I’m busy as hell and really don’t feel like ruining my day by thinking too hard about this, but I can’t ignore the news that United Airlines is pulling a Southwest and instituting a Fatties Pay More policy. 

Under the new policy, obese passengers — defined as unable to lower the arm rest and buckle a seat belt with one extension belt — will still be reaccommodated, at no extra charge, to two empty seats if there is space available.

If, however, the airplane is full, they will be bumped from the flight and may have to purchase a second ticket, at the same price as the original fare, Urbanski said.

So, it’s not even just that you’ll have to pay more for a second seat, unless you’re lucky enough to be on a half-empty flight. If the flight is full — which they ALL are these days, because hi, we’re in a recession and airlines have been cutting flights like mad — and the attendant at the counter decides you’re too fat for one seat, you won’t be allowed to fucking fly. You’ll pay more for the privilege of missing your flight and having to wait around for one that’s not already overbooked, which… good luck with that. 

Craig Newman at the Chicago Sun-Times’s Shiny Objects blog offered this surprisingly good response:

Here’s the big question, especially for gate agents: How do you determine who’s too big to go in one seat? Are they supposed to pull people out of line who look a little too hefty? Will calipers and Body Mass Index charts be issued and hanging next to the luggage check scale? Are there measurements involved? How soon til the first discrimination lawsuit is filed? And will there be discounts for the svelte fliers?

Who’s next on the target list? People who snore while sleeping are charged extra to be put in a seclusion zone? People flying with crying children charged extra for a blast of thorazine and noise dampeners? Where does it stop?

I mean, seriously, they’ve got this handy definition of who’s too fat for one seat all ready to answer that inevitable question — anyone who can’t lower the armrest and buckle the seatbelt with only one extender — but how are they supposed to determine that at the gate? Is there going to be a mock seat set up for fat people to try out, the same way they’ve got those little metal cages to measure carry-on baggage? Will fatties be allowed on the planes, only to be removed if they flunk the test? ‘Cause boy, both of those sound like terrific options. 

Furthermore, before I get to why that definition of “obese” is total horseshit, I’d just like to point out that it’s hugely fucking sexist. Fat men are more likely to carry their weight out front, and even with a pretty substantial gut, you can get a seatbelt buckled underneath it. The armrest and seatbelt restrictions are mostly going to affect people with wide hips — i.e., women, a hell of a lot more often than not. Al is a full foot taller than me and outweighs me by close to a buck — he takes up a LOT more space than I do, and is a lot more uncomfortable flying. But my hips spread out underneath the armrests and run the risk of accidentally touching the poor slob next to me. His don’t. I wouldn’t have to gain too much weight to have trouble lowering the arm rests. Al would either have to gain a shitload of weight or get an entirely different body shape. I realize not every woman is pear-shaped and not every man is hipless, but on average, it’s just common sense: who’s more likely to have broad hips? 

As for why it’s total horseshit, the kind of people who call an airline to complain about sitting next to a fatty (more on them in a moment) are not just complaining about people who can’t lower an armrest and get buckled up with a single extender. They’re undoubtedly also complaining about fat people who don’t need extenders at all, fat people who can lower the armrests, but not without their hips and thighs squishing out under them, fat people who can pretty much fit in the seats yet still stubbornly insist on being fat at everyone around them. Al and I both meet those standards, but that sure doesn’t mean we can actually confine either of our bodies to the precise dimensions of a single coach seat. So it also sure doesn’t mean nobody’s ever called up an airline after being stuck next to us for a few hours — or that nobody ever would, if they haven’t already. Many of the people I hear from who need even one extender are already in the habit of either buying two seats or not flying at all, because it is fucking painful, physically and emotionally, to deal with wedging themselves in between those narrow armrests, and potentially between two narrow-minded strangers. How many people will actually be affected by the armrest and multiple extenders rule? The number of people who buy a single coach ticket without being able to lower the armrests or get by without multiple extenders has got to be tiny, relative to the number of assholes who rant about getting stuck next to Fatty Fatty 2 x 4.

Which is absolutely not to say that anyone, of any size, should have to buy more than one seat — Canada’s got it right — just that when you take the number of people whose bodies don’t meet that particular standard and subtract the number of people who already routinely buy two seats, fly first class, or find alternate transportation, how many are actually left? My fat gut says probably not that many. Which means that, even with this policy, the same people who are outraged about having to sit next to fatties will continue to have to, and continue to be outraged about it — only now there’s a discriminatory, humiliating policy in place that will A) penalize a number of fat people in the first place, and B) encourage those assholes to make a public stink about how their fat neighbors should have to buy two seats, regardless of whether said fat neighbors technically qualify for that penalty under the airline’s guidelines. Which are horseshit and sexist, if I hadn’t mentioned that.

Not to mention, as we’ve discussed here before, very tall people or very broad-shouldered people are just as miserable in those tiny seats themselves and just as likely to encroach on their neighbors’ space as fat folks. But making them buy two seats would be discrimination! Making fatties buy two seats is merely offering us extra motivation to lose weight, which is healthy! It’s totally for our own good!

Fillyjonk just made a point in an e-mail to me that I can’t BELIEVE I have never thought of or heard before. To wit:

What we end up hearing every time this comes up is “they should sell wider seats at a premium instead.” (Or, as Dan rather adorably put it, “if airlines want to sell seats based on space, they need to offer a distribution of seats with a distribution of prices, with a mean seat width based on the mean width of the population.”) Of course, they already do that — it’s called first class, and saying that fat people should pay extra for it is no less problematic than saying they should pay extra for another seat. What gets overlooked is that, while there already exists an option that accommodates a fat ass at a premium, there also already exists an option that GUARANTEES THAT A FAT ASS WILL NOT IMPINGE ON YOUR SPACE at a premium. Why shouldn’t people who want breathing room on an airline be the ones to pay for the privilege? In economy, you pays your money and you takes your chances. Want to take fewer chances? Pay more money. Can’t pay enough money to be comfortable? Welcome to American capitalism.

Fillyjonk is so smart. If you’re so terrorized by the thought of having your thigh touch someone else’s (and don’t get me wrong — I don’t LIKE that anymore than anybody else does, I’m just realistic about why it happens, which is that THE SEATS ARE TOO SMALL FOR PRACTICALLY EVERYBODY), just buy yourself a first class ticket! Or two seats for yourself! What? You say you can’t afford that? NEITHER CAN THE FAT CHICK NEXT TO YOU. What? Being next to her means your ride is uncomfortable? SO IS HERS, and you’re not the one sitting next to a total asshole!

As it turns out, that fat chick is a human being who paid for her coach seat just like you did, which means you are entitled to precisely $0 worth of extra comfort and/or services, and precisely no guarantee that you will find the person sitting next to you delightful in all ways. You want more, pay for more. You can’t afford it, take the train; Amtrak’s coach seats are significantly wider, with loads more leg room, plus you can get up and walk around or go sit in the lounge car if you’re disgusted by your seatmate. What? You don’t have time to take the train? You’re busy? You’re important? You have places to be? SAME GOES FOR THE FAT CHICK. This, “just pay more or find another option” shit sounds terribly classist and let-them-eat-cakey, you say? IT DOES TO HER, TOO. Get it?

No, of course you don’t get it. You never will. Because your answer to all of that is, “But I’m a thin person, which makes me good! If some individual must pay a penalty because the airlines are so goddamned cheap they insist on cramming ten pounds of passenger in a five pound bag, it should obviously be the fat person, who is fat and therefore deserving of punishment! Duh!” 

Here’s the most heartening note I can think to end this on. A United spokesperson told Reuters UK, by way of explaining the new policy, “Last year we had 700 complaints from passengers who had to share their seats.” And although my first response to that was, “Christ, I hate people,” my second was, “Wait, only 700? In a year? And that’s enough to change the policy?”

Shapelings, I bet we can get 700 complaints to United in a week. Go get ‘em.

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