It's Crazy to Blame Fat People for Ruining Air Travel


I don’t want to intimidate anyone here, but I recently flew first class on an aeroplane. Yes, I know. You’re impressed. I know. No, I am neither a venture capitalist nor a sultan. Yes, I paid for the upgrade myself. No, I cannot invest in your start-up. (Yes, I know what a “start-up” is, kind of.) And no, flying first class is not a regular occurrence in my life. In fact, I can think of few things more glamorously, unattainably alien than sitting to the fore of that little curtain – that imperious cotton-poly shroud that separates the serfs from their betters. Yet there I was, up front, next to a businessman in a suit that cost more than my car, and behind a man who kept angrily attempting to sell a boat over the phone even after they told us to stop making phone calls.

The first rule of first class, apparently, is that there are no rules. (The second rule is “don’t let the poor people use the rich-people bathroom”.)

I wondered if my fellow first-classers – all virility and spreadsheets – could discern that I was a fraud, that I only paid $50 for my upgrade, that I could only afford that much because my job covered the rest of my ticket. I may have betrayed myself when the flight attendant asked if I’d like a “special drink” before take-off and I yelled, “A SPECIAL DRINK!?” and then ordered three. Why just have coffee like some row-26 peasant when you could have coffee, ginger ale and a mimosa!? This, as I’d been assured by the airline industry, was the life.

But as the flight progressed, its sheen dulled. At some point, once the initial thrill of being adjacent to a four-figure boat sale had worn off, I realised: these special drinks weren’t remotely special. This free french-dip sandwich was in no way luxurious (also, “sandwich” is a rather generous term for a microwaved wad of airborne grey beef). And my first-class seat wasn’t a plush throne stuffed with Richard Branson’s hair, as air travel’s mythology would have you believe – it was simply a regular-sized chair with a human amount of leg room. The highest praise I can give it is that it was adequate. It had succeeded at being a chair instead of a flying social experiment about the limits of human endurance.

My experience in first class wasn’t a taste of the high life so much as an infuriating illumination of how inhumanely dismal it is to fly any other way. Oh, I realised. This is the first time in accessible memory that I’ve felt like a human being on a plane. We put up with economy because most of us have no choice – we need to get from here to there and we want cheaper and cheaper tickets. I can’t blame airlines for trying to stay in business by compressing as many travellers as possible into economy class like a Pringles can full of meat glue.

But it’s confusing, as a fat person, to hear so much about how I, personally, have ruined air travel. There are entire blogs devoted to hating fat people on planes – describing their supposed transgressions and physical particulars in grotesque detail, posting clandestine photos, and crowing about the verbal abuse that posters claim to have heaped on their bigger neighbours. As though there were a time when 1) there were no fat people, and 2) everyone passionately loved flying.

As a counterpoint, I would like to lodge a gentle reminder that air travel has always been terrible, and it is terrible because of money. It’s terrible because a plane is just a flying bus, trapped in an eternal rush hour, with recycled farts instead of air, seats barely wider than the average human pelvis, and a bonus built-in class hierarchy. And the bus sucks.

Barring a brief period in the 50s and 60s, when aeroplanes were apparently flying, smoke-choked bacchanals staffed by Bond girls wearing baby onesies, air travel has been a study in discomfort giving way to ever more profitable methods of making people uncomfortable. The first aeroplane was literally just a guy holding on to a kite (note: I am not technically a historian). The second aeroplane was Orville Wright’s moustache. The third aeroplane was an oil drum tied to 400 birds. And they didn’t even have pretzels.

So while it might be temporarily cathartic, it is ludicrously ineffectual to blame individuals for, say, having a big butt, or needing to go to the bathroom, or being a baby who doesn’t understand how to cope with altitude changes due to having just been born – when the obvious problem with air travel is that airlines don’t care if you’re comfortable as long as you’re paying. It’s not as though the people supposedly “ruining” air travel are having a better time of it than you are, anyway. Yes, I’m sure that old lady can’t wait to climb over you so that she can go urinate in a lurching thimble. I’m sure that fat person is simply over-brimming with joy at being not only physically uncomfortable but also trapped in an enclosed space with the disdain of a few hundred angry tourists. Right. It’s a major win-win for that guy.

My point is, if you want to fix flying, try critiquing the system, not people who are equally (if not more) inconvenienced by the system. Because, no matter how magnificently you resent them, you cannot turn a fat person into a thin person in time for the final boarding call, nor a full bladder into an empty one, nor a crying baby into a baked potato.

Trust me. I know things. I’ve flown first class.

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