Maybe the fear of seating next to an obese or fat person in the close confines of an aircraft was always there. But over the past few years, this fear is manifesting itself in blatant forms, from co-passengers complaining to airlines trying to airlines offloading obese passengers. Fat people are blamed for spilling into the next seat or into the aisle or violating the immediate co-passenger’s comfort zone.
The media is also increasingly reporting about the humiliation and anger fat or obese people have to face on flights.
A woman on a United Airlines flight was very upset when she found she had to sit between two fat passengers. An angry flyer sued Emirates saying that he suffered a stressful nine-hour flight as an obese passenger was seated next to him.
In January this year, Thai Airways refused to accommodate a family from New Zealand, a mother and two daughters, in business class on a Bangkok-Auckland flight. They were stopped at the airline check-in counter by the staff because of their weight. Later, after much humiliation, the traumatised family was accommodated in the economy class. The airline later told the media that it was a security issue – the new 787-900 Dreamliner aircraft used on flights between New Zealand and Thailand is fitted with integrated airbag seatbelts in business class and these cannot be fitted with extension seatbelt offered to oversized passengers.
One does not deny that it can be uncomfortable, especially on a long-haul flight, if you have to sit next to a passenger taking up extra space. However, says plus size IT professional Shanta Mitra who is a frequent flyer, what most passengers of a ‘standard’ body weight and shape do not realise is that fat people, apart from feeling guilty about being a reason of discomfort for the next passenger, are also equally traumatised when they know they have to fit themselves into a space meant for a much leaner person,
“Once I was given a middle seat and the passenger sitting by the window to my left immediately got up and called the airlines staff’s attention and in a loud voice asked to be seated in a different seat because he found it difficult sitting next to me,” said Mitra.
“I felt like dying from shame” she said, “even though I know my weight is a genetic condition and not because I am lazy or I tend to overeat.”
While health and lifestyle studies indicate that there are more obese people walking the earth now than before, one cannot deny that airlines too are decreasing the pitch and width of seats to cram in more seats. The New Zealand family who had bought seats in business class thinking that would be more spacious, were clearly victims of technical upgrade.
According to several passenger amenities research groups, there is no universal seat size applicable across aircraft. Different airlines have different policies. This makes it difficult for fat or obese passengers to take a call when they book seats.
Annette Richmond, a fashion and travel blogger, who founded the Facebook Community ‘Fat Girls Traveling’ said in an interview on Thrillist, “Traveling while fat can present extra, often unexpected challenges that can leave you feeling humiliated or afraid when you travel. It can be enough to keep you from leaving the comfort of home to begin with.”
Most airlines charge a premium for roomy seats or ask obese passengers to book a second consecutive seat. But with spiralling costs, this may not be an option for all passengers. Richmond suggests referring to the website SeatGuru which mentions seat measurements for almost every aircraft among other things.
In the Thrillist interview, Richmond says that in order to avoid being discriminated upon, “Call the company, ask questions, and try to plan ahead in order to prevent the humiliation that is sometimes connected to traveling while fat.”