How Fat Is Too Fat To Fly?

02/17/2010 By Shawn Burns

Guess what? No one is too fat to fly. But airlines don’t care. They have asked a badly designed question that presumes, in its premise, that the business model they follow of maximizing souls on planes is the one that will keep them in the black. Maybe they’re correct. That doesn’t mean they’re right.

When I say “no one is too fat to fly” I don’t mean that every person of any size can travel by any plane and sit in any seat. But the phrasing of the question “How fat is too fat to fly?” implies that the only thing of importance is the size of the person…not the size of the seat.

Bigger seats are possible. I have one. I have a big comfy chair in my living room. I have a couch in my living room. I’ve seen many places to sit that are bigger than modern airline seats. So the issue surely isn’t that the people are of the wrong type or kind to be able to travel by air. The issue is rather that the seats are the wrong type or kind to transport anyone outside of a certain body type.

But blaming the seats also isn’t fair. I mean, the seats didn’t do anything. They were just sitting there, waiting to accommodate a nice, slim ass. Why are they the only seats on the plane? I think they’re lonely. I think they want to be around seats of all stripes, creeds, and colours. They tire of homogeneity.

Someone has decided that airplanes shouldn’t carry seats that are large enough to accommodate passengers above an arbitrary size limit. Someone made that choice. They may not have been thinking “Screw you, fatties!” when they did it, and in fact they probably just thought “More customers!!” But we are allowed to ask if the airlines are doing the right thing in addition to asking if they are doing the profitable thing.

The airlines might feel that so long as the chosen path is the profitable one there is nothing left to discuss: if some people are not, therefore, customers then so what? Who said a business has a responsibility to make it possible for every single person to patronize their business? Is it a problem if a business says “We do not offer a service that suits your needs?” Bars don’t cater to babies, but we don’t cry “foul” over that. The grocery store generally doesn’t sell cars. How ridiculous is it to imagine that the grocery store is saying, venomously and contemptuously,”If you are looking for a car, take your business elsewhere, driver.” Why is there outrage over the business decision to not install larger seats on airplanes? It’s capitalism: be an innovator and start a business that caters to larger people; make your millions! See, the airlines have no responsibility here.

But…many people kinda, sorta, somewhat feel like the airlines do have a responsibility to accommodate larger passengers. Why? Isn’t the argument-from-capitalism enough to show these Apologists for Obesity that they haven’t a chubby leg to stand on?

Well….look. Bars don’t cater to babies because there’s an overwhelming public interest involved in keeping babies sober. They have no off-switch, and if you let them drink in public places they’ll definitely be the ones hitting on your girlfriend and throwing up in the peanut bowl. So, although in a way bars have to say that babies are somehow “less than”, we choke back our moral outrage for the sake of the public weal. We do not, except in very extreme and douchey cases, think that the airlines are doing some kind of public service by not installing bigger seats: we don’t think that by kicking Kevin Smith off the plane Southwest has contributed positively, importantly, and most of all intentionally to a conversation about public health.  (Note that this is different from the view that the airline is doing a public service by not permitting passengers of a certain size from sitting in the seats that are already installed. That can arguably be considered a safety concern. But the decision not to install larger seats, have wider aisles, etc… is not a safety concern. It is a profit concern.)

In the case of the grocery store, the businesses aren’t actually saying to people who want to buy cars “You are a different kind of human being, and it wouldn’t be profitable to cater to your needs, driver.” They are instead saying “Cars are a different product than the ones we’d like to sell.” Do you see? In the airline case it really isn’t the product that varies, and has determined the attitude of the airlines toward a group of people, it is the people, something about them as persons, that has determined the attitude of the airlines: customers are people of a certain size, because catering only to those people maximizes souls on the plane. But we can, should, and have said to businesses in the past that they need to consider people the same as far as their money goes: a Black woman’s money is as good at the lunch counter as a white man’s, we say, and we don’t care what accepting her money along with his does to your bottom line (if, for instance, the rest of the customers stop coming because, *gasp*, the place is integrated.) We have familiarity at least with a principle that permits us to vote with more than our wallets when it comes to discriminatory policies that, we think, unfairly select a portion of the population as non-customers. We can, have, and should compel businesses to place dignity before profit.

The real question (the one that needs to be asked of the airlines) is “What is it about your profit-policy that makes it different enough from the lunch-counter case (or other cases of unacceptable discrimination-for-profit) that you can consider dollars ahead of dignity and exclude the overweight segment of the population from your customer base by not equipping airliners with some bigger seats?”

This question puts the responsibility for justifying discrimination squarely where it belongs: with the airlines. The other question, “How fat is too fat to fly?” places the responsibility for excepting oneself from a policy on the shoulders of the larger-sized consuming public.

Maybe the answer to the question won’t be one that most people will like. Maybe there is more than an arbitrary or feckless reason to not install larger seats on airliners or design the seating layout so that aisles are wide enough to safely accommodate larger passengers. But at least we’ll be asking the right question, and one that respects the dignity of all, even if we don’t like the answer.

Asking “How fat is too fat to fly?” is the wrong question. We need to be better than that, and we need to demand that the businesses that serve our practical needs are doing so in a way that also reflects our considered, genuine, ethical standards.