How One Airline Made Flying While Fat Even Worse

The new policy, instituted for safety reasons, still smacks of discrimination.

Flying on a plane is one of the most dehumanizing experiences a fat person can have. If it’s not the glares and stares from people praying you don’t sit next to them, it’s the eye rolls when you tell them, “I’ve got the middle seat” or the loud sighs when you put the armrest up just to get a little relief. It’s the anxious feeling you get when you need to ask for a seat belt extender. And it’s your neighbor’s flat-out aggressive commentary about the lack of personal space that results from sitting next to you.

Making an already-distressing experience even worse, Hawaiian Airlines instituted a new policy whereby passengers on its Hawaii-to-American Samoa route may no longer pre-select seats. As part of the policy, each row will have an empty seat or a child in it. The measures are aimed at distributing weight evenly across the cabin, which cannot exceed a certain load limitation in case of a crash-landing situation.

I don’t buy the idea that it’s necessary to blame the customers when the real culprit here is airline regulations built on outdated models of the average customer’s physical build.

Hawaiian Airlines conducted a voluntary six-month survey that asked passengers flying between Honolulu and Pago Pago, American Samoa to be weighed prior to boarding. According to the Associated Press, the airline instituted the survey when executives noticed the 2,600-mile flight route between Honolulu and Pago Pago was burning more fuel than projected. After determining the increase in fuel wasn’t due to wind patterns, they asked passengers to be weighed before boarding. The survey found each passenger and his/her carry-on bag was actually 30 pounds more than the airline had been accounting for.

Jon Snook, Hawaiian’s chief operating officer, told AP that media reports claiming the airline is assigning seats based on passenger weight is inaccurate. But something about the whole situation just doesn’t sit well with me. Because most of the passengers on the flight are Samoan and up to 74.6% of Samoans are considered obese, many are claiming this policy is discrimination. And that’s exactly what it is.

I reached out to Robb Hicks, a licensed pilot at a major US airport, to ask why the airline wouldn’t just raise the cost of the flight. He explained that airlines are fighting over the most reasonable fares; the weight policy is a way for the airline to keep their own costs down while not driving up the cost for the customer.

I have to wonder, though, if the cost of insulting customers by targeting one specific flight and group of passengers with a weight-based policy is worth saving a few bucks.

“No airline intentionally wants to discriminate against their passengers,” says Hicks. “However, the issue at hand is that airplanes are designed to a certain weight, balance and performance specification. These are legal boundaries that an airline is bound to abide by for the safety of all passengers.”

Hicks continues, “The airplanes are also designed to operate economically, but their economical operation is seriously dependent on aircraft weight. In the case of Hawaiian, they observed that aircraft operating on a given route were operating at a less-than-efficient state, which over time costs more to operate and adds a greater maintenance expenditure, which affects route and company-wide profitability.”

Hicks also provided some additional insight about airline economics. While planes haven’t increased in size since the 70s and 80s, the size of seats has significantly decreased to make room for more passengers per plane. With more passengers comes more carry-on luggage, and as a result, more weight.

Knowing this, it’s no wonder stories about size discrimination on planes have become more rampant. And I feel better knowing I’m not crazy: Airplane seats actually are shrinking.

“It’s just a bad situation all around because you have an outdated weight and balance model, which hasn’t changed,” says Hicks. “Passenger weights are now estimated to be 190 pounds in summer and 195 pounds in winter — and that includes their carry-on bag. Most of the planes flying today were designed around the old passenger weight standard of 170 or 175 pounds — that includes the carry-on bag.”

Unsurprisingly, the policy seems rooted in capitalism. It’s a careful ploy at avoiding the potential loss in customers/revenue that would come with a fare hike, if the airline were to pass increased fuel costs on to customers. But I wonder if Hawaiian Airlines is missing an important human element to all of this. If you need to sit next to a particular friend or family member or don’t want to be separated from your family, it’s not clear how the airline will address this.

I can’t imagine being assigned a seat away from my best friend because we are both fat. My heart drops just thinking about going through this. And although the policy doesn’t involve customers being weighed prior to boarding (as was originally reported), there’s still an underlying message that this group of passengers is subject to this policy because of their weight.

As a fat person, I understand that there are potential safety issues surrounding weight, but I also know that a lot of those policies are rooted in fatphobia. Many people, including myself, do not weigh themselves or do not want to know what they weigh. And that’s totally valid. My actual weight has zero impact on my perception of myself. It’s a number and it doesn’t define me or have any bearing on my personal happiness.

Though I understand the economics behind this policy, I just don’t buy the idea that it’s necessary to blame the customers when the real culprit here is airline regulations built on outdated models of the average customer’s physical build.

Many factors affect any individual’s weight, and policies like this presume that weight is something that’s a choice and always in someone’s control. It also treats someone’s weight as a problem and places blame on the individual, possibly forcing them to be separated from their families during a flight. Flying is uncomfortable enough for fat folks; I’m disappointed Hawaiian Airlines found a way to make it worse.

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