Earlier this year, a family of three women from New Zealand — a mom and her two adult daughters — made headlines around the world when they were denied the business class seats they’d paid for on a Thai Airways flight because they were too big to fit into them Ironically, the family — Huhana Iripa and daughters Tere and Renell — had purchased business class seats because they’d assumed those would be bigger and more comfortable.
But because Thai Airways’ plane seat models made it impossible to put seatbelt extenders onto business class seats, the three women were moved into coach class and given seatbelt extenders.
While the Iripas’ story went viral and resulted in a refund from the airline for the difference in cost between the business seats they’d paid for and the coach ones they ended up flying in, stories like these are not anomalies.
As airplane seats continue to shrink, more and more people around the world find themselves unable to fit — or else subject to invasive comments, touches and other humiliations by both airline employees and their fellow passengers.
Adding to the challenges, there is no universal standard in seat sizing for the airline industry. Every airline has different guidelines, meaning that even the best-informed consumers have trouble keeping up.
But there are ways to make flying — which can be anxiety-producing for even the most mainstream traveler — more humane for everyone on board, no matter what their body looks like.
The goalposts are moving
Annette Richmond is a body-positive activist and the founder of Fat Girls Traveling, a digital community that provides women with support, advice and resources about traveling with different body types.
As a self-described “digital nomad” with no official address, she has clocked thousands of hours in the sky and has dealt with a range of situations on board. She’s also plus size herself.
Though her own number-one piece of advice is to do as much research as possible about your flight, carrier and seat ahead of time, she admits this can be challenging. The rules are frequently changing and not always posted in an easy-to-find place.
“(Airlines) intentionally make it difficult and make sure it takes time and money and effort for you to travel comfortably as a fat person, because they’re there to make a profit,” Richmond says.
Some countries have specific regulations about body size and air travel rights. For example, travelers flying on domestic flights within Canada who need two seats can get the cost of the second seat refunded if they have a doctor’s note.
In Australia, the Australian Consumer Law prohibits airlines from charging passengers different amounts based on their body sizes.
But in the United States, it’s a gray area.
AirHelp.com is a US-based website that helps consumers take action against airlines in situations like these.
The company’s chief legal officer, Christian Nielsen, says that passengers who have had negative interactions with airlines regarding seat size have to deal with regulations that change constantly or are difficult to articulate.
“There are not many laws to protect people who do not fit into shrinking airline seats,” Nielsen tells CNN. “There is no law currently in place (in the United States) to protect passengers who are bumped from their flight due to their size.”
When Lauren Haber Jonas founded Part + Parcel, a community platform and online retailer for plus size women, she was determined to make sure her company’s values for her employees matched the ones they were instilling for their customers.
She vowed that any Part + Parcel employee on a work trip would be accommodated in their seat and travel preferences — whether that means two seats, using extenders or anything else that a person of size would prefer to make flying more comfortable.
But she found that it was hard to know what the guidelines were in order to follow them.
“It’s a disaster,” she admits. “Every airline has different configurations and policies, but every airplane has different seats. The age and the model of the plane, and if the model has been remodeled, and and and. I have found myself spending many hours looking at widths and dimensions of first class versus business class versus coach on every plane you can possibly imagine.”
It’s not just about the seat
One thing is for sure: conversations around body size and airplane seat sizes aren’t going away.
In December 2019, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine predicted that half of Americans will be obese by the year 2030, with one in four having a body mass index (BMI) of over 35.
But while bigger bodies are everywhere, that doesn’t mean that social attitudes have changed.
“I feel like when you live your life in a marginalized body, a fat body or a disabled body or an older body, something that’s outside of the generalized norm, you get used to being othered all the time and you have to walk through the world with an additional armor,” says Richmond.
The term “microaggressions” is used to explain how little slights that might otherwise not seem like a big deal accumulate over time to turn into an issue.
For plus-size people, it’s not just about one particular seat on one particular airplane.
Despite being an activist, Richmond can often get so worn down by the nonstop questions and comments — from cabin crew, from fellow passengers, and even from total strangers — that she just gives in.
In one case, when she says was asked by a crew member to move out of an exit row seat despite being able to fit safely into the seatbelt, she just said yes to avoid a conflict and because she didn’t want to have to “prove” her body was an acceptable size.
Richmond feels that the reason there hasn’t been a significant movement to make travel more comfortable for people with larger bodies is because we live in a society that considers fatness a moral failing and something that doesn’t deserve sympathy.
On the other side, for example, it’s considered a positive trait to be tall — so tall passengers who complain about lack of leg room are seen as having a more valid complaint.
“There are statistics all the time that say that 80 percent of people (in the United States) hate plus size people,” says Haber Jonas. “In being a plus size person, it’s the sense that you did this to yourself. You made yourself fat, you created this body, it’s imposing on me and it’s your job to make yourself smaller.”
And tensions that could be resolved easily on the ground become urgent issues in the air, when there’s no way for people to get away from each other and avoid sharing space.
For example, the issue of whether a traveler should or shouldn’t recline their seat has resulted in mid-air fights and screaming matches.
Being stuck in a flying tube together often can turn a mildly uncomfortable situation into a crisis.
“The fact that [air travel] gets worse and worse over time means that people are more and more pissed off. You enter the experience unhappy — there are no plugs at the gate, the boarding experience is miserable, it’s no wonder that you get upset.
If you get upset about a person of size, it’s about how it affects you and your life and your day, you don’t think outside of yourself.”
Ultimately, it’s much easier to get annoyed at a fellow passenger instead of pulling back and thinking about the structural issues in the aviation industry affect all travelers.
After all, you can’t yell at a structural issue.
What happens next?
Unless there’s a huge transformation of the airline industry, seat sizes and configurations aren’t likely to change soon.
The time and cost involved in building aircraft mean that changes happen gradually, sometimes over years. And in-flight comfort is often sacrificed at the altar of the lowest fare.
For those in cattle class, enlisting a high-profile ally can often be a support.
In 2010, “Clerks” director Kevin Smith was removed from a Southwest Airways flight to Burbank because a crew member said he needed an additional seat.
Smith went on a rant against the airline, which he posted in a series of tweets.
“Dude, I know I’m fat,” he said at the time. “That’s not why I was truly thrown off that plane, because I fit perfectly in the seat … I am not fat enough to eject off a Southwest flight.”
Later, Southwest changed its policy, citing Smith’s experience as part of their reason why. And, six years later, he flew the airline again with no issues.
Richmond also advocates for the power of community. Often, if a member of Fat Girls Traveling has had an issue with a specific airline or travel company, members will back each other up online.
And it’s not just about getting a refund — it’s about knowing they’re not alone.
“Sometimes there’s not a solution, but there’s strength that can be brought from feeling like someone understands,” says Richmond.