On charging fat passengers more to fly

Samoa Air has announced a new ‘pay what you weigh’ policy that will determine ticket prices for passengers based on their combined body and luggage weight. The chief executive, Mr Langton, claims this is the fairest way to determine pricing because, ‘a kilo is a kilo’. Regardless of what Mr Langton says, treating customers differently based on weight is sizeism, plain and simple.

Charging fat people more to fly will result in fewer fat people flying. The fat person who needs to travel for work may lose their job, or chance at promotion, because the company does not want to have to pay more for them to travel. The fat adult whose parent is dying may not be able to make it to their deathbed. The fat person who needs to travel for life saving medical care may miss out on that treatment. Dying? Sorry, you’re too fat to fly. This will do wonders for the tourism industry in Samoa, I’d imagine. Fewer fat people visiting – fewer people bringing home gifts to family and friends.

People aren’t cargo – we aren’t mail. We are people. We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. And we aren’t luggage. An individual can choose to pack or not pack anything they want –but I cannot choose to leave parts of my fat body at home.

Some fat people have always dreaded air travel. Squishing their bodies into seats that are too small; pushing themselves against the wall of the plane as to not inconvenience anyone else with their body (Ewww! Mom! The fat is touching me – GROSS!) I used to love to fly; I loved the quiet time to myself without distraction, the solace I found while soaring above the clouds – until airlines started kicking fatties off planes. The issue of flying while fat was brought into the forefront a few years ago when celebrity Kevin Smith (Director of Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy) was booted off of a plane because he was fat.

Arguments made by airlines in the past with regards to fat customers have been about comfort and safety. Treating fat customers differently because of their weight, they said, is about the comfort of all customers (because it’s more comfortable for my seatmate if I paid the airline more to fly; or, sitting across two seats is comfortable? In what world?) Or it’s about the safety of everyone on board.

The comfort argument is silly, really. Airplanes are giant buses in the sky – public transportation is rarely about comfort. And as many stories of flying fatties online can attest, the comfort that seems to be at issue is that of non-fat customers. Airlines seem to care little about asking fat people to cram into their seats – but if it makes someone else on the flight uncomfortable, it’s a problem. And, of course, there are many other ways that a person’s comfort may be disturbed in the sky – the screaming baby, the child kicking at your seat from behind, the person who leaves their seatback reclined for the entire trip, the middle aged businessman who has no regard for anyone but himself. No mention, however, is ever made about discriminating against these people.

The other issue cited is safety – fat people are not allowed to sit in the emergency exit rows of many planes because it is believed that our girth (or seatbelt extender) will somehow limit our ability to get out of our seat or open the emergency door or help others out the door. This is probably a conflation of weight with health & fitness.

Some airlines have worked to address comfort & safety by requiring fat people to purchase two seats. Of course, many fat people who have taken this option find that this is difficult to do online (as you may not buy two tickets using the same name), that customer service reps often do not how to check you in on both tickets, and that when you get on the plane, those two seats that you bought may not be next to each other. Others have been forced to give up that extra seat if the flight is overbooked. You know what that tells us? That requiring fatties to buy a second seat isn’t about comfort. It isn’t about safety.

It’s about discrimination against fat people. And it’s punitive: plain and simple.

Of course, many people embrace punitive measures against fat people. They figure that fat people have only themselves to blame for their fatness, so why should it be bothersome if they face discrimination? It’s the consequence they face for being fat – for failing to take better care of themselves. As Lesley Kinzel explains,

“Airplane seats are small, and trust me when I say that the fat stranger is as miserable than you are, if not moreso, as [they] has not only been forced into a situation in which [they] must be physically uncomfortable, but in which [they] also may be publicly humiliated at any time. Certainly some people would argue that fat folks deserve to be publicly humiliated simply by virtue of being fat, but those people are assholes.”

For fatties who do fly, great tips may be found all over the Fat-o-sphere. For example, when possible, fly on a Canadian airline – the Canadian Transportation Agency has ruled that it is illegal for Canadian airlines to charge more for fat travellers, or require them to purchase an additional seat. They ruled that policies must be ‘One person, one fare’. Another great tip for fat flyers is to use Seat Guru to assess the size of different seats on different planes (because yes, even on the same plane, seats often measure differently).

Blogger Ragen Chastain has come up with a list of possible solutions to accommodate both airlines, and passengers of all sizes. One obvious solution is to make seats on the plane bigger, which the new Airbus model is doing. Why is it unreasonable to expect airlines, and other modes of transportation, to offer accommodation for bodies of all sizes? Why is it unreasonable to suggest that the amount of space you are supposed to take up is the amount of space you take up with your body?

Of course, there is a larger social justice argument to be made – a ‘pay what you weigh’ policy will disproportionately affect women, the poor, and ethnic minorities – all groups who are more likely to be fat. And all groups who are already disadvantaged in our society.

In this system, people estimate how many kilos they need to pay for when they book their ticket. And are weighed before they board their flight, in order to ensure that they paid the correct amount. I’m wondering what happens when there is a discrepancy? If I weigh more when I fly, maybe I’m now pregnant; I’ll have to pay more before I get on my flight? Is the reverse also true? If I’ve lost weight, because I had a leg amputated, will I be given some of my money back?

Samoa Air wants you to believe that this new policy is fair and awesome – and puts you in control! From their website, with Samoa Air, you are the master of how much (or little!) your air ticket will cost.” Sure, if you believe that people are in control of how much they weigh. (As lots of people do, even without evidence to support this.)

“People generally are becoming much more weight conscious,” chief executive Langton said. “That’s a health issue in some areas. It has raised the awareness of weight.” Because fat people don’t know their fat until they’re told that they’re too fat to fly?! And Langton is falling victim to a common obesity fallacy here – that someone’s weight/body size tells you something about their health status or health behaviours. I hope he doesn’t honestly believe that his discriminatory practice will have any effect on people’s health behaviours, much less their body size.

Luckily, this is the first airline to engage in such a practice.

“It’s a new concept,” Langton admitted. “As any airline operators knows, airlines don’t run on seats, they run on weight. People generally are bigger, wider and taller than they were 50 years ago. It is an area where the industry will start looking at this.”

So he acknowledges that people are bigger than they were 50 years ago – and yet his airline has not done anything to ensure that they are able to accommodate the new normal body. He has said that this new policy will allow his airline to accommodate bodies of different sizes, based on who has purchased tickets for each flight. This means larger seats for fat individuals, more pitch room for tall individuals, etc. Which isn’t an awful idea – if it indeed comes to fruition. If the policy of Samoa Air is really about fairness, then they will ensure that they are able to accommodate a range of bodies comfortably on their airplane. And if I’m paying more to travel the same distance as my skinnier friend, then my fat ass wants a seat I can comfortably fit into.

Update (Sharing the work of others who have written about Samoa Air):

Tallulah Spunkhead at The Lady Garden, Pay As You Weigh(t, what??)

Ragen Chastain at Danceswithfat, Airline’s Pay by the Pound Policy is a Problem

Jay Solomon at More of Me to Love, 5 Reasons We Can’t Charge Fat People More to Fly