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Airline seats are as uncomfortable as the silent — and sometimes not-so-silent — judgments from other passengers who think this is a fat person problem, not an economic one.

Laura Delarato
May 24, 2017

What I'm about to say is far from news: Being a fat person on a plane is dreadful.

As much as I would like to believe we're living in a more body positive world than in the past, there are some areas that have definitely not become more inclusive. We need to recognize the body discrimination taking place on airplanes across the country.

Airline seats aren't comfortable for anyone — at least not anymore. Seats have gotten smaller since the 1980s to add more passengers to each aircraft. In 2014, author Bill McGee compared seat sizes from 1985 through 2014 on four major airline carriers: American, Delta, United, and Southwest. On average, economy class seat widths decreased 2 to 3 inches, and seat pitch (the distance between your seat and the seat in front of you) decreased 2 to 5 inches.

And it hasn't stopped. Last year, United found a way to add the equivalent of 14 planes to its fleet by moving seats closer together on its existing aircraft. Earlier this month, American announced it will add 10 more economy seats on each new Boeing 737 MAX by reducing seat pitch. Slimmer seats are supposed to make up for that decrease, according to several airlines, but anyone who has flown recently would be skeptical.

Related: These super-thin airplane seats could make flying even worse

Smaller seats, and therefore more passengers per aircraft, are often linked to the industry capitalizing on lower fuel prices to cart more people around the world for less money. But in the documentary, “Why Flying Is So Expensive,” Wendover Production calculated the cost of an 80-minute trip from John F. Kennedy International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, and found $2.50 of every ticket made up the fuel cost while $15.60 of every ticket went to taxes and charges. We're paying much more money in taxes than we do for fuel, but seat sizes continue to go down (as airline profits go up).

The “easy” — and uninformed — answer to this problem is for larger passengers to lose weight. This is not a solution for many reasons. To begin with, it assumes that plus-size people should be changing their bodies to accommodate others. It also ignores seat statistics, and disregards alternative capacity concerns (height, muscle mass, pregnancy, lap babies).

Plus, we're already there at the gate with our luggage. Not sure if you've tuned into the diet industry lately but the magic instant weight loss pill has yet to be discovered.

Related: How to break away from ‘beach body’ anxiety

“Most people just can't get past the vastly oversimplified ‘just lose weight, then!’ mentality, and even those who are capable of more nuanced perspectives often get stuck at the point where the airlines have basically forced a situation where any breach of the median size results in discomfort for both parties,” said artist and body activist Stacy Bias. “The breacher will always be on the moral back foot unless the reason for that breach is societally predetermined as faultless, as in the case of height.”

Bias and Dr. Bethan Evans, with funding from University of Liverpool, created the animated short “Flying While Fat” that encourages viewers to be more empathetic, and calls out dehumanizing moments that larger people experience on planes. The video is an awakening to the ways our society treats plus-size people and the harmful positions larger passengers endure to avoid disturbing row mates.

Of course, plus-size people aren't the only ones who face intolerance.

“Flying as ‘other’ is a truly intersectional issue,” said Bias. “We'd do well to work together to address the overall lack of passenger rights across the spectrum of race, disability, size, sexuality, and gender.”

As a size 16-18 woman, I have been shamed while flying. Armrests have been dug into my hips, people huff when I go to sit next to them, passengers have asked flight attendants to switch seats the moment they realize I'm sitting next to them.

All this, and I'm the average size of an American woman. Maybe we can't change the size of airplane seats overnight, but we can change how we treat each other on a plane — before we find ourselves in a world where no one can enjoy a flight.

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