Flying Fat

I think that overweight people receive a special opprobrium, because we regard their obesity as a moral failing. We're a culture that doesn't like any visible sign of appetite.
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The recent controversy between Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines has spurred a flurry of commentaries -- some thoughtful and others merely outraged. To recap: Kevin Smith, famous Hollywood director (he directed Clerks and Chasing Amy) is a very large man, and he was thrown off a Southwest flight from Oakland to Burbank because the crew decided he was too big.

Since the problems of Hollywood celebrities are, like Smith himself, often larger than life, newspaper travel sections and blogs have been suddenly flooded with stories of people who have been seriously inconvenienced by being seated next to people who are obese. Airlines are scrambling to try and make up rules as they go along: have the obese buy two seats, or pay a premium, or force them to fly in business class.

Let me be clear about two things: First, lest anyone mistake this as a case of special pleading, I am of average height and weight. Second, I log nearly 90,000 miles a year traveling to speaking engagements. I've been seated next to all kinds of people who made my flight less commodious. I really do sympathize with the passengers who are inconvenienced. It's unpleasant.

But why single out that unpleasantness to punish? Why would being seated next to a fat person worse than sitting next to someone who obviously has not bathed in several days, or hasn't brushed his teeth in what smells like a week? Or someone who talks constantly while you are trying to read or sleep? Or the person with obvious bladder issues who is seated by the window? Or, worst of all to some business types, the baby who might actually cry, as babies often do.

Once I was seated next to a skinhead with a swastika tattooed on his enormous bicep. I did not sleep.

I think that overweight people receive a special opprobrium, because we regard their obesity as a moral failing, evidence of lack of self-control. We're a culture that doesn't particularly like any visible sign of appetite.

There are several reasons that fat flyers are being singled out now. One is structural: flying has become so unpleasant - and more and more of us are doing it. Flights are full, especially on major routes, and seats are significantly smaller, and the crush for overhead bin space looks like Times Square subway doors at rush hour. Since there is no food on flights, people bring bags and coolers of their own. The phrase "leg room" is an oxymoron. Flying coach is like booking trans-Atlantic passage in steerage. We should be protesting the erosion of amenities -- like comfortable seats, free checked luggage and edible food.

Incidentally, that is not exactly the fault of the obese. But added to that already cramped anxiety of flying in the first place is the new current cultural concern about the national epidemic of obesity, which has encouraged some to declare war not on the condition but on the obese themselves. It's one of the few hostile prejudices left available to us. Imagine if Kevin Smith were simply a black man, and the flight staff acceded to passenger preferences not to have to sit next to a man of color? Or what about an orthodox Jew on Iran Air? Or a burquaed Syrian on El Al?

And that is important. Passenger preferences cannot determine these policies. That was decided by the U.S. Circuit Court in Diaz v. Pan Am, a landmark case in 1971 about a whether a man could become a flight attendant. Pan Am argued that passengers preferred being served their cocktails by attractive women, and that the sorts of men who would be attracted to the job would be effeminate anyway - thus, according to Pan Am's expert witness, the best selling author Eric Berne, might make a male passenger "uneasy" because the flight attendant "might arouse feelings in him he would rather not have aroused." Pan Am lost. Passenger preferences cannot set the ground rules for etiquette in the air.

If there are legitimate safety issues, let's debate all of them. What about disabled people, relieved of their wheelchairs, seated in aisle seats? What about other disabilities that might make swift and easy exits more difficult? The blind? The deaf?

In our society we are inconvenienced by a lot of different people. It's called democracy. It's noisier and messier that aristocratic systems - at least if you are an aristocrat. Everyone gets a chance. No one is held back. Democracy is inconvenient. It doesn't seem fair sometimes.

But though we are a democracy, we are also a very stratified society. And so I suggest that those who are inconvenienced by flying with the fat do what those who are inconvenienced by the unwashed masses: avoid them. You can live in a gated community, avoid taking mass transit, and vacation in an exclusive resort. And fly in business class. The seats are bigger, and the air is so much purer in the front of the plane.

If you choose to fly in coach, you fly with the masses. And the masses come in many shapes and sizes. We contain multitudes, often in one body.