27 February, 2015

Today I was flying to Los Angeles, well, Burbank, via San Francisco on United Airlines. The flight was completely full, and before and during the boarding process we were repeatedly reminded that all carry-on luggage had to meet the strict measurement requirements, and that if it didn’t, it would be taken from us and gate-checked. I have no problem with this. Frankly, whenever I watch some passenger trying to squeeze a bag too big to fit into the overhead I wish the airlines would actually enforce their carry-on rules all the time; which would make life easier for us all. Of course I also realize that now that they charge for every checked bag, passengers are incentivized to only use carry on luggage, so the two ideals are at permanent odds with each other.

Anyway, I boarded the plane, took my window seat (the man in the aisle seat was already settled), and waited. And that’s when I saw her heading down the aisle… a morbidly obese woman (hardly the only one on the plane). But looking at this particular one, I had a premonition. Yes, there were still many empty seats ahead of my row, and a dozen rows of seats behind mine, but I knew. I knew as well as I knew my name that this mountain was heading to the middle seat in row 26. Why can’t my intuition work this well when I’m choosing lottery numbers or calling for one more card at a Blackjack table?

The man on the aisle stood and stepped aside to let the woman into our row. The woman, I’m going to name her Mrs. Jumbo, like Dumbo’s mother in the Disney animated movie. Mrs. Jumbo barely managed to squeeze her way past the now empty aisle seat, then positioned herself in front of her middle seat and eased her extremely wide and ample butt down. Well, “eased” is hardly the operative word… “forced” is probably more appropriate, the way one forces sausage into a casing or one of Cinderella’s sisters’ feet into the glass slipper. The arms of the seat served as something like a girdle but all that flesh had to go somewhere. And where it went was into about a quarter of my seat (and I’m assuming into about a quarter of the man on the aisle’s seat, as well), bulldozing my much narrower hips up against the wall of the plane. “Breathe, Michael,” I could hear Richard, my late partner whispering in my ear.

But Mrs. Jumbo wasn’t done settling in. Her hips having spread themselves out like floodwaters rushing to fill every available space, now there was the upper body. At rest, her upper arm (which was almost the size of my well-worked out thighs) encroached into a quarter of the air space designated to my seat… at rest, the only place for her forearms to light was the the first three and a half inches of my tray table… so much for me doing any work. And when she tried to read or eat or get something out of the large handbag that spent the flight on the mound which on a human-sized person would be a lap, instead of taking up a quarter of my area, she fully encroached on half of it.

Richard’s voice be damned, my every impulse was to scream, “Get your fat self the hell out of my space!” But then I envisioned my words escalating into an altercation that would wind up with the Sky Marshalls or FBI removing me from the plane to the delight of YouTube watchers for the rest of eternity. So, instead, using the airplane wall for support, I planted my left foot on the ground and pushed back. She didn’t move (frankly there was nowhere for her to move to). I’m not sure she even felt it (does fat have nerve endings?), but it made me feel better. And I scowled. And rolled my eyes a lot. Again, she seemed oblivious. Or perhaps decades of morbid obesity had inured her to the looks and comments of others. Or maybe she didn’t care about how much she was inconveniencing me (and the man in the aisle seat) any more than she cared about her own looks or health.

Now before anyone starts yammering about me having issues with fat people, or bemoaning the fact that prejudice against fat people is the last socially acceptable prejudice, let me make one thing perfectly clear (without even mentioning that I have friends who are fat… okay, I hear you, “some of my best friends…?!”). This is not about Mrs. Jumbo being fat. I don’t care how fat she is. I don’t care how much fatter she gets. I don’t care if she’s fat because she has a chemical or hormonal imbalance, or a glandular condition. I don’t care if she’s fat because she’s on medication. I don’t care if she used to be three hundred pounds fatter and is slowly but surely working her way down to a size that doesn’t need to be weighed on an industrial scale. I don’t care if she’s fat because she just never saw a morsel of food she didn’t feel the need to immediately ingest; and having watched her vacuum up the sandwich she pulled out of her pocketbook, and eye the one I slowly ate, my guess is the only glands at play here are the salivary ones.

What I care about is I had to spend a five-plus hour flight from Newark to San Francisco wedged up against the wall of the plane, feeling a mountain of wool-encased blubber pressed up against my left hip and leg. What I care about is that I could not change the channel or adjust the volume for my in-flight entertainment because Mrs. Jumbo’s flesh had engulfed the arm rest that housed the controls… much the way the Blob engulfed everything it came in contact with in the 1958 Steve McQueen movie. I care that it was only by contorting myself into a tiny corner of my allotted seat that I could avoid becoming engulfed like the unfortunate arm rest. I care that I paid for a seat and wound up with something between a half and three-quarters of a seat, whereas Mrs. Jumbo paid for a seat and wound up with something between one and a half and two seats (based on my assumption that her left side oozed over as much as her right side).

I realize that to squeeze in more passengers the airlines are making seats narrower and leg room almost non-existent. And I realize that they are doing this at the same time that 68.3% of Americans are overweight and 35.7% are clinically obese (and that those percentages are rising). But none of that should be my problem.

If the airlines are willing and able to set and (at times) enforce a rule that says bags measuring more than 22 inches can not be carried on… if they can have the necessary tools to measure the size of a questionable bag, and determine whether or not it can be placed in the overhead compartment, if they can say, “I’m sorry, that bag is too big to be put in the overhead compartment, you will have to check it,” then they should also be able to measure the width of a questionable passenger and say, “I’m sorry, those hips are too wide to fit in a coach seat. You will either have to purchase a second seat or upgrade yourself to Business or First Class where the seats are wider.”