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Commentary
7:30 am
Fri August 1, 2014

Cabin Pressure

The obesity epidemic became more real to me during my travels last weekend. My return flight was fully booked, and I boarded late only to discover that my seat was already partly occupied by the bulging left side of an especially large man. Although he sat with his arms tightly crossed, his side and shoulders swelled well beyond the invisible frame marked by the armrest. His leg extended at a sharp angle onto my seat. I’m not a big man, but airplane seats are narrow enough these days that I wasn’t able to place my back squarely against the seat back. I was forced to turn sideways, with my knees jutting into the aisle. And I rode out the flight that way, thinking about the causes of my predicament.

The most obvious cause is not what concerned me the most as a passenger. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that “more than one-third of U.S. adults (34.9%) are obese.” Say what you will about individual responsibility, a problem of this magnitude cannot be blamed on individuals. From one generation to the next, Americans are the same. We are driven by popular trends and influenced by marketing. Like people everywhere, we’re attracted to rich foods. But our diets have been altered by corporate food culture, especially the easy availability and attractiveness of fast foods, heavy on fats and salt and high fructose corn syrup. In this regard, I’m the lucky person who can eat a lot without gaining weight. Others in my family put on weight just by looking at food, it seems. For such people in our sedentary but busy-making culture, avoiding harmful foods and getting sufficient exercise would require a level of discipline that has been rare in human history. There’s no reason to expect change by that method.

The problem I faced isn’t about obesity, really, but the lack of clear and effective policies, in lieu of better seating options. Airline executives have been aware of this problem for years. Yet, even as sports arenas were being built or retrofitted to accommodate the greater numbers of overweight and obese fans, airlines moved in the opposite direction, squeezing out profits by tightening the spaces for passengers.

There is no industry-wide policy for the accommodation of overweight passengers, and a review of airlines reveals a haphazard collection of mostly irresponsible and ineffective half-measures. Although you would have a hard time finding it online, the policy of my airline doesn’t require such passengers to purchase an additional seat, but “In the event of a full flight you will be asked to take a later flight with available seating.” What often happens, I’m afraid, is what happened to me. The flight attendant avoided the problem. Left to my own devices, my only recourse would have been to cause a stir by complaining about my fellow passenger. Even if an airline trained flight attendants to remove the passenger, that solution is far from ideal, because it places the passenger symbolically in the category of an undesirable, like the sort of disorderly person who gets removed from the plane and turned over to the police under suspicion of terrorism.

Still, if I had to do it over, I really would force the issue, pointing out to the flight attendant that I paid for an entire seat, not two-thirds of a seat. And if I were the obese passenger, I would sit right there, refusing to budge. Call it a revolution. Change in the corporate world of intellectual and moral laziness doesn’t occur without causing pain to everyone, and it’s our duty, ultimately, to distribute that pain back toward the airline executives, through the seats of their pants.