Flying while fat can be truly traumatizing. It’s not something that many folks talk about, because it is embarrassing and further isolates the plus-size traveler. If you talk to a thin person, you typically only hear them gripe about legroom or being “too close” to strangers — or the insensitive complaint about being stuck next to a fat person.
As a big-bodied person, there are few things in the world that I dread more than seeing the look of discomfort on a stranger’s face as I approach the row to which I am assigned. Just the “threat” of a fat body near them sends a look of anxiety or disgust across so many faces. Lindy West sums it up best with her experience and perceived insults:
“You’re bigger than I’d like you to be.”
“I dread being near you.”
“Your body itself is a breach of etiquette.”
It may be a microexpression — a nearly imperceptible look that crosses thei face before they catch themselves and replace it with a polite smile. Nonetheless, it sends my stomach into knots and my self-worth plummeting each and every time I have to get on a goddamn plane. Plus-size travel can become a headache well before you even get to your destination!
In a world that is not on our side, we have to be crafty and learn to advocate for our needs. Society may not be our cheerleaders, so we must be cheerleaders for each other. Those who are capable of advocating for their own needs must do so, as as a way of advocating for those who cannot because of emotional or physical blocks or lack of access.
You can rest assured that enough lawsuits have been launched against airlines at this point — including the PR nightmare that followed after filmmaker Kevin Smith was ejected from his flight — that quite a few now have rather accommodating policies. Make it work for you; after all, the world has no problem treating fat-bodied folks as “lesser than” or inconveniences day after day.
Here are five key tips for flying while fat:
1. Know the seat sizes.
Measure yourself to get an idea of how wide a seat needs to be to accommodate your tush. You know first class is going to be the most comfortable, but if you are like the majority of us, it’s a luxury that is out of reach. Use this link to be better informed when deciding who to fly with.
2. Be familiar with airlines’ “customer of size” policies.
Southwest Airlines has especially accommodating COS policies because of the PR shitshow that ensued after they forced big-bodied folks off of their planes for “encroaching” on the space of others. This does not extend to all airlines, though. Southwest recommends buying multiple seats and then seeking refund for the second seat if it is not necessary. But if you look at their website, it says that you can wait until you can discuss it with a person at the gate to have them offer another seat free of charge. That’s right — you do not have to pay for that extra seat.
I figured I would give it a shot and asked about using the customer of size policy when flying Virgin in March 2016, and they were incredibly polite, unfazed and downright upbeat about helping me out. They shifted a few things and popped me into row 13, giving me an entire row to myself on a midday Tuesday flight. Sometimes airlines will even provide you with a little sign that says, “reserved.” You don’t need to explain it to anyone who may try to challenge you — merely tell them that it is reserved. If they push, simply repeat, “I’m sorry, this seat is reserved.”
3. Call the airline — as late as the night before — to tell them that you need priority boarding.
An airline representative can mark you for priority seating, which allows you to be seated first along with those with disabilities. This is particularly effective when you are using the COS policy, as some folks will try to sit beside you in your empty spot, or some spaces may not be assigned together if it is a free-seating policy like Southwest. Better safe than sorry, especially since it allows you to advocate for your needs with fewer spectators.
4. The seat belt extender is your friend.
GTFO with that fear of people seeing you ask for a seat belt extender! You have already endured the looks and judgement of folks as you have approached their row. The last thing you should allow yourself to fret over is your actual safety. Pro tip: as soon as you walk onto the plane, turn to an attendant, smile and tell them that you need an extender and where you are seated. They will not bat an eyelash and they’ll discreetly bring one to you as soon as you get to your spot. Why risk discomfort and dysfunction of a safety device because you are too embarrassed to ask? This is the easy part; give yourself a break.
5. Get there early.
If you are asking for COS accommodations, get to the airport two hours before your boarding time. This gives you the maximum amount of time and room to negotiate your needs with the staff. If someone does not give you what you want, politely request it from someone higher up the management chain.
Flying sucks for everyone, but it can be a real nightmare for fat folks. I’m not making promises that flying will ever be enjoyable, but if you can remember these simple plus-size travel tips the next time you take to the air, it may just make it a bit more comfortable.