“Flying While Fat”, an awesome recent video by size activist Stacy Bias, was published in an effort to express the experience of being the (dreaded) fat person on the plane. Fat people take up more space than thin or average-sized people and there has been much controversy around how to react to and rectify that fact (from seatmates and airlines alike). Bias gives great perspective for those chubby passengers who should feel just as enabled and empowered to fly as their smaller counterparts, even if it means they often press themselves into the wall of the plane or try to curl up to offer as much space back to their neighbors.
But what about the people for whom leaning and folding your arms is no longer enough to make air travel work? Several recent articles (in addition to the Bias video) have been published about how to travel while fat and feel comfortable or confident, and there are several Facebook groups dedicated to Flying While Fat, but the bent is most often geared towards how to fit into a seat. In reality, though, sometimes being just a little fat on a plane isn’t an option. The general rule for whether or not a passenger can fit in an airplane seat is if the armrest can move all the way down beside them. So what about those who exceed that line? We have to travel too, but how? With airline prices increasing and seat size decreasing, it just doesn’t feel like there is room for the supersized traveler. Buying two seats seems unfair to many and expensive to all. So what options are there for air travel when you are not just flying while fat, you are flying while superfat?
Book Additional Seats
- This all begins with booking your flight and, for travel in the US, I say Southwest Airlines all the way. Why? (You may have heard some horror stories about them – years ago – kicking fat people off a plane years ago for not fitting in their seats, but I promise this has changed). Southwest is (I believe) the only airline that has a Customer of Size policy that allows fat flyers to use a second (or third) seat on a plane without incurring additional cost. The official policy is that a seat will be granted at check-in if it is deemed necessary regardless of if the traveler has purchased it ahead of time, but Southwest recommends that additional seats are booked in advance to guarantee one will be available. If you book the additional seat in advance, you will receive a full refund after your flight, regardless of if the flight was sold out. I agree with that process- if you have the means, definitely purchase the second seat. To do so, buy another seat in your name and add “XS” as the Middle Name on the ticket (so you will have multiple tickets in your name, one with the “XS” to differentiate; or if you need more than two, use XS1, XS2 etc). However, sometimes it is not financially possible to purchase another seat or travelers may not be sure if they need one ahead of time and opt out of this practice. The policy still remains that COS flyers will get the additional seat, so advice here is to purchase it if you can, but if not- just use Southwest and you should be fine (if you don’t purchase an additional seat on an additional airline, I cannot guarantee your fine-ness). See below about Check-in for more.
- Not everyone chooses to book Southwest, whether it is because you are flying internationally or if you have another preferred carrier. You can always purchase additional seats on any airline, though you run the risk of the airline changing your reserved seats and causing issues at check-in; I’ve heard horror stories of people who have had their seats changed to become multiple middle seats across the plane, and then had to request the change from the gate agent. Not ideal, but agents are generally fine about switching seats around. Just ask either the ticket or gate agent as soon as you notice and they will switch you. Your other option is to book first class, but be warned that first class seat widths also vary and may be less comfy depending on the airline. Check seatguru.com for more info on seat width before booking. If you are traveling internationally, try Virgin Atlantic if it goes to your destination- call their customer service and ask for a second seat, which they offer on some planes for only an additional $100 or so. I’ve heard legroom is pretty rough on Virgin, though, so tall travelers beware.
Get TSA Pre-check
- Man do I have a lot to say about how terrible it is to go through security as a superfat person. That puffer machine- it ain’t good. So if you can avoid it altogether, and if you can avoid having to pull your shoes and clothes on and off, then do it! TSA pre-check appointments can be scheduled online or some airports allow walk-ins to complete the process. For only about $80, you have 5 years of easy security lines (with a metal detector and often shorter wait). If you are financially able, it is definitely recommended.
- As a superfat person, it’s important to ready yourself for travel in ways others may not have to. If your flight is more than four hours, you will likely start to encounter issues with leg swelling, which puts you at risk for blood clots. If you are booking a longer flight, I recommend also looking for compression socks/stockings to wear while you fly- they aren’t the most comfy, but they are really important in helping maintain circulation.
- If you haven’t signed up for pre-check, make sure you have shoes that you can easily take on and off at security and that are loose enough that your feet will be comfortable on your flight- remember they will likely swell if it is a longer one! Don’t forget to bring anything else that will make you comfortable- pillows, loose clothes, snacks. Don’t let how you think you should look and act affect your ability to be comfortable and healthy (within reason, of course- this doesn’t mean turning the plane into your bedroom!).
- You’re here! You’re at the airport! Step one is to check-in for your flight. If you have two seats, you cannot check-in using the electronic kiosks or online- so you will have to wait in line for full service.
- If you have purchased two seats, tell the ticket agent that they should look for both (this is especially key for people not using Southwest so the airline doesn’t try to give your additional seats away!). You may also be able to ask them to start processing your refund (for Southwest only).
- If you have only purchased one seat, tell the agent that you would like an additional seat. More often than not, they will understand why. If they question you, tell them you are using the Customer of Size policy (I have never had anyone question me FYI). If they tell you that there are no seats available, ask them to get their supervisor to release another seat- airlines will hold a few seats, even when they are “sold out”; that is the difference between “sold out” and “oversold”. If your flight is already at capacity (with no extra seats) and the ticket agent is pushing back, tell them that the policy is to go into an oversold situation, where they will ask another passenger to get a voucher for a free future flight (as a bonus to them) and to move to a different flight. (This has only happened to me once or twice. Generally, the worst thing I experience is a ticket agent who feels annoyed that I am making this request. Yes, it would be ideal if I could afford second seats all the time, but sometimes we cannot and we have a right to travel too, even if the size of one traveler as dictated by the airline is not our size. I don’t love the idea of asking someone else to change their plans, but again this is very rare and they get a free flight out of it and volunteer to participate- no one is forced to change.)
- Additionally- if you received the additional seat at check-in and booked a roundtrip flight, be aware that your second seat will also be held for your return flight! This again means you cannot check in online or at a kiosk.
- Some airports are larger than others and you should feel no shame in not being comfortable walking the (often) long distance to your gate. Ask your ticket agent for assistance. Having a wheelchair or car service (whatever that golf cart-like vehicle is called) take you through the terminal may help you navigate security faster too. Either way, don’t hurt yourself by trying to push more than you can. You know your own limits.
- Another difficulty in the airport is seating. My favorite airports are added to a mental list of those with armless chairs (Newark, Philadelphia, Houston are all great ones), but sometimes that isn’t an option. I always opt for the armchair like seats (for Southwest), which are tight, but at least somewhat doable (for me). If those aren’t available or comfortable, I’ve tried the perch, also depending on how long you have before or between flights (I don’t perch on the end of seats for more than 30 min). If you are able, you also have the option to sit on the floor. I don’t love that option, but I know many who are regular floor sitters because that works for them. Lastly, though, if I can’t find a seat, I find a wheelchair. There are wheelchairs generally available that support 500 or 600 lbs and have either wide arms or arms that lift up. I will only take a chair if there are a few to spare so I am not taking one from someone else who needs it. In one nightmarish situation, though, (in which all of Southwest’s systems went down and I was stuck in my least favorite airport – DCA- with no seat options at all), I pushed a wheelchair all around the airport with me while I waited for my flight. Crazy, yes, but also necessary. It is so important to advocate for yourself and that is something that so many people are scared to do. Don’t try to stand or sit on the edge of your seat for hours because you feel like you have to. You deserve to be comfortable too, even if you have to put forth a little effort to get that way.
- Once you get to the front of the security line, the fun really begins. That puffer machine. That. Puffer. Machine. It doesn’t know how to process a fat body. Beep beep alert alert. Does not compute. And for now, this is the primary way to scan people through security. Not awesome. I have been stopped literally 100% of the time for a pat down. On good days, they will pat my thigh or arm. But on bad days, I’ve had security agents reach under the cups of my bra and between my breasts, they have reached in the top of/all around and inside my waistband and under the crease of my butt cheeks or under my belly. Yep. And I never go to a private room. I want people to see how crazy this is, all the time thinking in my head “IT’S NOT A BOMB, IT’S JUST FAT!” But I smile and I know no one wants to do this and I hope that one day these machines will be burned in a pyre. Until then, just know that there isn’t anything wrong with you if you need a pat down. Go to a private area if you need to or, if not, just be polite and it will be fast. And remind yourself that TSA pre-check is only $80.
- Two things I will always recommend for flight prep are water and aspirin. Water because being hydrated is always very important in staying healthy (and, oh yes, plane bathroom talk below!). And aspirin because it is a blood thinner and should help prevent blood clots on flights. Of course other fun things like books, music, snacks, and friends/family are great things to bring on a flight too.
- Or should I say PRE-boarding. Yes, if you have a second seat on a flight you are entitled to pre-board. This should be true for any airline. I have only had a gate agent question me once, and, after I told her that I had two seats, it was resolved. Pre-boarding means you go on the plane before anyone else and, with Southwest, allows you to select two seats next to each other (I recommend the first row if it’s an older plane where the arms go up!). Yes, your pre-board card says “Pre-board on the basis of disability”. It’s not great. But small victories- you get to not worry about bumping someone with your stomach or butt as you pass. Be respectful as you will be boarding with anyone else who needs more time. I always stand behind customers with wheelchairs or other disabilities that affect their walking and allow them to board first. Even if you’re 5th on the plane and not 1st, it is still much easier than when the plane is full.
- And if any thin or one-seat person out there is reading this- sit next to the fat person who pre-boarded. Fat people are avoided like patient zero of the zika virus, but if you see a fat person who has pre-boarded and who has placed a nice “seat reserved” sign next to them, know that you will have more space than literally anyone else on that flight. Let me say that again- you will ALWAYS have space between you two. That middle seat will ALWAYS be empty. So don’t run away from us; run into a seat like it’s the best one on that flight, because it likely is. Plus stunning personality and all that (if talking to strangers is your thing).
Get that extender!
- Since I’m one of only a handful boarding, I take the opportunity to ask the flight attendant to give me an extender immediately as I get on the plane. They are always discreet, even if they have to give you the extender later after everyone is seated. For so many years (when I was much smaller), I didn’t know about the extender or was embarrassed by it, so I would try to hide my open seatbelt under my shirt. Guys, that’s really dumb and unsafe. Don’t be me. Just ask for it. Again, you are just larger than what the airline has dictated – it doesn’t mean anything about who you are as a person because you need some extra belt room.
Bathrooms – yes you can
- OK maybe the most controversial post? You will very likely fit in that bathroom. Seriously. Before I go down my ableist rabbit hole, I promise to address other options if you cannot fit. But first, just try. I am about a size 36 on the bottom. Yes, sizes vary by brand and we carry our weight differently, but it still means I’m probably bigger than most people reading this and I use the airplane bathroom. I’ve seen people much, much smaller than me say they cannot fit, and I am confident it is just because they have not tried. So before we start going into other options, first try. If you are embarrassed about doing so in the front of the plane, then use the bathroom in the back so fewer people see. You may have to tilt or go in sideways, but try. I promise it will be ok no matter what.
- So the most likely issue for women who cannot fit in the bathroom is being unable to sit and maneuver in there. But there are options for that! Have you heard of tools like “she-wee” or “go girl”? These allow you to pee standing up, which means as long as you can get through and close the door, you can use the bathroom. I recommend practicing using it at home first so you can learn how to stand and aim.
- If you absolutely have tried and cannot fit in that bathroom, there are definitely catheter-like options for longer flights. I can’t make you try to use a device like that on a plane, but I really urge you to consider trying not to pee on that flight as the very last option. Please. Research and see what is out there, and please stay safe.
Long-flight health steps
- Additional reminders for any traveler on long flights (but especially fatties)- remember to get up every 30 min and walk around to try to help your circulation. While you are in your seat, roll your ankles to help circulate blood as well. If you can, move and extend your legs. Do what you can to keep circulation going to help with blood flow and prevent clots, and do remember to stay hydrated.
After the Fact
Request your refund
- If you flew Southwest and purchased a second seat ahead of time, don’t forget to go online to Southwest’s customer service page and request the refund for your flight. This will likely take a few weeks to process, so requesting it sooner rather than later is ideal. You’ll need the confirmation # and other flight details (date, flight #) for that request, so get them handy!
Flying while fat or superfat always feels like a challenge, emotionally and often physically, but it doesn’t have to be. Just remember to prepare yourself as much as you can for your flight. Stay positive and know your rights (with your airline and as an amazing human being). You deserve all the great things in the world- so go out and get them!