My Geography of Fatness: Air Travel

This is the third entry of a series focusing on my personal, autobiographical geography of fatness. To learn more about this project, check out the introduction entry, which should give you what you need to get started. I’ve also posted an entry on general socializing.

For this entry, I’ll be writing a semi-fictional narrative about air travel while obese. It is non-fiction in the fact that every single event I will be describing here has happened to me, personally, many of them on more than one occasion. Detail on when the events actually happened are contained in hyperlink footnotes through the text. The fictional aspect of this narrative is that all of those experiences will be combined into a single story, to construct something of a hypothetical worst-case scenario. Doing so is crucial because, whenever I travel, the ingredients of this worst-case scenario are always sitting at the forefront of my mind. I wanted to construct a scenario where it’s expressed how I see constant reminders that I’m in a world not built to accomodate my size. I guess there’s probably some sort of literary effect from it as well, as a comedy of errors.

Some people will find this story funny. I suppose that’s okay because fatness and air travel is something that is still acceptable to openly mock, even among relatively intelligent circles. [Edit: Sure, even some of us who are overweight “get” the absurdity of traveling while fat, as this link I put in the wrong spot originally and out of context demonstrates.] Fatness, particularly in air travel, is the last frontier for totally acceptable prejudice and discrimination.

The Trip

The convention was across country in Las Vegas, and I therefore had to travel by air to get there in the time I’ve got allotted. Because I was a graduate student, I needed this to be as cheap as possible. Because of how the airline industry works, I had to schedule early and be incredibly non-picky about my flights to keep costs down. This meant I flew out of Appleton at 6:15am EST, flying one airline from Appleton to Atlanta to Denver, then grab another airline’s flight and arrive in Las Vegas around 5:20pm PST. The flight back — miraculously, a non-stop flight — was a red-eye.

The trip was six days in length, and required a few different levels of attire: full-on suit and tie, business casual, and casual. To accommodate the time spent and needs, I packed a suit and tie in a garment bag, then four days each of business casual and casual. Because I wanted to wear clothing while sleeping in the hotel room, which I shared with a colleague to further cut costs, I packed some loung ewear too, enough for three pajama outfits. Eight pairs of socks and underwear, and a pair of swimming trunks to round out the carry-on.

…but, no. All of that didn’t fit into the carry-on. Because my clothes are bigger, I required more luggage to cover the same clothing need, so I used a larger suitcase/duffel thing. This wasn’t a problem, though, because the dragging wheels, making the transport of my surprisingly heavy baggage easier.

At the Airport

Upon arriving at Outagamie County Regional Airport, I march up to the counter to check my bags. Being that it’s 4:30am, I’m really trying to be as pleasant as possible because I know, everyone’s lives were sucking because we’re all awake that early. The lady accepting checked bags, however, was quite the ray of sunshine.

“You’re checking two? You’re gonna have to pay $50 to do that,” she barked.

“Huh?” I was lost.

“Fifty dollars or you leave one home!”

This was my first time traveling after airlines starting instituting ridiculous if lucrative (for them) baggage charges. The only reason I’d brought this larger bag is because my needed clothes were too voluminous to fit into the carry-on, all because I’m a bigger person… and this ultimately cost me $100 extra, $50 each way. Sadly, this would be the least insulted I would feel for most of the day. I handed the lady a nearly-filled credit card and prayed it’d go through. Somehow, it did.[1. This actually happened to me on a flight I took from Akron-Canton to Charlotte in June 2008.]

Having checked my bags and having secured my boarding pass, I marched onward toward the security checkpoint. I knew how to do this, at least. I placed all my scan-needing materials on the conveyor belt, and marched through the metal detector.

“BEEEEP.”

I hadn’t been paying attention and my elbow grazed the side of the metal detector, setting it off.

“Sir,” barked the uniformed TSA agent. “Tuck your arms all the way in, and go through sideways if you have to!” she commanded, shaking her head in a condescending manner. As I went through again, my walking stride no different, just centered in the detector. I cleared both sides by four inches without a peep from the machine. The agent’s comment had been nothing but a mild poke at my weight.[2. Actually happened to me: March 2003 when traveling from Indianapolis to Las Vegas.]

Once through security, I made my way to the gate. Anytime I travel by air, my first mission is to find a restroom, and this time was no exception. Even when I don’t need to go, I hit the head before jumping on a flight because trying to poop in an airplane bathroom is an absurd proposition for anyone, but mechanically impossible for someone of my size. Not to be graphic, but there is no way to fold or bend my body in the space offered that allows me a reasonable amount of accuracy for parking my turds in the bowl where they belong.[3. I learned this early on, during a mildly embarrassing incident in 1998 while traveling from Indianapolis to Sioux Falls.] I have no idea how people join the “Mile High Club” if it’s so difficult to even join the “Deuce-Droppers’ Club.” Luckily, none of the flights on this day were over two hours. I’ve had the misery of having to poop two hours into a four hour flight, and not really having any way to do so.[4. Actually happened to me: December 2002 when traveling from Indianapolis to Las Vegas.] It’s not something I ever want to do again.

My time spent waiting by the gate to begin boarding was, as it always is for me, full of anxiety. I looked around at the fellow passengers, taking a head-count and trying vainly to estimate how full the flight would be. I hoped, desperately, for either a half-full flight or an overfull flight. If the flight was overfull, I could volunteer to be bumped, which almost always means a first-class seat on the next available flight. Though prohibitively expensive for me to ever purchase (in the case of my $318 ticket, a first-class upgrade would have run around $900 more), a first-class seat is the only way to get a seat wide enough that I am close to comfortable. With a half-full flight, I might get my own row or at least an empty neighboring seat, where I could put up the armrest be again, close to comfortable. What you don’t want, as a larger person, is a completely full flight that’s not overfull. This means no chance of being bumped, and the seat next to you will have someone occupying it.

Two of my three flights that day proved to be completely full.

Appleton to Atlanta

For my first flight, I had a aisle seat over the wing. Oftentimes, when a ticket counter representative for an airline is trying to be helpful for accommodating my size, they ask whether an aisle or window would be a better fit for me. Oddly enough, I have no real preference because both of these have advantages and disadvantages. To get at this, it’s important to understand what the airline seat experience is like for me.

Airline seats are notorious for their lack of space, so this is nothing new. However, because of my body size, these seats are certainly uncomfortable, and often painful for me to occupy. Typically, the width of the seat is a good deal smaller than my rear end, which means the armrests (which don’t “give” much) have to push into my skin, deeply and painfully. I generally assume that every time I fly, I will have large nasty bruises on my hips by the time I arrive at my destination. Every passenger’s identified personal space in these seats ends with the armrests. Because my shoulders are, in fact, wider than my giant ass, it means that I have to pull my arms inward toward my chest, which makes me feel like a zit that’s being squeezed, about to pop out the top. Sitting in an aisle seat means I get a little relaxation for my outside arm, and can lean toward the aisle when there’s no one walking by. Sitting in the window seat means I can turn my body and lean against the wall, at least once the “Fasten Seatbelts” sign is off. Neither is a great option.

But, this isn’t everything. To this scenario, add my long legs, of which the femur bones tend to be just slightly longer than the space from my back cushion to the seat in front of me. To actually fit my legs into the seat, I either have to awkwardly angle my hips and shove my feet into the under-seat carry-on area in front of me (which doesn’t always work), or I have to pull my knees toward my chest and elevate my feet slightly off of the floor. Finally, in some planes, I’m tall enough that my head doesn’t fit under the bulkhead, so I have to bend my neck downward. I’m essentially required to sit in a sort of forced fetal position in my hips are clamped, causing direct pain and cutting off circulation to my legs, and my arms tucked in, all while fighting gravity to keep my feet airborne. Assuming I manage to accomplish this position and remain in it for the duration of the flight, it makes it entirely impossible to work on my laptop, tablet or read a book during the flight. It also makes it exceptionally difficult to receive refreshments from the attendant, as the tray table will not go down and my arms are usually in an angle that barely bend to reach my face.

However, despite the discomfort and out-and-out pain that this position brings, it’s survivable… until whomever is seated in front of you decides to recline the seat. That’s what happened on this flight from Appleton to Atlanta. In front of me was a lady, perhaps 60 years old, who decided she needed to recline during the flight. I suppose that is the right of passengers to recline, but I fail to believe that reclining those two inches make any difference in terms of comfort. However, when your knees are (by necessity) jammed into the back of said seat, those two inches can cause an intense amount of pain.

And so, once we were at cruising altitude, the attempts to recline began. With every backwards motion she made, the seat barely moved because my knees prevented it, but in doing so my knees were battered. Not one to give up, this lady kept trying over. And over. And over. AND OVER, not thinking even once to look behind her and see what the problem was. Finally, unable to endure it anymore, I yelped out,

“LADY! You’re killing me here! Could you please stop!”

I hear a gasp of disgust from her, but thankfully that cooked her mission…. for about five minutes before she started again.

“MA’AM, PLEASE STOP! MY KNEES CAN’T TAKE THIS!”

“Well,” she replied, “I have a bad back, so you’re just going to have to deal with it.” The ramming continued.

Knowing I wasn’t going to win in the present circumstance, I wedged my arm against the seat to prevent it from coming backward during her continued ramming while I shoved my feet into the under-seat storage, partially invading the space of my horrified neighbor (who, to his credit, seemed to understand my situation). Then, when I was fully situated, I allowed her seat to come back for a brief second before shoving it back forward. The whiplash spilled her wine all over herself, but mercifully, the ramming stopped.

“I can’t believe the nerve of some people,” she mumbled to her neighbor. “I have a medical condition!”

I sincerely hope that glass of crappy airline red completely ruined her polyester pantsuit.[5. The entirety of the Appleton to Atlanta story actually happened to me on a single flight: May 2005, from Indianapolis to Atlanta. This lady caused my knees painful deep bruises, making it difficult for me to walk any real distance during my week in Atlanta.]

Atlanta to Denver

As any traveler is aware, Atlanta has achieved prominence as an international hub for a number of airlines. It seems like anywhere you fly in the world involves a stop in Atlanta. This trip was no different.

Because I had a layover there for a couple of hours, I sought something to eat for lunch, landing at a Subway. Somewhere between the arrival gate, Subway, and the departure gate, I lost my boarding pass for the connection to Denver. Not a big deal, right? Just ask the gate agent, especially since the pass didn’t have a seat assignment on yet it anyway.

Once I strolled up to my gate, I caught the gate agent’s attention. She a chubby and very sweet southern belle with a mane of curly brunette hair and very easy on the eyes. I ask her, with all sorts of politeness and perhaps just a touch of attempted flirtation, for a new boarding pass.

“Sir,” she said quietly, “I’m guessing you might like an exit row seat, am I right? Because I can do that for you free of charge.”

SCORE ONE FOR THE GOOD GUYS! For tall folks, exit row seating is GREAT! It adds anywhere from four to ten extra inches between your seat and the seat in front of you, to accomodate for the small aisle to the over-wing exits. In a full flight, scoring one of these is like hitting the lottery, because I don’t have to bring my knees to my chest, giving every part of me more room to breathe.

“Yes!” I shout-whispered, trying to act calm about my surprise victory. “I’d love to have an exit row seat.” She printed off the boarding pass and handed it to me with a smile and a twinkle. Today might just turn out okay after all.

I boarded this plane, found my seat and settled in. My neighbor seemed less offended than average about my size. The longest flight of the day was going to be the most comfortable, which almost made the coming reality of Denver to Vegas seem less daunting. Happy dance…. Oh, crap. I forgot to ask the flight attendant for my seatbelt extension. This is a serious rookie mistake. As a fat person, you learn early in your flying career to ask the attendant for an extender before right when you walk in. A couple of reasons for this:

  • You ensure that you get one. The extenders are in short supply, and if you need one and don’t get one, you’ll get booted off the plane in the most embarrassing way possible. And yes, that has happened to me as well.[6. April 2005, on a flight from Indianapolis to Denver.]
  • You avoid drawing further attention to your condition from the fellow passengers.

Because the other passengers were still boarding (and hence, still taking up the aisle), I ring the attendant call button and allow him to come to me. Understandably, it takes him a few minutes to get there, which is no big deal because he’s busy doing a job. When he finally arrives, I ask him for the extender and he frowns. Uh oh… I figure I’m getting the boot.

He reaches into my seat-pocket and grabs the safety instructions, turning to the back and pointing at one bullet-point under the section on exit row seating.

“People occupying exit row seats must be able to do the duties necessary and… [a whole list of other requirements until]… must be able to sit in the seat without use of seatbelt extensions.” The cute gate attendant, in her attempt to help, had doomed me.

“Okay,” I say, likely sounding I just watched a puppy be killed on live TV. “Now what?”

“Well, sir,” he replies, “it’s a full flight [again, words fat people hate to hear] so I’ll have to figure that out. Just sit here for now and I’ll let you know when I have a solution.”

Sitting there was like awaiting my turn at the gallows. I didn’t know what was awaiting me on the other side, and I really had no intention of finding out, but the future was inevitable. A few minutes later, the attendant returned.

“Sir, I’ve got a seat for you elsewhere that is our best shot. And I’m going to owe you a drink on the house.” I grab my personal items and follow him to the absolute last row of the airplane, by the restrooms. There, I have waiting for me an aisle seat, neighboring an attractive-by-mainstream-standards, skinny young woman. Obviously, I gave up the added leg room by moving away from the exit-row seat, but there’s something airlines don’t tell you about the back of the back seats. Sure, they’re loud from the engines and the flushing toilets, and sure they’re stinky and busy because of the proximity to those flushing toilets, but this isn’t all of it. Because the airline wanted to monetize that space by fitting in four more seats where there just wasn’t enough room, the legroom in these seats is often a few inches shorter than elsewhere. My normal routine of pulling my knees into my chest would have to be further exaggerated in this seat, and I couldn’t let my arms hang into the aisle because the aisle was always full of people waiting to join the Deuce-Droppers’ Club.

I sucked all of my parts in, buckled in, and waited for this flight to end. The young lady sitting next to me smiled when I sat down. One time my arm invaded her space, I immediately moved it and apologized and she assured me that I need not worry. Soon after takeoff, she curled up facing away from me and took a nap, softly snoring through the entire flight. I was unable to use any reading material, any electronics, or any sort of entertainment because there was simply not enough room. I was also unable to sleep. I was stuck, staring at the headrest in front of me, pinched at the hips and with arms and legs positioned in a way that even made breathing somewhat difficult, for the duration of the flight. I even declined the attendant’s offer of free alcohol because I wasn’t sure that I could get the drink to my face in that configuration.

The girl next to me slept until we were on the ground in Denver. Once the attendant announced that cell phones were okay to use again, she sprung awake and turned on her little Android phone. Next thing I know, I can see myself on the screen, and the shutter snaps. She’s just (in her mind, stealthily) taken a picture of me with her front-facing camera. Apparently convinced that I can’t see what she’s doing (when in reality I physically cannot look away at this point), she proceeds to post the photo on Facebook with a nice diatribe about how miserable her flight was because she was stuck sitting next to a “disgusting obese” (sic) whose “fat went all over me.”

There was no mention in her entry that she peacefully slept through her horrifying ordeal.[7. The entirety of the Atlanta to Denver story actually happened to me on a flight from Cincinnati to Minneapolis, June 2012.]

Denver to Las Vegas

When I deplaned in Denver, I felt like I was finally getting close to the finish line. Sure, I wished I was staying in Denver (for a number of reasons), but I just had a two-hour layover and a brief hour-and-a-half flight and I would be in Vegas, the city without judgement which accepts all.

This flight was the only one of the day to not be completely full. I was seated in the front of the plane, which meant I was in the last group to board. In this flight, I was given an aisle seat just a few rows from the front. I boarded, got the seatbelt extender from the gorgeous attendant (think Beyonce circa 2002), and made my way to my seat.

The airplane boarding process is also an odd event for obese people as well. When you walk on the plane, you can instantly notice any passengers seated with an empty neighboring seat suddenly get really nervous. As I walk past these folks to find my row, I usually hear audible sighs of relief when it becomes clear that I will not be their neighbor for the flight.

The same thing happens once I’m situated, this time with the passengers boarding behind me. When those boarding passengers spy a fat person somewhere near their row or seat, they become very tense. If they discover that the fat person is not in their row, then they too let out an audible sigh of relief. In some cases, though, the more voyeuristic of these folks will continue watching my row to see what poor bastard will get stuck with me. Whenever I do have a neighbor in my row, I usually expect to be greeted with a resigned sigh and a soft, grimly spoken “looks like I’m sitting there.” Looks of pity flood in from surrounding passengers who are also simultaneously silently celebrating their own good luck. Indeed, the desire for an empty row is one derived from more than just a want for comfort — it’s a hope to avoid a small but heartbreaking embarrassment like this.

On this flight, of course, every person that either passed me or sat in a row in front of me was a minor victory, one more step toward having a row to myself as some karmic penance for an otherwise miserable day. Finally, people stopped entering the plane. Could it be? Could that be it? Could I have finally gotten a well-deserved break from hurting?

Just when the Beyonce’s twin was about to close the door and get us on our way, I hear a “hold on!” come from outside. Oh yes, my neighbor has arrived. This guy, probably 40 years old, was very athletic. He had highlighted thinning hair gelled and combed back. He looked as though he’d regularly tanned for the past 20 years, and was wearing a marathon finisher t-shirt, too-hip-for-his-age blue jeans, and a rather garish single gold chain. [8. Yes, Kent Staters, he reminded me a significant amount of Dan-the-Book-Man, that douche-y rep textbook rep we had from McGraw-Hill.] He made me think there could be an outbreak of fist pumping at any moment.

He looks at his ticket, walks to my row, stops and looks at me.

“Aw, Christ,” he exclaims, still looking at me. “You’re kidding me, right? Aren’t they supposed to make people like you buy two seats?”

Speechless, I unbuckled the seatbelt extender and stood up to let him into his seat. He didn’t budge.

“Geez, you’re fat enough to need an extra seatbelt but you didn’t have to buy an extra ticket? Why do people like you even bother? I’m sick and tired of paying so much for my ticket when I’m really paying for, what, someone three times my size to fly.”

“Buddy,” a well-meaning passenger chimes in, “I don’t think it’s a full flight. You can probably sit somewhere else with no problem.”

“Goddamn right I will,” he replies, getting louder with each word and staring me in the eyes. “Attendant! I’m not sitting here. This is bullshit! I paid for a full seat and his fat ass is taking up half of it.”

“What’s the problem here?” asks the Beyonce look-alike, rushing in to seize the situation. She looks at me, pitifully, then looks at the asshole. “Can I help you find a new seat?”

“You’d better,” the man barks. “I can’t believe this airline lets people like this,” pointing at me, “fly without a second ticket. Sitting next to someone like him makes me miserable, and he makes my ticket more expensive.”

“Sir,” the attendant replies soothingly, “let’s just go find you a new seat.” As she leads him past me, he just glares at me.

Once we’re in the air, I hear him loudly chatting with (at?) his neighbors, telling them that he can’t believe what’s happened to this country if people like me, who obviously have no place in this world, are allowed to make him miserable on a daily basis.[9. The entirety of this flight’s story actually happened to me on a flight from Appleton to Detroit, June 2012. Similar, though not as extreme, exchanges also happened on flights from Charlotte to Mobile in June 2008 and Cleveland to Baltimore in May 2009.]

Yeah, this guy was an insufferable asshole, but it only takes one asshole to ruin a trip. And though he was more abrasive than most regarding this issue, he’s certainly not alone in his complaints.

Some Analysis

This entry has become long enough, so I’m going to try to keep this brief.

Air travel, for fat people, ultimately boils down to being a set of conditions that actively punish them for being fat. The punishment comes in two ways: an active infliction of pain on the fat body, or a psychological infliction of pain through the spectacle of embarrassment. In this, a capitalist world, either of these can be avoided if a fat person is willing to yield a substantial sum of money to the airline. It is especially strange that such a punishment is levied in a society that’s supposed to be enlightened, because fatness is, by and large, considered to be a disease or infliction. However, because this particular infliction is seen as evidence of a personal flaw or inferiority, such social discipline is widely accepted and even encouraged.

The size of airline seats are designed to maximize profits by fitting as many paying customers into an airplane as possible. That the seats actually cause obese customers pain is of no consequence to this model, and actually serves in the airlines’ best interest. A fat person, as our asshole friend in that flight from Denver to Las Vegas suggested, does bring more mass on-board, and through the laws of physics slightly more (but not significantly more) fuel will be required. Certainly, allowing someone heavier to ride for the same price will cut, at least minimally, into profits. It benefits the airlines, then, to encourage fat people to buy an extra seat or a more expensive first-class seat through any means necessary, including by force, or by inflicting pain. In search of the almighty dollar, airlines hold fat people hostage.

The psychological impact of being singled out as a person who’s too fat to fly, or too fat to sit next to, is difficult to deal with as well. When I grew up obese, I had physical characteristics that made me unique. When you’re a kid, you don’t want to be anything close to unique because that’ll get you bullied and tormented, as I discussed in the previous entry on socializing. From that past, for me there’s a deep-seated desire for anonymity in most cases because I’ve been called out enough for my differences through my life. Just when you think that torture is in your past, it comes back. Imagine the horror when, while attempting travel anonymously, the anonymity is shattered by the enforcement of arcane regulations, berating from a neighboring passenger who’s decided to be an asshole, an attractive young woman who’s decided to mock you on Facebook, or a lady whose “back problems” are likely to cost you the ability to walk while on vacation.

The pain and embarrassment of flying as a fat person has almost certainly changed my personal geography of the world. When provided enough time, I almost always travel via Amtrak to domestic destinations because the seats are wider, the rows have more legroom, and it’s easy to get up and walk around. But, here’s the thing: Amtrak doesn’t go overseas.

I am a 30 year-old geographer, and I’ve never been outside the North American continent or the Caribbean. To folks who know the discipline, this shouldn’t really compute. Why haven’t I traveled to Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia or South America? Or even Hawaii and Alaska? I’ve had opportunities to do so, but I am always worried about what the flight will entail. In the flights that I’ve taken at 4+ hours in length, I was nearly at the end of my rope by the end. How could I survive eight hours to Paris, or 17 hours to Sydney?

Is this a rational fear? Probably not. But, it’s one that stays with me because of my existing, miserable experiences flying domestically. Just when I get juiced enough to go overseas no matter what the flights have waiting for me, I get smacked with experiences like those encountered above. And from that, it makes the world seem that much larger, and makes trips to London or Hong Kong seem like impossibilities that I’ll never be able to conquer. Quite frankly, as a relatively young geographer with much time ahead, writing off this kind of international travel (intentionally or otherwise) is one of the saddest parts of my intellectual life.

Footnotes:

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

3 thoughts on “My Geography of Fatness: Air Travel”

  1. I got here because I saw a link from here to my cartoon blog, (with an entry on flying while fat). I will be reading all your pieces as I think you are WONDERFUL! Barbara Broido (the fat cartoonist)

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