Big People On Planes

Modern air travel just isn’t made for big people — or for the people seated next to big people.

On one of the legs of my recent trip I was seated next to a guy who probably weighed about 350 pounds. He had the window seat, and I had the aisle seat. He wedged himself into his seat the best he could, but there was a clear spillover effect; he took up the entirety of our shared armrest and a chunk of my airspace, too. The only way I could accommodate his bulk was to sit twisted sideways. I was very glad I had the aisle space to one side and wondered about how cramped and uncomfortable it would have been if I’d had the window seat. Fortunately, it was a relatively short flight — but even so I was nursing a backache by the time the flight ended.

I’m not dissing big people here, but I think this is an increasing problem with modern air travel in America. Seat space on planes keeps shrinking, and Americans keep expanding. Obviously, that’s a problem, and it’s just going to get worse. Airlines want to pack as many passengers as possible into their planes — as the picture I took on the flight shows — and they aren’t going to reverse course on seat width and leg room, and Americans are, on average, heavier than ever.

What’s the solution? Make passengers disclose their size and, if they are above a certain point, make them buy two seats? Have a special heavyweight section with larger seats? I’m not sure, but something needs to be done. If you draw the short straw and are seated next to a big person on a flight, you just aren’t getting the same experience as passengers seated next to normal-sized folks. Why should somebody who has to endure an uncomfortable sitting position and has their personal space invaded by a stranger for the entire flight be charged the same as somebody who doesn’t? It really isn’t fair.

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Recline Decline

British Airways has announced that it is eliminating “reclining” seats on some of its economy flights this year.  According to the airline, getting rid of those seats will allow it to offer more low-far options to travelers — presumably because the company will be packing more seats into the economy section.

130212_afw_reclinerairline-crop-promovar-mediumlargeThe new British Airways seats will be set at a “gentle recline” configuration — i.e., two or three inches from the straight-backed dining room chair-type setting — but otherwise immobile.

Speaking as a frequent economy class airline passenger, I am all in favor of BA’s decision, and I hope other airlines quickly follow suit.  I never recline my seat, and I despise people who, as soon as the takeoff chime sounds, recline their seats to the maximum extent and crash into the knees of the passengers in the row behind.  In my view, people who do that are incredibly rude, and obviously are focused totally on themselves.  And really — do the few inches of reclining really make all that much difference, when you consider that you are horribly inconveniencing and cramping the unfortunate people who happen to be seated behind you?

In my view, the immediate/maximum recliners are almost, but not quite, as ill-mannered as the parents of unruly children who shrug when their kids won’t stop kicking the back of the seat in front of them.  If a seat design change eliminates their opportunity to ruin my flight, and allows for more affordable fares at the same time, it’s a great development.

It would be nice if people voluntarily behaved in a civilized fashion, but when they won’t, I’ll happily settle for technological modifications that prevent the rude behavior in the first place.

Seat Shrinkage

A recent federal court ruling has confirmed what those of us who travel frequently already know:  the passenger seating space on airplanes is shrinking.

A lawsuit brought by a group called Flyers Rights challenged the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure to consider regulations to address minimum standards for passenger seating.   The passenger space issue involves two basics of airline travel — the width of the seats themselves and the seating “pitch,” which is the distance between the rows of airline seats on a plane.  According to Flyers Rights, the width of the seats has declined from 18.5 inches in the early 2000s to 17 inches now.  And the airlines are constantly reducing the “pitch,” too — from 35 inches to as low as 28 inches.  Narrower seats, and tighter “pitch,” allow airlines to cram even more seats onto planes.

28up-legroom-master675Because nobody really cares about passenger comfort on planes, the Flyers Rights lawsuit was argued to the court as presenting a safety issue.  Flyers Rights contended that the combination of shrinking seats and expanding passengers would make it harder to evacuate passengers in the event of an emergency and might also cause more passengers to develop deep vein thrombosis and blood clots because they can’t move their legs.  The federal court hearing the case ordered the FAA to at least consider these issues and decide whether to issue new regulations.

Anybody who travels much knows these passenger space issues deep in their bones.  Most flights these days are totally full, and it’s not difficult to feel like a sardine as you wedge yourself into your narrow seat, put your carry-on under the seat in front of you and thereby restrict your leg room, and then find your legs clamped when the person in the next row up “reclines” their seat by a few inches, directly on top of your kneecaps.  And the cramped feeling is exacerbated when, as is often the case, the person sitting next to you is overflowing their designated seat space.  If, like me, you typically work on a plane and need to retrieve things from the carry-on under the seat, you need to make many minute adjustments, and cram your face against the seat back in front of you, just to reach your carry-on and get out pen, paper, and reading material.

It’s hard for me to believe that any actual study would show that an airplane is as readily evacuated with narrow seats and 28 inches of space between rows as it would be with wider seats and 35 inches of passenger maneuvering room.  But forget the safety issue for a minute — I’m wondering whether any airline will start marketing itself as the humane airline that actually offers more leg room for those of us in coach.

Hey, a traveler can dream, can’t he?

Seat Grab

I was sitting in my seat on my flight to Denver, doing some reading for work and minding my own business, when suddenly my seat lurched backward.

I momentarily wondered what had happened,, then I realized the truth:  the person who was sitting in the seat behind me was getting up and had to grab the back of my seat with both hands to help themselves up — and from the amount of the backward movement of my seat, I figured it was a big person.  When I looked behind me, sure enough I saw a heavyset guy struggling to rise from his seat and head off to the bathroom.

How often has this happened to you?  For me, it’s become commonplace.  We’ve got such an obesity problem in this country that people can’t get up from their seats without help.  Even the armrests that allow you to balance yourself as you rise from your seat on the airplane aren’t sufficient, so the obese travelers have to hang on to the back to the seat in front of them and pull themselves to their feet.  Never mind that there’s somebody sitting in that seat they’re grabbing, and that the seat grab is going to cause that unlucky person to move backward unexpectedly, interrupting whatever they might be doing.  There’s never an apology, either.  It’s as if the seat you are sitting in was intended solely to help tubby passengers stand up, giving them every right to wrestle with your seat and maneuver it as they see fit so they can get on their feet.

It’s a minor annoyance, to be sure, but it’s just another little reminder of how extensive the obesity epidemic is in this country.  When people can’t even get to their feet on a plane without putting both hands on the seat in front of them and pulling with all of their might, it’s obviously a problem.

Like A Kangaroo’s Pouch

On one of my flights today, I clipped a pen to the magazine holder sack on the rear of the seat in front of me.  You know — the one that holds the in-flight magazine, the instruction card on what to do in the event of a water landing, and the SkyMall catalog.

The pen fell into the inside of the sack, and without thinking about it I stuck my hand in there to fish out the pen.  It was humid and sticky inside the sack, and kind of disgusting.  I immediately retracted my hand, like I’d received an intense electric shock, and I never did reach the bottom.

It reminded me of the pouch of a kangaroo.  I read somewhere that a kangaroo’s pouch is warm and wet and sticky — not surprising, since it’s where a baby kangaroo spends most of her time.  The pouch on the back of the aircraft seat similarly isn’t given a lot of attention by the cleaning crew.

In fact, as we were leaving the aircraft, I noticed that the cleaning crew folks were wearing the sanitary gloves, to protect them as they fished old newspapers and discarded plastic cups out of the seat sacks.  That probably tells you something.