Human Nature

Fat vs. Tall: The Wisdom of Crowded Planes

Readers debate the problem of oversize air travelers.

See a Magnum Photos gallery on “Creatures Great and Small.”

Two weeks ago, I asked you and other Slate readers to weigh in on the problem of oversize air travelers. Some passengers are too fat to fit in a standard plane seat; others are too tall. I put the question this way: “Would you give the fat guy next to you the same deference as the tall guy behind you? Why or why not?”

Hundreds of you responded. You posted more than 300 comments in the first 24 hours and nearly 500 in the first week. But what really impressed me was the quality of the conversation. It’s an exchange of ideas no writer could have come up with alone. It’s time to salute your work. Tomorrow I’ll look at your most interesting proposals for solving the problem of big passengers. (You can read them here.) But today I’ll start with your best takes on how to think about it. The top 10:

1. Don’t assume the fat person next to you is responsible for his weight. Many of you, including Slate’s Daniel Engber, debated the extent to which genes or behavior influence obesity. But there were clearly some people who had tried hard, without success, to lose weight. One reader, what2do, attributed his weight to antidepressants. Another, Sonnet, cited insulinoma, a pancreatic anomaly that can cause significant weight gain. “Tell me where my team of endocrinologists, dieticians, bariatric specialists, and sports trainers has failed me,” she wrote. A third commenter, Julia Marie Sims Watts, warned readers that they “know nothing about the life of the large man [next to them] and how he came to be that way.” So give him the benefit of the doubt.

2. Tall and broad-shouldered people use extra width, too. Fat people aren’t the only ones who spill into adjoining seats. If a tall man’s legs can’t extend forward, guess where they go? Many guys “sit with their legs slightly splayed into my space,” complained Rachel. Dani Martinez raised another objection: “What about overhanging shoulders and arms? Why is it not okay to take someone else’s space on the bottom but perfectly okay to take someone’s space on the top portion of the seat?” Dani noted that lots of men whose waists fit between the arm rests “do NOT fit in the seat up top. If sitting naturally, their shoulders and arms are wider than [the allotted] 17 inches.”

3. Tall people suffer on planes. One of the biggest surprises to me was how many tall folks reported immobility and pain while flying. “I ALWAYS have bruises on my kneecaps from jamming my legs in the tiny space provided,” wrote laidee-dee. Jonathan, a 6-foot-6 flier, reported, “I had a guy recline his seat all the way back when I went to the bathroom once. … I literally could not sit down.” Before you lean back, think about what it’s like to be that cramped.

4. Treat height as an in-flight disability. Many of you argued that fat people could lose weight. Others, such as Slate’s David Plotz, cited social and economic advantages of being tall. But everyone agreed that tall people bear no responsibility for being unable to fit in plane seats. “I cannot change the length of my legs, short of surgically removing bones,” wrote Eileen. So if you’re stuck in front of a tall person, cut her some slack.

5. Don’t ignore the person behind you just because you can’t see him. Most of us are considerate to the people sitting next to us because we can see each other’s faces. But reclining is different. “Since neither party can see each other very well, it’s so much easier to act like a jackass,” observed Bryn Swaney, a 5-foot-3 woman. Leland, a 6-foot-3 man, suggested a simple rule to rectify this problem: Before leaning back, “[t]urn around and see who’s behind you.”

6. Many tall and wide people can’t afford bigger seats. One commenter, dj, pointed out that Kevin Smith, the movie director whose complaint launched the discussion, could afford two coach seats or a first-class seat. But many people can’t. “Someday I hope that I can afford to always fly in business class, but that day is far in the future,” lamented Leland. Laurel Johnson added: “If you REALLY don’t want a fat person getting fat cooties all over you, you’re welcome to buy two seats for yourself. Can’t afford it? They probably can’t either.”

7. Why should your right to recline trump my right to my tray table? Many commenters asserted a right to recline. Every seat purchase includes “the space of the seat—including lean-back space for the duration of the flight,” wrote Matt, the forum’s most assiduous legal analyst. But others challenged that claim. “The person behind you paid a ticket price expecting to be able to use the foldout table to hold books, food, or a computer, all which are not possible if the front seat is reclined,” argued Rob. Another critic, Jennifer, cited airline policies that fit this view: “Wouldn’t the person who purchased the seat also have the right to the space in front of them since they have use of the seat pocket and the storage under the seat?”

8. Business or pleasure? Laptop users challenged the right of nappers to invade their work space. Greg Kopczynski, a 6-foot-4 flier, invoked the work ethic. “I consider reclining seat a vestige of a bygone era when there really was nothing to do on an airplane other than try to sleep through the flight. Now this person in front of me wanting to nap is inhibiting my ability to be productive.” D D, another 6-foot-4 traveler, invoked the greater price of his ticket: “If I’m doing work on the flight, I’m probably on business travel and probably paid more for the ticket than most people, so if anyone is entitled to use of the space, I think it should be me.” But Deborah dismissed this as an empty compulsion: “Just because you are a workaholic and need to be glued to Excel on your laptop for the entire flight doesn’t mean that the person in front of you, who may be traveling for leisure, doesn’t deserve to recline their seat to take a nap.”

9. Airlines double-book the space behind each seat. When a passenger wants to recline and the passenger behind her objects, whose rights prevail? The airlines’ official “contracts of carriage” don’t address this question. Slate intern Jenny Rogers contacted several airlines and asked for clarification. JetBlue said it had no formal policy for resolving such conflicts; other airlines didn’t respond. As commenter Donny Kerabatsos pointed out, this ambiguity amounts to “selling the same space to two different people.” Another reader, Carmen, explained: “Just like they double-book seats hoping someone doesn’t show up, they have compressed the space in the cabin so that your reclining space overlaps my leg-room, hoping that one of us isn’t going to claim the space we have purchased.”

10. Look in the mirror. Unable to resolve their disputes with each other, commenters united in shifting blame to the airlines for putting people in impossibly small seats. Many blamed the carriers’ lust for profits; some said the government should mandate bigger seats. But a few pointed out our hypocrisy: We shop for the lowest fares and then complain when airlines squeeze more of us into each plane. “Airlines are going out of business because they can’t make a profit,” observed Rebecca. Another reader, James, cited an article headlined, “World’s airlines expected to lose more money in 2010.”

Each of these points is worth thinking about the next time you encounter a big person on a plane. But they won’t solve the problem of oversize passengers. For that, we’ll need some practical ideas. More on those tomorrow.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. Human Nature’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: