An airline has launched an
An airline has launched an "XL" class. Picture: Thinkstock

Trying to fix this problem on planes isn’t ‘fat shaming’

THE necessary discussion around obesity and airlines is derailed by hypersensitivity and political correctness gone wild.

Nevertheless, fat passengers are a burgeoning problem, for the airlines themselves and for everyone who flies.

For the sake of us all, let's put the hysterics aside: the issues are anchored by safety and comfort.

Of course, passengers should not be subject to insults simply because they are overweight. They should not be singled out for their stoutness alone.

But it is a problem that keeps popping up.

Last week's prime incident featured a woman talking loudly on her phone, complaining that the people to her left and right were obese, that she could not breathe and she did not think she could endure the four-hour flight from Las Vegas to Newark 'squished' between them.

One of the passengers sitting next to the woman filmed the tantrum and posted it on Facebook. It has been viewed millions of times.

The woman was eventually evicted from the flight for escalating aggression in which she stated several times, bizarrely, that she eats salad.

The antagonist in last week's viral video handled her predicament dreadfully, causing a ruckus and embarrassment that was uncalled for.


When it comes to enjoying a bit of personal space on planes, the struggle can be seriously real. Picture: iStock
When it comes to enjoying a bit of personal space on planes, the struggle can be seriously real. Picture: iStock


She was outright nasty and could have handled the situation discreetly by talking to the flight attendant.

But even quiet, cloistered exchanges are no longer that.

Another flying fattist incident last week involved a man privately texting a friend disparaging observations about his paunchy seatmate. The large lady posted a very public response on Facebook, saying she was glad he was uncomfortable and that she would take up as much space as she darned well pleased.

She was lauded and congratulated. His conduct was vilified.

But fitting passengers of various shapes on board Tetris-style is a thorny issue, created by cramped spaces, restricted movement and seating that is pre-designated, passengers sight unseen.

More rotund flight attendants patrolling slender aisles add to the confined sensation.

The struggle is real.

But proper discussion is never properly had because inevitably someone throws in those words that act as hand grenades in ending any chance of civil discussion: fat shaming.

Many airlines have special rules for what they call 'passengers of size'. Belt extensions are offered as standard, second-seat discounts are common and all offer extra seats for free for those deemed to be obese due to disability.


Open and frank discussions could result in resolutions. Picture: iStock
Open and frank discussions could result in resolutions. Picture: iStock


For reasons known only to themselves, fat people would rather wedge themselves into one seat than buy two and help everyone breathe easier. Doubling up is honest and thoughtful, not a cause for shame.

But by ignoring the advice, people of ample proportions have to then prise themselves out, jiggling seat backs for stability and sliding their girths along their vacuum-packed seatmates.

Only a couple of airlines have been bold enough to address the issue front-on.

In 2013, Samoa Air became the first airline in the world to charge passengers by body weight.

Hawaiian Air drew criticism three years later by introducing a weigh-in for flights to American Samoa and preventing online seat choices, to ensure weight was evenly distributed through the cabin.

Their explanation that safety and excessive fuel burn were at issue did not quell complaints.

But for the safety and comfort of everyone, there should be more of these strategies.

We did not object when, for the safety and comfort of all, smoking was banned. The airlines stopped nail scissors and aerosol deodorant coming aboard and we did not flinch.

We accept there are rules and no longer scream discrimination when we are body scanned or have our bags searched.

We would similarly become used to better body-size rules.

If it comes to it, who will decide if someone fits in a seat or not?

There may be a day when we have to park our derrieres in a 'test seat' at the check-in counter or departure gate to demonstrate we will fit, much as we have to now for carry-on bags. And that day might be soon.

Not every portly person pictures themselves that way, and pity the poor flight attendant who will have to make the call about who is and is not acceptable.

Until then, we will point fingers at structural issues to avoid personal responsibility.

Is it fair that airlines keep shrinking their seats while people in Western nation are growing more corpulent? Of course it isn't.

But the armrests have to be down for safety and as a personal space courtesy to the stranger in the seat adjoining. Both are equally important.

On plane passenger size issues, the scales of justice are weighing heavily, but any resolution remains up in the air.

Jane Fynes-Clinton is a long-time Courier-Mail journalist and regular flyer.

Twitter: @Janefynes