inches in height. I understand that there are medical conditions that are beyond ones control, but I would wager to say the majority of overweight passengers these days don't fall into that category.

I myself am 6'6" and flying is no joy for me. Whenever possible, I always request for an emergency row seat, or any seat without someone in front of me, this way I have more legroom and there isn't an issue with someone in front of me who cannot recline their seat due to my legs. Some airlines charge extra for such a seat, but at least I get to fly a little more comfortable.

If I was horizontally challenged as well, I don't see why I WOULDN'T want and extra seat. Not only for my own comfort, but for the common decency to the passenger that would have had to cram in the seat next to me. I know it's not cheap, but that's the price you pay to be comfortable and courteous to your neighbor. Remember, they paid for their ticket too...

Harriet said...

"Most overweight/obese people can lose the weight, while someone who is tall cannot simply lose some inches in height."

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that I do not agree with you on this. I'm publishing your comment for those who are thinking the same thing but not saying it.

Readers, please remember that we do not know how to make people lose weight and keep it off. UCLA published a study not long ago proving (if any proof is needed) that, in their words, diets don't work. About 97% of dieters gain back the weight and then some.

So no, Anon, your analogy does not hold true. With all the stigma in our culture around overweight, don't you think for one second that if losing weight were doable over the long term, more people would do it? Or do you think, as so many do, that people of size are lazy/selfish/gluttonous/fill in the blank with judgmental term of your choice?

Lindsay B. said...

I hate to bug you, but is there any way you could provide the e-mail address(even an obscured one to avoid spam) to "copy the complaint letter" to her?

Harriet said...

Good point. My bad for leaving it out. It's marilyn at fatso dot com.

ZaftigWendy said...

Complaint sent!

Dan said...


No, I have never read your blog, but I don't think you understood the point of my original comment. As a tall person, I do not have the option to drop a couple of inches, just as (for arguments sake) a percentage of overweight/obese individuals may not be able drop the weight no matter what diets/weight loss methods they try. However there is a large population of overweight people (especially in the US) who clearly are fat due to their eating habits and lifestyle. However, ALL tall people are tall no matter what they do. So yes, my analogy does hold some truth.

Aircraft design takes years, and millions of dollars to develop and manufacture. Maintenance and operation is equally as expensive as well. Each additional seat they can fit onto a plane means a cheaper price for everybody, because everybody has the same size seat. Think of the plane as strip of real estate. Every inch is valuable and if you can't fit in one seat, then two seats need to be purchased. Should you try to cram yourself into one seat, the seats next to you drop in value do to their sudden loss of personal space. That passenger might not have opted to pay the price they did for that seat had they known this ahead of time, therefor I can understand the complaint.

Really, your argument is like me trying to tell all the car companies to make their compact cars larger to accommodate my tall proportions or give me the bigger model for the same price. Trust me, I understand your frustration, but the simple fact is life costs more for people who aren't your "average size". In my opinion, there should be multiple seating options on airplanes, not just first & coach. I would gladly pay more for additional legroom and a no baby policy in my area of the cabin.


Harriet said...

"However there is a large population of overweight people (especially in the US) who clearly are fat due to their eating habits and lifestyle."

Dan, exactly how do you "know" this, may I ask? Are you at home with these fat people watching them eat? Because it's a lot more complicated than that, believe me. There are fat people who eat a lot, and there are thin people who eat a lot. Same holds true for exercise. And there are many fat people who actually don't eat that much; their metabolisms have been screwed up by years of yo-yo dieting. When you diet, and then stop dieting, and then diet again, your body adapts and becomes more efficient at using calories. So many fat people who have tried every diet there is, etc., may wind up eating 1200 calories a day and still either gaining weight or not able to lose any.

LIke so many people you are making assumptions that are not true. I don't agree that your analogy holds truth.

If airlines charged different levels for different levels of space, I'd have no problem with that--IF they applied those costs across a range of body shapes and sizes. Right now it's just fat people who are being made to pay, and to feel shamed for their size. I doubt very much that you feel any sense of shame or stigma for being tall. (Nor should you, of course.)

BetaM said...

I'm not getting it. How does a tall person use up his neighbor's room in an airplane? By having to bend his legs and using up some legspace? In this case, a lot would be solved by seating a tall person in an aisle seat, where they can stretch their legs a little into the aisle.

The "fat people shouldn't pay two seats" is something I just don't get. If you fit into one seat, then you pay one seat. If you need two for any reason, you should pay two - because you're using a seat they could've sold to someone else otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Thanks tons for posting my letter inviting people to send complaints to United! I hope we far exceed the 700 complaints they received from thin people who, just like we do, want a comfortable and affordable chair that they don't have to share with anyone else!

Interstate air travel is a civil right. Expecting one group of people to jump through a burdensome extra step — and attempting to lose significant amounts of weight is a prime example of crushing, futile undertakings! — is discriminatory.

The tall fellow who questions fat people's right to fly comfortably and affordably makes a great point! In coach seating, there are several areas where tall people can find roomier chairs. The bulkhead row and the exit rows provide extra leg room, usually at no extra price. In the cases where there is an extra fee to sit in these rows, it is not much ($25? $45?). It is certainly never the equivalent of a second full-fare ticket!

Nowhere in coach is there a wider option for wider people, certainly not for free or for a small amount.

THe airlines have, sadly, invested their design money in architecture that specifically excludes a large demographic group. If they have any business sense at all, they should be able to make money while offering welcoming accommodations to all sizes of passengers.

- Marilyn Wann, FAT!SO? chick

Cassandra Says said...


OK, here's the really obvious piece of the puzzle you're missing. It's true that society is not made for people of unusual size. I know this from the opposite end of the spectrum to you - I'm short. I find it hard to reach the hang straps on buses, have to stand on the seat to put things in a plane's overhead lockers etc. Which I'm not complaining about because things are designed for average sized people, and I'm outside the average.

However...most Americans are fat. If you look at the seat size on the domestic carriers versus the size of the average American, the seats are just too small to fit the people. People much shorter than you have issues with not enough legroom. The average American woman is a size 14, which is already right at the edge of where people would start to run into problems with United's guidelines in terms of fitting between the armrests. So basically, what this policy represents is the airline saying that they intend to discriminate against people who are the statistical average. This is not a matter of fat people needing to lose weight, this is a matter of businesses refusing to accomodate their average customers in an attempt to save a few bucks.

Once again - America is a country where the average person is fat. Therefore, it makes sense for things like seating on planes to be designed to take that average sized person into account. The only reason they're able to get away with not doing so is the "fat people are responsible for being fat and should feel bad about it" attitude you're manifesting right here.

Substantia Jones said...

The beau (tall, thin, has trouble comfortably fitting into airline seats) and I are each sending thoughtfully worded complaints now. Let's see... how do you spell disembowel?

Meowser said...

Dan, why don't you get your legs amputated below the knees? Then you wouldn't be so tall. Oh, what? That would hurt? That would pose a serious health risk and loss of quality of life for you, for no good reason on earth? Poor boopsie.

At least a below-knee amputation would be over with quickly. Most of us fatasses have no such luck, and would have to make our entire life's work being smaller -- yes, I'm talking eating less and less every single year, exercising more and more and harder and harder every single year until we're eating almost nothing and exercising almost constantly.

You think I owe you that? You think I'm not trying hard enough to be thin? Prove it. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and saying you know my body, and every other fat person's body, better than I/we do, just because you're thin and you think that alone gives you expertise, is an extraordinary claim.

In case you didn't know, half of all fourth grade girls and 80 percent of all seventh grade girls are on diets. You think that doesn't screw up a person's metabolism, to be dieting for that long, starting that young? Also, did you know that about half the prescriptions given in America are for medications that have weight gain as a side effect? Want me to not take my Remeron so I won't be fat at you, Dan? I think you'd find the results a lot less pleasant to sit next to than my fat ass, to be perfectly honest with you.

Harriet said...


See Cassandra's eloquent comment above.

Thank you all for being so articulate.

Lise said...

You don't have to be overweight to not fit into those tiny seats.

My partner has very broad shoulders. His waist is normal for an adult man, so he can (barely) fit into the seat. His shoulders, however, are so broad that it's torture having to sit next to him on a bus, train or airplane since the unlucky person (usually me) has to constantly sit in a very uncomfortable position.

He can't magic his shoulder any smaller either, yet I doubt anyone would make him pay for two seats since he can fit into one seat.

Anonymous said...

I'm normally all for keeping the fat phobia out of my life, refusing to comment on anything pertaining to it, but this is an issue I have extensive experience with as someone who regularly travels not only interstate but also overseas and on a whole lot of long-distance flights.

I admit that making people pay for two seats is discriminatory- you can't exclude someone from exercising their right to freedom of movement simply because of their body's shape.

I also admit that sitting next to someone who needs two seats, even in business, is an uncomfortable experience. You can lean on broad shoulders. You cannot escape into one third of your seat if you're average-sized. I kind of feel discriminated against if I pay for a full seat and get a third of a seat.

The solution, of course, would be to design airplanes that fit all kind of people, not just those below-average and average-sized. But how to accomplish that? Weight distribution is an issue, so what? Going to have two "fat rows", one at the back and one in front of the airplane? Is that even any less discriminating?

Sooo... I know that people don't choose to be fat. I also know that the fat people sitting next to me are probably as uncomfortable as I am (apart from that one guy who was squashing me on the flight to Hong Kong who took the forced closeness as an excuse to get physical), if not physically then emotionally. I also know that I'll always try to get an aisle seat in the future.

There is no "fair" solution to this problem- if you're fat, you're encroaching on the right of the average-sized person next to you to travel in comfort. If you have to pay for two seats, your personal freedom of movement gets limited. Whose personality rights are to figuratively weigh in higher now?

Perhaps it is my clouded judgment as an average-sized person but I believe that there IS a limit to what can be accommodated for. I'll always remember that one long-distance flight I took where they had to put a person on the plane with a FORKLIFT because the gangway would not have been certainly able to withstand their weight. They took up a whole row of seats in business. The plane was severely delayed due to the unusual effort necessary to board that person and their equipment (the person couldn't breathe in the plane's oxygen level and had to be oxygenated, so we passengers all carried the risk of having highly explosive liquid gas stored in the passenger cabin). That, in my opinion, is going over the limit.

Extreme cases always provoke. I also think that coach class is quite uncomfortable to fly in and that there is not enough legroom for even a person of my height and size (I'm 5'7"). I endure it for shorter flights.

I believe that what is really called for is taking responsibility. If you have a special need, be fair and don't put pressure on others. Everybody else, be a little more considerate- there are great conversations to be had just because you've been forced into close quarters.

And the foul apple or two- call them out here ;)

Anonymous said...

Seeing that the average American is now "overweight" or "obese," the airlines should cater to us.

Fat people take up more room - so give us more room. Don't charge us for an "extra" seat.

Times change - maybe the businesses that cater to the general public should keep up. If anybody reads the finance section of the news, you'll note that the airlines are losing a great deal of money. I'm sure the economy is mostly to blame, but it also might have to do with the nonsense airlines are putting forth for the customers they claim to serve.

KT said...

Whoa...the case of the large, ill man on the one flight is a pretty misleading example. It seems like people with very significant medical needs are probably going to be a tiny percentage of all fliers. This United policy isn't about that guy (who more than likely would be covered by the ADA anyway) - it's about people who are walking around just fine, but don't happen to have 17.5 inch hips.

But more important, to me, I was kind of taken aback by the "If you have a special need, be fair and don't put pressure on others." I mean, isn't that the whole definition of a special need? We all have needs that are special at various times, and in a matter of PUBLIC accommodation, they need to be, well, accommodated. And having a need - for space, time, or whatever - isn't the kind of thing that you can NOT do. You can't get on the plane and disappear half your hips, any more than you can leap out of your wheelchair when you want to. It may (or may not) suck for you that you can't, but you can't.

Today, on my bus, a woman with a wheelchair got on. She and her wheelchair required three seats. And it took time for the bus driver to properly put her on the bus - time that may have inconvenienced some people. But you know what? She had a right to get to wherever she was going just like I do (and I did) and if I'm in that much of a hurry, I probably shouldn't be relying on the bus to get me there.

Yes, seats are uncomfortable - on planes most of all, but even on buses, subways, in theaters, etc. And we all do have to be considerate and work things out as members of a community (even if it's only a temporary one). But whatever needs you may have, you don't lose your right to travel by public transportation, and you don't lose your right to dignity.

Harriet said...

So, people, since some of the comments are getting nasty, I think we'll leave this conversation here. If you've got something more to say that's not sarcastic, hasn't already been said, and doesn't piss me off, feel free to leave a comment and I will consider posting it. Otherwise, I've read enough fat bashing for one day.

Savannah said...

I could be wrong on this, but: I've heard that, here in Canada, if an overweight or obese person has to buy a second plane ticket for themselves, it can be covered by health insurance because obesity can be considered a disability.

Like I mentioned before, maybe I misheard this, but in any case... food for thought.

Unknown said...

One of the anonymous said...

"I also admit that sitting next to someone who needs two seats, even in business, is an uncomfortable experience. You can lean on broad shoulders. You cannot escape into one third of your seat if you're average-sized. I kind of feel discriminated against if I pay for a full seat and get a third of a seat."

I seriously doubt you've traveled in 1/3 of a plane seat. Come on. That's a bit of hyperbole there. And how do you think people with broad shoulders feel about you leaning on them? I have broad shoulders AND I'm fat. And I have a problem with my leg where my knee doesn't bend without severe pain, so I need extra leg room as well. Where does that leave me? On a train.

"Perhaps it is my clouded judgment as an average-sized person but I believe that there IS a limit"
Yes, perhaps it IS you being judgmental. And where do you suppose these limits are set? And who sets them? Why don't the airlines just make the seats big enough? That's the real question.

Becky said...

Savannah - actually in Canada if a passenger requires a second seat due to being fat or other disability (being too fat to fit in a single airplane seat is considered a disability in Canada for the purposes of flying) the airline is required to give them the second seat for free. There was a quite recent court decision to that effect.

When I sent in a complaint I left my frequent flyer number and date of travel blank, and it went through.

occhiblu said...

if you're fat, you're encroaching on the right of the average-sized person next to you to travel in comfort. If you have to pay for two seats, your personal freedom of movement gets limited. Whose personality rights are to figuratively weigh in higher now?You're saying that the right to travel "in comfort" and the right to travel at all are somehow equivalent? That's a huge leap.

Ivalo said...

No one has mentioned one thing about fat people that makes it nice sitting next to them - they are nice and soft! I know that it is one thing my children love about me.

I think that everyone wishes that flying was more confortable, but the reality is - it kind of sucks. That is something that you deal with when you travel with a hundred other people. Some people might have bad BO, some might have too much perfume, a baby might scream, a person might be too talkative and loud. There are so many different things that people can complain about. I would rather sit next to a nice soft fat person than a really obnoxious smelly person. Should I call the company and make them charge extra for annoying personalities?

It is obviously descrimination. There is no way to make a cookie cutter passenger - it is just not possible. I also wonder how ethnicity and wealth play into this? I am in school for nursing, and though I don't just believe statistics they give -there is a higher rate of obesity in some ethnic and socio-economic groups.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I know that you're all for equality among people of all weights, and I respect everything you've done for your daughter, but come on... why should an obese person have the "right" to take up their neighbor's seat space, which the neighbor paid full price for? And, although I agree that some overweight people aren't eating copious amounts of food, aren't you a little in denial that there is a problem with obesity in our country? I know this is something you'll probably never come to agree with, but just as it's possible to eat too little, it's just as possible to eat too much.

Harriet said...

Please see the comment before your own.

Your comment reflects an incredibly entitled position. Maybe you'd do better to think less about your rights and whether you've paid full price for your seat and more about our common humanity.

And of course it's possible to eat too much. Plenty of thin people do it all the time. The data do not support a cause-effect relationship between "eating too much" and obesity.

Anonymous said...

Hi Harriet,

I just wanted to let you know that even though they may piss you off sometimes, the comments--and various arguments in the comments--really help me to think about an issue, so I do thank you for letting them through! At first, when I read your post, I sided to some extent with the airline. But after reading all the comments, I now have a much more layered opinion. And, especially since I am a disability attorney, I think it's important that I think these things through.
So, thanks for the post, and thanks for the forum!