Human Nature

Fat vs. Tall

Should fat people on airplanes be treated like tall people?

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Kevin Smith 

If a tall person sat behind you on an airplane and asked you not to lean your seat back, what would you do?

How about if a fat person sat next to you and asked you not to lower your arm rest? Same thing?

In the last week, two well-known travelers—movie director Kevin Smith and New York Times columnist David Pogue—have used Twitter to tell the world about their bad flying experiences. Pogue was rebuked by a tall passenger seated behind him. Smith was ejected from a plane for being fat. Thanks to their popularity—Smith has more than 1.6 million Twitter followers, and Pogue has more than 1.3 million—the two men have stirred up plenty of debate over the incidents. Their juxtaposition raises an interesting question: Do we treat excessive length and width differently? If so, is that unfair?

Let’s start with Smith’s altercation, which took place on Saturday afternoon. He was flying standby on a full Southwest Airlines flight. Here’s the account he posted on Twitter:

I get on the plane: open seat in the front row. Put my bag away, the sit between two ladies. As I’m about to buckle my extender-less seatbelt, the woman who issued the ticket to me appeared in the doorway of the plane, came over to me and said the Captain said I wasn’t going to be allowed to sit there because I was a safety risk. I asked for clarification and was given none. … Ladies on either side said I wasn’t a problem. SWA-lady said arm-rests the decider. Arm-rests come down, and voila! I’m legit! I’ve passed the stinkin’ arm-rest-test. And still, the lady asks me to get up and come with her off the plane.

Southwest Airlines says Smith was ejected because he exceeded the width of his seat:

When the time came to board Mr. Smith, we had only a single seat available for him to occupy. We are responsible for the Safety and comfort of all Customers on the aircraft and therefore, we made a judgment call that Mr. Smith needed more than one seat to complete his flight. … As a Company committed to serving our Customers in Safety and comfort, we feel the definitive boundary between seats is the armrest. If a Customer cannot comfortably lower the armrest and infringes on a portion of another seat, a Customer seated adjacent would be very uncomfortable and a timely exit from the aircraft in the event of an emergency might be compromised if we allow a cramped, restricted seating arrangement.

Smith also describes a follow-up phone call from a Southwest representative named Linda:

“The people around you said they had to lean over to make room for you,” Linda offered.
“Linda, they didn’t! The older lady was leaning against the window like she was gonna nap, and the lady to my left was already leaning toward the aisle.” …
“The report we received said the ladies were leaning away from you.”
“They were already leaning when I sat down! They didn’t lean because of me! I even asked them both if I was a problem.”

Smith went on Twitter to tell his story and embarrass the airline. But many of his followers agreed with Southwest and let him have it. Here are a few of their messages:

1. “sitting next to someone bulging into my seat for 6 hours is agonizing”
2. “unfortunately each ticket is allocated a weight.”
3. “access 2 every option for weight loss yet u don’t take advantage. why?”
4. “You’re big, you’re rich, pay for the 2nd seat and stop griping.”
5. “why weren’t you first class

Smith posted these objections and rebutted them. He replied that 1) he wasn’t bulging into another seat (he “fit between the arm rests & was able to buckle his seat belt w/o an extender”), 2) he was within any reasonable weight limit, 3) “My weight doesn’t bug me,” 4) there was no second seat available since the flight was full, and 5) he flies first class on cross-country trips but not on short flights such as the one in question. “I broke no regulation, offered no ‘safety risk,’ ” he argued.

Pogue’s situation was different. Here’s his 139-character account of the incident, which occurred Tuesday night:

ETHICAL PLANE DILEMMA! Me: recline seat. Guy behind me: “JEEZ!! Could you not do that?! I have long legs! I can’t even move!” What do I do?

Pogue’s followers soon chimed in. He heard from several tall people, just as Smith heard from many fat people. Pogue posted some of the comments. The guy in the next row “should pay more for extra leg room … it’s not like he didn’t know he had long legs before he got on the plane,” said one reader. “I always ask before reclining, seems the polite thing to do since you are putting your head in their face,” said another.

At Slate, Pogue’s question provoked a lively email debate. Among the reactions:

Staffer 1: “He has bought a plane seat that reclines and has a perfect right to recline. Why should he be at fault if Manute Bol behind him wants more legroom? Tall people get so much advantage in the world.”Staffer 2: “The only person I would give consideration to is the sucker in the last row, who can’t [compensate] by reclining himself.”Staffer 3: “He has a right to recline. In the face of another’s clear suffering he should have heart enough not to exercise that right.”Staffer 4: “When was it decided that the space into which the recliner is reclining belongs to him, and not to the guy behind?”Staffer 5: “The guy … was making Pogue uncomfortable because he was so tall that it got in the way of the reclining function.  Should he have been forced to pay extra for an exit row seat?”

There are obvious differences between the two situations. Smith was ejected from a flight; Pogue was only asked not to lean back. But suppose we merge them. Suppose Smith is put in the seat next to Pogue. Pogue lowers the arm rest, and Smith replies, “Could you please not do that? I can’t move.”

What should Pogue do in that scenario? What would you do? Would you handle it the same way you’d respond to the tall guy behind you? Do fat people and tall people deserve the same consideration?

We want to hear your thoughts. If you need more information about airline policies on fat and tall passengers, you can find my reports on them here and here. I made a case for obesity as a behavioral problem here and here, then retreated to a more complex position here. My colleague Daniel Engber has written very good pieces on the harm of anti-fat stigma and on poverty as a cause of obesity. He has also likened fat to height. “How fat you are has a lot more to do with your genes than with your behavior,” he argued two years ago. “As much as 80 percent of the variation in human body weight can be explained by differences in our DNA. (Your height is similarly heritable.)” Last year, he wrote, “It’s true that someone who is fat can lose weight on purpose, while a short adult can’t do anything to gain height. Yet instances of radical, lasting weight loss are exceedingly rare. Diet and exercise schemes tend to yield only minor effects over the long term.”

You can agree or disagree with us on any of these points. But let’s hear your answer and your reasons. Would you give the fat guy next to you the same deference as the tall guy behind you? Why or why not? Below this article, you’ll find a space for your comments. You’re in Slate, pal. Start typing.

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