Kevin Smith made headlines in 2010 — not for his movies or podcasts but for boarding an airplane. The director boarded his Southwest Airlines flight, stowed his bags, and took his seat. Once he was settled, a member of the flight crew approached Smith and informed him that he would be ejected from the flight. He had violated the airline’s “customer of size” policy at the time, which the Guardian summarized: “[P]assengers who are unable to lower both armrests when seated should book another seat because of complaints [Southwest] has received from customers whose comfort has been ruined by the ‘encroachment of a large seatmate.’” So he was escorted past row after row of other passengers, excluded and publicly humiliated because of his body. Smith later tweeted that he was told he was a “safety risk.” “I know I’m fat, but was Captain Leysath really justified in throwing me off a flight for which I was already seated?”
Smith’s experience sounds painful, but Amber Phillips’s was dangerous. Phillips, also a filmmaker and podcaster, boarded a small, regional American Airlines flight. She found her seat next to a thin white woman who seemed agitated by the small plane’s cramped seats and irritated that their arms had brushed together. Phillips, a fat Black woman, said the thin white passenger positioned herself to push Phillips further into the wall. When Phillips asked her to stop, the other passenger began to complain, saying that Phillips was being “mean.” As the flight continued, her complaints escalated, culminating with an accusation that Phillips had assaulted her. By the time they landed, the American Airlines crew called the police to investigate the alleged assault. Police detained both passengers for questioning before releasing them. Phillips told the Washington Post she was “scared, upset and shaken”: “White people literally need to stop calling the cops on Black people who make them uncomfortable. They’re calling the cops like they need to speak to the manager or something. You’re not allowed to call the cops for things that aren’t true.”
Smith and Phillips learned what so many other fat passengers have: When you’re fat, flying can be a minefield. Other passengers may loudly complain in front of us about what they believe to be fat people’s burdensome bodies. Flight attendants, too, may decide that we are too fat to fly, escorting us from the plane and leaving us stranded without warning or recourse. And those around us may take our photograph or film us, making another viral sensation of a fat person who dares to think we could fly with the dignity that thin people do.
Among the most persistent challenges of flying while fat is navigating the maze of airline policies about when and whether we’ll be permitted to stay on a flight. Current policies for so-called passengers of size vary substantially from airline to airline, leaving fat passengers, especially larger fat passengers, to determine which airlines will allow us to keep our seats and which won’t. Within the United States, domestic airlines have a patchwork of policies that require fat passengers to conduct extensive research to see if we’ll be permitted to stay on the plane. In the years following its decision to eject Kevin Smith from a flight, Southwest Airlines rewrote its policy, becoming one of the least hostile airline policies, setting a very low bar for the industry. As of 2022, fat Southwest passengers must purchase a second seat but may call after their trip to request a refund, which will be provided. Alaska Airlines requires that customers pay for a second seat if they “cannot comfortably fit within one seat with the armrests in the down position.” Fat passengers can call customer service to request a refund for the second seat after travel, but it will only be granted if the flight had at least one vacant seat. Hawaiian Airlines recommends that fat passengers buy a second seat but notes, if it’s booked online, that second seat is “not guaranteed to be adjacent.” Fat people must pay for a second seat, even if we cannot use it.
Some airlines don’t even make available the information we most need in order to navigate their policies. Policies may require us to fit in a seat but never disclose that seat’s width. United Airlines, for example, requires that passengers be able to buckle their seatbelt with one extension. They provide the length of the extender but not of the seatbelt itself, making it difficult for fat passengers to know for sure whether or not our measurements will pass muster. If flight crew decide on the day of the flight that a fat passenger should have purchased a second seat, in order to stay on the flight, that fat passenger will need to pay for an additional ticket at the day-of rate. Spirit Airlines requires purchase of a second seat if a passenger “is unable to sit in a single seat with the armrests lowered” but doesn’t disclose the distance between those armrests. Conversely, Delta Airlines shares its measurements for seat width and legroom but does not disclose when or whether fat passengers may be deplaned. American Airlines and JetBlue go one step further, disclosing neither their seat measurements nor their policies for removing fat passengers from flights.
Airlines outside the US have a similarly mixed bag of policies. Recently, in trying to find a flight for a work trip to Ireland, I found most airlines do not publish their policies for the seating and treatment of fat passengers. The customer-service employees of three different international airlines couldn’t tell me if they had a policy, which likely means they don’t. If that’s the case, the fate of fat passengers like me is left to the discretion of whoever happens to be the flight crew on our trip. Without guidance, flight attendants are left to decide on a course of action when faced with complaints from thin passengers, handling customer service and stopgap policy creation at once. Fat passengers’ travel plans, and often our dignity, hang in the balance. If that flight attendant believes we should stay on the flight, we may stay. If they think we need to be deplaned, they will deplane us. But we won’t know if we’ll make the cut until the flight takes off.
Notably, Canada’s airline policies offer a bright spot. In 2008, Canadian courts ordered airlines to let fat and disabled travelers fly for the price of one ticket without any additional upcharges. Airlines claimed the cost would be untenable, but the Council of Canadians with Disabilities found that it would cost the nation’s largest air carriers less than one Canadian dollar per ticket. Today, Canadian airlines, like buses, boats, and trains before them, provide fat and disabled people transport for the same price as thin, nondisabled passengers.
Airline policies vary widely from carrier to carrier, country to country, but all of them have one thing in common: They prioritize the comfort and preferences of thin people over the needs and dignity of fat people. Thin passengers complaining is a frequent trigger for fat passengers being escorted from the plane, away from the disapproving gaze of thin passengers. Those complaints are sometimes lodged without recognition of the power the instigators hold. If they get their way, a fat passenger will be kicked off their flight. Sometimes, they won’t be offered another flight. Other times, they won’t be offered a refund. Thin passengers may not know the impact that their complaints have on fat passengers. But even if they don’t, complaining to a flight attendant about another passenger’s body in their presence is a cruel gesture of judgment. Most airline policies lend credence to that entitlement and prejudice, accepting complaints of thin passengers as issues of customer service and treating the needs of fat passengers as a nuisance. Those policies also set up a bizarre dynamic: one in which the fate of fat passengers rests with the discomfort and bias of whoever happens to sit next to us. Our ability to fly isn’t determined by our ability to pay or our conduct on the flight, as it might be for thinner people. It’s determined by exclusionary policies and callous complaints from passengers, usually ones who are thinner than us.
Our cultural conversations about flying while fat also reinforce anti-fat judgment. We talk about fat passengers with scorn, insisting that if they don’t like it, they can just lose weight. In so doing, we imply that fat people are responsible for the discriminatory policies, not the airlines who wrote them. Many of us treat airplane seat sizes as some eternal, immutable truth, rather than the product of a series of design decisions made by major manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing. Notably, airline seats have been shrinking for decades. Forty years ago, the average seat pitch (an industry measurement to assess legroom) was between 31 and 35 inches. Today, it’s 29 to 33 inches. Similarly, seats that once measured 18.5 inches across are now just 17 inches wide. Bathrooms are shrinking too. In 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported, by their measurements, new model Southwest Airlines 737 bathrooms were 20 percent narrower than older jets, allowing for additional rows of cramped seats, and more tickets sold on each flight. Still, when thin people are uncomfortable on a flight, instead of leveling their frustration at the manufacturers who built such small, uncomfortable seats or the airlines that oversell flights, they aim at the easiest target: the fat person sitting next to them.
Many of us readily blame fat people for the fate that befalls them, never reckoning with the ways at which our bodies are excluded and ignored. As it stands, most public spaces are built for a minority of bodies — bodies that are thin and nondisabled, as well as bodies that are white, cis, straight, and otherwise on the upside of power. But instead of asking why manufacturers continue to build seating and airplanes that work for only a fraction of people, we steadfastly focus on the people who pay the greatest price, literally and figuratively, for being excluded. ●
From You Just Need to Lose Weight and 19 Other Myths About Fat People by Aubrey Gordon. Copyright © 2023 by Aubrey Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Aubrey Gordon writes under the pseudonym of “Your Fat Friend,” illuminating the experiences of fat people and urging greater compassion for people of all sizes. Her work has reached millions of readers and has been translated into 19 languages. She is cohost of the Maintenace Phase podcast and a columnist with Self magazine. Her work has also been featured in Health magazine, Vox, and Gay Mag, among others. She lives in the Northwest, where she works as a writer and organizer. Connect with her at yourfatfriend.com, and as YrFatFriend on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.