Fear of Flying

I am currently on a long-haul flight ON business. But not IN business. (I work at a public university, after all.) Accordingly, my 20 hour trip was spent mostly in a 16.5 inch wide seat. But I am NOT complaining. It gives me a physical way to reflect on some of the recent findings from our 3 year ethnographic study with bariatric (weight loss surgery) patients at Mayo Clinic**. In the interviews conducted by our post doc Sarah Trainer, our participants have explained in detail how ill-fitting environments and the reactions of others together undermine your dignity when you are very large. But they tell us that any travel in airplanes is the absolute worst.

For most of us, coach is not a place where we are not at our best – cramped, stressed, and impatient much of the time. For people with weight, you have to add the physically difficulties of  getting in or out of a seat or using the tiny bathroom. But it is not just these physical reminders that you “just don’t fit” that is why flying should be avoided. The exasperated looks of others even as you are physically struggling, suggesting that you deserve what you are getting. It conveys you are wrecking things for others simply by showing up. As one participant said after losing a lot of weight: You know, [strangers] treat me differently [now] in that they don’t react to me. 

IMG_2608The best solution would be for airlines to design cabins based on ergonomic principles that acknowledge the broad range of sizes people actually are. In fact, airlines seats used to be huge, as shown in this cheesy pic of my son visiting a vintage airplane exhibit and the opener pic of Pan Am jet economy class 50 years ago. But a return to the idea of the comfortable basic seat is off the table given contemporary concerns about profit margins. Instead airlines try to handle the situation through policies (aka policing). These have the same basic message: you are not normal, and if you can’t fit that is your problem not ours. Hawaiian Airlines, whose seat I am sitting in right now, says that “airport customer service may proactively approach you if they believe you may not find a coach seat comfortable”, and “guests needing additional room may then purchase two adjacent seats, upgrade, or expect to be accommodated by being held for the next available flight where there is extra room”. That 1960s-1747is, they can be refused boarding. This is pretty standard for US airlines, and has been spurred on by the complaints of other passengers. Here is weight-discrminination activist Marilyn Wann explaining why this is also a bait-and-switch for consumers. By contrast, while domestically flying within Canada, the one person, one ticket law passed in 2008 means people can’t be charged for needed extra seats if they are “functionally disabled by obesity.”  But it doesn’t always get better when you cross US borders: some international carriers continue to fire experienced employees who gain “too much” weight.

Parents who have flown with a sick, crying toddler already know exactly what that unsympathetic look or exasperated sigh from other passengers feels like. They also then learn true sympathy for all traveling parents.  One  challenge of weight is that other thinner people – otherwise nice people –  don’t have any chance to learn how very cruel they are being simply by virtue of a single eye roll. So, next time you fly, try simply not reacting. Or, even better, smile at whoever is clearly having a tougher flight than you.


** With thanks to the Virginia G Piper Charitable Trust, who has supported some of the data collection and analysis conducted in Maricopa County through Mayo Clinic/ASU Obesity Solutions signature projects.