18 Oct

Too fat to fly on Alaska Airlines

Please note: This is a personal blog post and not terribly related to public relations. If that’s cool, read on. If not, here’s a bunny with a pancake on its head.

I’m fat. Not in the “self deprecating, say I need to lose 10 lbs even though I really don’t” kind of way. But in the “buy clothes from special stores and websites” kind of way. I have moments where I am suddenly and harshly reminded of my size, like the time I broke a chair in front of some of the world’s most influential consumer taste makers. Or when I couldn’t sit on the chaise lounge at the pool next to my wife.

But while flying back from Las Vegas and BlogWorld 2010, I was reminded of my size in a way I knew would eventually happen, but wasn’t really prepared for. As the plane was still at the gate due to a weather delay, the gate agent appeared next to me. She initiated our interaction by thrusting a pamphlet in my hand.

“Here, I first have to give you this.”

I look down and it is a pamphlet explaining how to buy two seats. The gate agent then says that one of the flight attendants has felt I am too large for the standard coach seat (which I totally am, but that’s not the point of this) and am in violation of the airline’s fat person policy. I ask what the standard is for this determination. “Well, the seats are 17 inches in coach and 22 inches in first class,” she tells me.

That wasn’t my question. What standard was used to determine that I was too big? Simple answer: There isn’t one. Alaska Airlines’ policy is subjective and selectively enforced. Two factors that render any policy completely useless and unfair in my opinion. In order for a policy to be useful, it needs to be objective, measurable and standardized.

The subjective interpretation of comfort is based on an anonymous flight attendant’s theory. And that’s just wrong.

I’m not debating whether or not I am fat. But I am upset by the selective enforcement of this “policy.” I made it clear that there were several other people on the flight that clearly didn’t fit into the 17 luxurious inches coach offers. There was even somebody who clearly didn’t fit in the 22 amazing inches first class offers.

The gate agent then says I can “offer cash to one of the people in first class” in order to switch seats. No. That’s not fair to either of us. How does this conversation go? “Hi, I’m Eric, I’m too fat to fly coach, can I give you $20 to sit in the back with the rest of the unwashed masses?” Nope.

Now, my wife was on the flight as well, along with our infant daughter in first class. I could have simply asked her to switch me and taken care of Kylah myself. But she needed to eat and breast feeding isn’t really conducive to coach. Neither is a diaper change, so I opted to not make her part of this.

Of course I protest. I was pissed about being singled out. I was pissed about the lack of tact displayed by the flight attendants who resorted to anonymously tattling on my fat ass. I am pissed about the lack of class Alaska Airlines shows with its policy. I ask if the person next to me has been consulted in the matter. Of course she hadn’t.

And I had no problem asking her. In fact, my standard airplane boarding practice goes like this: awkward looks from people as I pass their rows. Apologies to whomever is in front of me as they can’t put their seat back, apologies to the person unfortunate enough to be seated next to me and then I humbly ask the nearest attendant for a seat belt extender.

So, my options were now: Pay somebody in first class to switch, get kicked off the plane or force my wife and infant daughter back into coach. Which would you choose? On my way up to discuss the situation with my wife, I pointed out several other people who should also have been forced to buy an additional seat. I was assured that they would be spoken to and presented the same information. Of course this didn’t happen.

After some discussions, the gate agent finally asked my neighbor if she had any problem with her next to me. Luckily she didn’t care and I was free to take my seat and wait out the weather delay. Of course I was embarrassed, agitated and missing my wife who was 27 rows in front of me.

Again, I’m not trying to deny my size. I get it. I don’t fit normal places. Try going to dinner with me and watch me apologize for my knees bumping the table. But what I do have a problem with is the unfair enforcement of an arbitrary rule. If standards exist or something can be uniformly enforced, then I agree with it. Have everyone pass through a 17-inch-wide opening before they get on the plane for all I care. Just be consistent.

So, Alaska Airlines, what do you say? I don’t want you to fix it for me. I want you to fix it for everyone.

32 thoughts on “Too fat to fly on Alaska Airlines

  1. I completely agree with you and your comments around standardization. My situation is different but suffers from the same subjective enforcement. I have medically required carry on baggage. When I’m last to board on a full flight, guess what? Because carry-on baggage restrictions are not consistently enforced there’s no room for my equipment. And like you, there aren’t a lot of options. Either comply and fly or don’t fly.

    I am personally disgusted with the inconsitent, subjective enforcement of policies and rules. I’m also angry and frustrated that there is absolutely no recourse. The airlines don’t care. And if you get too angry (also subjective) at an airport they will remove you as a flight risk.

  2. Thank you for being the great man that you are. This has been my fear for some 50 years. And now I have a son that I fear for as well. I am proud of you for standing up for “US” and the way that we are. I have purchased those 2 tickets ahead of time just to avoid the embaracement that you experienced. The last time that I so luxuriously sat in my 2 seats, I was indeed sitting next to a gentleman that had had a liquid lunch, no recent shower and a cigar for dessert. When I expressed my concern to the attendant I was treated like a second class citizen with a chip on my shoulder and assured that they would not have allowed him to board the plane if there was any indication that he was not fit to travel. Excuse me! I reaked by the time the flight ended and had a contact high too.

    I so feel your pain. Don’t let this get swept under the Alaskan Airline rug.

  3. Great post, Eric, and as a tall guy with a few extra pounds, I can appreciate your sentiments here. I’m always very conscious of other passengers and go out of my way to ensure that they have enough space – even if they’re 5’3 and 110lbs. At 6’5″, I have very little room to spare…but I pull my arms in, butt all the way back and slouch my shoulders…my discomfort ensures others might be comfortable…and I’m okay with that. Just so long as airlines don’t start enforcing a height restriction!

    1. Hi Dave, Thanks for the comment. I think in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I’m 6’8 and about 450 lbs. I was 6’5 in high school and flying then was misery…

  4. Eric, what do you suggest the standard to be that is measurable? The only thing that I can think of is something similar to a bag dimension sign and sizing display, where a mock seat be available to test passengers? This seems like about the most public/degrading thing possible, but I’m honestly trying to conceive of an objective standard that could be used.

    1. I don’t know. That’s why there’s teams of people to make these policies. I just feel that it is a bit too arbitrary as it is written. Part of me would be OK with having an actual standard like that.

      Takes the guessing game out of it.

  5. Hi Eric-

    My name is Elliott and I manage social media for Alaska Airlines.

    You and I both spoke earlier yesterday via phone and I wanted to respond publicly on behalf of Alaska Airlines.

    First, I’m sorry the situation was not presented to you in a more sensitive manner. I’m disheartened you were left feeling Alaska Airlines’ policy is inconsistent. We’ve had a second seat policy for several years and post this to our Web site to take the guess work out this for our customers and employees alike.

    In your blog post, you ask “what is the criteria” that drives a second seat purchase? Alaska Airlines’ second seat policy is :

    “Alaska Airlines requires the purchase of an additional seat for any customer who cannot comfortably fit within one seat with the armrests in the down position.”

    “If a customer is unable to place the armrests in the down position, that customer will be required to purchase a second seat. If the flight is not full, customers can receive a refund of the second seat charge for that portion of their trip.”


    As to whether enforcement is arbitrary; we stand by our policy as the determining factor. It sounds like this wasn’t communicated to you and for that I am sorry. I know that you’ve been able to share your experience in detail with one of our Customer Care representatives. We’ve elevated your experience and want to ensure you that we’ll be doing an internal review and follow-up with our employees at the Las Vegas airport.

    Again, I’m sorry about this experience.


    Elliott Pesut

    1. For the record, I do fit into one seat with the armrest down. I did it in front of the gate agent. But because the person next to me shifted, the gate agent still felt I was in violation of the policy.

      Elliott, I appreciate the response here. Comfort is subjective. What if the person next to me stinks? Or is coughing? Or is high? I wouldn’t be comfortable in my own seat, armrests up, down or missing. By this definition, I would have to purchase a second seat. To me, this policy is one of logistics and, possibly, safety (As an aside, I believe the FAA prohibits those of us needing a seatbelt extender to fly in exit rows). As such, it should be absolute.

      Or, at a minimum, uniformly enforced.

  6. I don’t think I have ever had a problem with the person next to me when flying. It is always the person in front or behind me that is the problem. And even then its usually because of smell, loudness, rudeness or being inappropriate. Not because of size. I understand that we are given 4″ of space to move in and out of seats. People who complain because you accidentally hit their seat while trying to get out and use the restroom obviously hate their lives.

    What were we doing five years ago when airlines didn’t have policies like this? Oh yeah, not caring.

    P.S. been reading your stuff for while now, keep up the good work!

  7. Eric,
    Sorry you were treated so poorly. No one deserves that.

    I agree with Jeremiah that a key point is our acceptance of the reduction of comfort over the years to meet an airline’s profitability. I’m far from being svelte and when I’m sitting next to a large fellow, I get mad with the airline, not with my neighbor.

    I hope Alaska Air takes the time to comment here on its ill and subjective actions.

  8. What a crappy way to end BlogWorld. I’m sorry you and your family had to go through this situation. My comment is actually very off topic: I actually came across your post as I was looking at your profile to send you a DM to apologize that we didn’t meet up at BWE. I had to leave early, so we ended up missing each other. I do hope you enjoyed the show (prior to the travel mess) — and hope we’ll meet IRL sometime soon! 🙂


  9. I was there. Saw the deal go down from my relatively lower perch a couple rows back behind Eric. I agree with him that if you’re going to enforce a change it has to be enforced by a preexisting, qualifiable policy. That’s just good business. It protects the agents (in this case flight attendants) who have to make the enforcement happen and it doesn’t make the customer feel singled out, which is what ticked Eric off.

    1. Yeah, I’m sorry that you had to witness that. I was pretty close to snapping on the poor gate agent that had to deal with me.

  10. Eric, Bummer you had to go through that. I think you are a bit hard on yourself. You are big and maybe even overweight, but I think Fat isn’t exactly the right word. Even at an “ideal weight” and height a 17″ seat might be a bit awkward for someone with your build or say someone who isn’t a tiny italian man. It’s part of why I hate what the airlines have done with their seating. It is hard enough when you are of average size to sit comfortably on an alaska flight. Worse than that even the luxury of First class on alaska is tiny compared to some airlines. I can think of a few airlines where you don’t have to ask another first class passenger to get up if you need a restroom visit.

    The problem comes down to continued reduction in the quality of the experience to put profitability first and people second. Once past the security gate you are no longer a person or even a passenger; your cattle. They treat you like it and we humbly accept it. You cant expect them to handle your situation with much more grace they do any of the other indignities of flying coach.

    1. Thanks Jeremiah. I’m hoping that at a minimum this helps them consider that this policy is not fair.

  11. Yeah I am with you…and seriously, the policy should be clear…and not just for Alaska, but for all airlines. You just happened to be on Alaska when it happened, but this is probably an industry-wide problem that needs to be addressed! If you don’t know what a policy is, how on earth can you make sure to act within it?

  12. I’m torn on this at a personal & business level.

    If I was Alaska Air or the passenger who is pushing the limits I would *want* it to be subjective. Why? Because the reason it is subjective is so that if you have a half-full flight no one is going to enforce it. That’s good for you. How do you ‘standardize’ body size and types? That would seem pretty humiliating to me, it’s like having a rack like they do with carry-ons “If your ass doesn’t fit in here then you must check it”. Can you imagine?

    It seems to me that if you know you are in a group that is subject to being called out for needing two seats that you either buy the two seats and the peace of mind that comes with that, or you don’t and hope that you don’t get called out this time (and the stress that can come with that)

    As to the point of no one complaining. I simply can’t agree with you there. I had the most miserable flight on my way to blogworld because the person who was in the middle seat was simply too fat for it and I was pressed up against the wall for almost 4 hours with no chance of escape. But would I complain about that and hurt this poor woman’s feelings? Not in a million years, neither would most other people. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t miserable, simply that I’m not a dickhead. But is it fair that I paid the same amount for a ticket as everyone else but have to have my experience restricted? You are an exception to the ‘norm’ that the business is built around. That means exceptional rules apply. If you are infringing on the experience of others around you, and you want the right to continue to do so without exception, then yes, you *are* expecting special treatment and concessions. You did so when your seat neighbor was put on the spot (unfairly) and asked if they had an issue with it.

    It totally and completely sucks. But I don’t see a lot of other options here.

    1. I understand that I’m the one in the wrong here. I try to be as accommodating as I can when I fly, knowing that I am going to interfere with the people unfortunate enough to be next to me. But I also take steps to alleviate the uncomfort. I’ve bought drinks, spent the majority of flights standing near the rest rooms etc…

      Your point about empty seats is completely logical as well. But the guidelines of who has to do it should be absolute. If you are X” wide, buy two seats. We’ll refund the second one if we need to. In this case, the rule is about the perceived size and comfort of the passenger and the ability to fit into the seat, which I technically can. The other problem is that if you measured the average adult male, their shoulders would be more than 17″wide, which is the coach seat standard…

  13. Yeah I hear you, but I don’t think it’s like the police officer example. When you point out other people who are also breaking the rule, then it is like getting pulled over for speeding and saying “You shouldn’t give me a ticket, look at that car, and that other car…they are speeding too.” The point is, if YOU are speeding and YOU get a ticket, it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing – you went against what you knew was wrong.

    When you said “Something I knew I’d face eventually” on Twitter, to me it implied that you knew you might be breaking that rule or possibly making the passenger next to you uncomfortable.

    I also agree with you though that if the rule isn’t crystal clear, that it should be amended. It should be something where it is measurable, and either you are breaking the rule or you aren’t. No judgment call. Then you know – if you break this measurable rule, you must buy a second seat, no questions asked. If you aren’t, then you don’t. Then there is no embarrassment, hurt feelings, or feeling singled out.

    To Greg though, it shouldn’t have to be something that a fellow passenger needs to bitch about – I know I’d feel bad reporting that kind of thing and I’d just keep my mouth shut and have an uncomfortable flight rather than possibly make the person feel bad. So yeah, the policy should be updated to be clear and easy for all to understand and take action on themselves!

    1. Andru, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I try to be as courteous as I can be. I do not expect special treatment or concessions because of my size. In this case, I did not know what exactly the policy is (I still kind of don’t) and if they had a standard (speed limit) then I probably wouldn’t have been in coach (sped).

      As I mention in the post, If I am sat next to a person, the first thing I do is apologize. To date, nobody has complained to me directly or through the stewardess about my size, including the BOS >> SEA flight where I was the middle seat.

  14. It’s a shame that this had to happen to you in such a manner man. You’re one of the kindest people I know and you did not deserve that treatment.

    Alaska Air needs to make some changes to their policy asap or they could have a big PR problem on their hands.

    1. Well, coach isn’t conducive to much, but yes, that was a stream of consciousness error on my part. Thanks Scott for pointing that out.

  15. Dude –

    First, an odd question, but hopefully one that’ll get a chuckle — wtf are you doing flying Alaska Air from Seattle to Vegas?


    Anyway – you’re totally right. Assuming you flew the same airline down you were entitled to receive the same kind of treatment on the way down as the return trip. That you didn’t is proof that their standard is completely arbitrary and therefore not a standard at all but at the whims of the flight staff.

    And there is no way for you to not come off as a raving lunatic – afterall then you become a security threat.

    In all honesty, once you cross the baggage check zone you’re a commodity to the airlines – almost literally.

    It’s truly a shame, and really shouldn’t have happened to a chap like yourself.

    1. I’ve been a loyal Alaska Air customer for more than five years. And yes, I realize I am at the mercy of the system, which is part of why it’s frustrating.

    1. The policy is so subjective that I have no idea what triggers the policy and what is cause for enforcing it.

  16. that sucks.
    if i was singled out, i’d want a tape measure and some hard numbers/stats in their policy.
    you should write a song and post it on youtube.

    1. It’s kind of like getting pulled over and the police officer saying “I think you were speeding because your car looks fast.” Hopefully change can happen…

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