When You’re Fat, Flying Can Be A Minefield

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 Recently, in trying to find a flight for a work trip to Ireland, I found that most airlines do not publish their policies for the seating and treatment of fat passengers.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 stopping gap policy creation at once. Fat passengers’ travel plans, and often our dignity hangs 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 transport for fat and disabled people at the same price as thin, non-disabled 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 filed without recognition of the power of 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.

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