Friendly Skies Not So Friendly for the Fat Traveler

UPDATE: There’s a petition that’s been started on the subject here. click for link.

I’ll continue to update this as I receive responses. I’m optimistic that someday United Airlines will see the error of their ways.

I know this isn’t about fibro, exactly, but traveling is stressful (and painful) enough without worrying about fat-hatred from the airlines.

United has a new fat-hating policy on their airline:

Under the new policy, obese passengers — defined as unable to lower the arm rest and buckle a seat belt with one extension belt — will still be reaccommodated, at no extra charge, to two empty seats if there is space available.

If, however, the airplane is full, they will be bumped from the flight and may have to purchase a second ticket, at the same price as the original fare, Urbanski said.

there’s a great blog post about it here:
http://kateharding.net/2009/04/16/funited/

i wrote a short bitter note to United and got a response.

my note:

I am shocked and disgusted at your new discriminatory policy regarding
reseating or removing “obese” passengers from flights. I find this
policy to be clearly bigoted against people of size when your seats are
clearly undersized for the average size of the population. Not only is
this just an offensive policy in general, but it’s also sexist, as your
policy implies that people with larger hips will have the biggest
problem meeting your ridiculous size requirements. People with larger
hips tend to be women, so again: not only is this police sizeist, but
it’s sexist, too. your “customer commitment” website states “In the air
and on the ground, online and on the telephone, our customers have the
right to expect * to demand * respect, courtesy, fairness and honesty
from the airline they have selected for travel.” Obviously United has
decided to be anything but respectful, courteous or fair to fat people.
(At least you’re honest about what you’ll do to us, though , so I’ll
give you that.) Consequently, I’ve decided to select another airline for
travel. I travel several times per year, as do my friends and family,
and I can assure you that NONE of us will EVER choose to fly United so
long as this policy is in place, and not before you issue an apology for
your anti-fat policies.

their response:

Dear Ms. F,

I regret to learn the disappointment you have expressed in your email
regarding our new Seat Policy.

Ms. F, please know that we care about the comfort and well-being of
all of our passengers throughout their travel on United. This policy
will enable us to ensure a comfortable travel experience for everyone
onboard. This policy matches what is already in place at other U.S.
airlines.

Let me apprise you that we received almost 700 complaints in 2008 from
passengers who did not have a comfortable flight because the person next
to them infringed on their seat. This policy addresses that feedback.
This policy will also allow our front-line employees to reference a
clear policy when these situations occur.

Additionally, our higher management team in United Airlines Headquarters
that reviews our policies, is monitoring customers’ comments regularly.
I have shared your comments in a report with them for their information
and thorough internal review. Based on customer feedback such as yours,
they are able to identify areas to make necessary procedural changes,
wherever and whenever possible.

Please know that all of us at United are firmly committed to our most
important asset – you. It is always a privilege to serve you.

Regards,

Saurabh Kumar Srivastava
United Airlines Customer Relations

My response:

Thank you for your unhelpful response.

You stated that you care about the comfort and well-being of all your passengers. This is in great contradiction to what happens when you decide to enforce your new policy by singling out a fat passenger, telling her that she is too “obese” to remain in her seat, and must be reseated or, worse, must be removed from her flight, forced to buy a second ticket, and be inconvenienced not just financially, but by her forced schedule changes, as well as the cruel and undignified experience of being told she’s too fat for the flight.

You claim you have had 700 complaints last year from passengers who had the horrible misfortune of being seated next to a fat passenger. Can you tell me how many passengers flew on your airlines last year? By comparison, I suspect 700 is a ridiculously small percentage of people. I’m also curious how many complaints you receive about screaming babies and ill-behaved children on your flights. Personally, I have had plenty of flights ruined by people’s offspring, but I understand this is one of the chances one takes when flying. Just like I take the chance I could be seated next to someone with offensive body odor, a contagious illness, or loud snoring (all of which has actually happened). When will you start charging more for screaming babies, foul body odor, excess germs, or loud snoring?

Or, better yet, why don’t you tell those 700 complainers that if they don’t like taking the chance that they may be seated next to someone they don’t like, they should be the ones to be reseated, removed from their flight, or forced to buy a first class seat? Let’s assume that for the 700 people who complained about fat seatmates, you had 700 fat paying passengers. Did you receive 700 (or more) complaints that your seats are ridiculously small and uncomfortable? I suspect not, because that’s common sense when flying: overpriced undersized seats.

I’m glad to hear you’ve forwarded my complaints on to people who may actually care someday, when fat travelers all over the country stop putting up with your bigoted policies and fly friendlier airlines, or avoid the unfriendly skies altogether. I’m actually flying in about a week, on April 28th, and again on May 4th. I’m relieved to say I will NOT be flying United, and as I’ve said before, I will not ever fly United until this policy changes. The same goes for my husband, my family, friends, and anyone who asks me for travel advice.

I hope someday you realise that size prejudice is unacceptable and that fat dollars are worth just as much as thin dollars.

Sincerely,
Jennifer

their response:

Dear Ms. F,

I’m sorry you’re dissatisfied with our response.

Ms. F, we recognize we have many complicated rules and processes. We agree some are difficult to understand, and we often review our policies. So, your comments are important and helpful. While I can’t undo the circumstances you are disappointed with, I commit to you that United is dedicated to providing you the service you expect.

Your feedback – whether positive or negative – makes a difference. It lets us know what we need to consider in order to earn your future friendship and support. Please give us another opportunity to serve you better.

Regards,

Saurabh Kumar Srivastava
United Airlines Customer Relations

my response:

I will be happy to give you another opportunity to serve my family, friends, and me better when you change your policies to be less prejudiced towards large people.

In the meantime, I recommend that you look into the legal ramifications of discriminating against people based on their size, and consider taking the initiative to be a leader in your industry (at least in the United States) and look into how Canada is providing equal treatment for their larger and disabled airline customers. I have provided links below for your convenience.

http://www.michigan.gov/homeland/0,1607,7-173-23583_23678-16288–,00.html

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22599803/

Sincerely,
Jennifer

EDIT: i received a response from United (i actually thought he’d given up).

Dear Ms. F,

I am sorry you continue to be disappointed with United.

Ms. F, every year United serves millions of people representing cultures all around the world. United is strongly committed to the equal and appropriate treatment of its customers. Our company philosophy does not condone acts of, and strictly prohibits, discrimination or discriminatory practices of any sort. We maintain a strong corporate commitment to a simple value to recognize, respect and support our customers and our employees. Please be assured we continually evaluate the products and services to ensure we are offering those that our customers most value. We know we can’t take your business for granted. We must earn it and we will work harder to do just that.

We appreciate your business. Your feedback will make a difference and will help us evaluate our decisions that impact your choice of airline.

Regards,

Saurabh Kumar Srivastava
United Airlines Customer Relations

my response:

I appreciate your response and continuing to discuss this very disturbing matter with me.

Since you’ve pointed out that United is strongly committed to equal and appropriate treatment of its customers and does not condone (and actually prohibits) discrimination of any sort, I hope that you are able to see your company’s admirable stance on discrimination is clearly in direct opposition to its very own policy– the policy dictating that United employees are to discriminate against customers based on their size.

Additionally, I’d like to point out that you’ve said you received 700 complaints about customers who were upset by being seated next to a fat passenger. In your response, you said you serve millions of people all over the world. I’d like to conservatively estimate that by “millions of people,” you mean 2,000,000 exactly (multiple millions). If 700 of those customers complained, that is actually less than four one-hundredths of a percent of your customer base (0.035%) were offended by having to share your obscenely small seating arrangements with a fat passenger. I’m curious to know how many customers have complained about your small seating in general (rather than specifically about fat passengers, which I am assuming was the impetus behind your new discriminatory policy). I also wonder how many fat people and fat advocates are speaking up right now about your anti-fat policy. Is that more than 700?

If United requires less than 0.05% of its customers to complain in order for a policy to be created, I can’t help but imagine United is years overdue to renovate its seating on its planes to better accommodate the United States’ average body size.

I certainly hope you forward my emails to those who are responsible for rescinding erroneous policies like the one we’re discussing. I am optimistic that United will someday understand that discrimination of all people, including fat people, is still discrimination and therefore not acceptable if the company wishes to retain customers.

Sincerely,
Jennifer

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9 Responses to “Friendly Skies Not So Friendly for the Fat Traveler”

  1. Sweet Machine Says:

    Well done! You are very eloquent and relentlessly logical.

  2. wendy Says:

    Wow, I can’t imagine such a volley of emails from a corporation…

    I found your blog through fatshionista, may I follow it?

    Wendy
    (Rainbowthespian most everywhere else on the internet)

  3. pnts Says:

    I’m totally late to the party (I didn’t know you blogged here!) but I will join you in boycotting United. I’ve never had a good flying experience with them (80% of the time my luggage winds up in a different city), but these policies are extremely hypocritical and offensive. As you already stated, their seats are small to begin with – this is really a design problem that the airline needs to address, not a policy problem. I haven’t flown United for over five years, and I will continue to boycott them and make sure my friends and family do too.

    • fibrofatty Says:

      pnts!! thank you for your comment!

      You know, it’s been a few months now, and I haven’t seen or heard any follow up to this. I suspect United hasn’t changed a thing. I hope they realise they’ve lost customers over this.

  4. humanbeing Says:

    I really want to thank you for this post. I, too, have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I know my health in general would be better if I lost weight, but I haven’t been able to, as yet. I see this as a personal situation/challenge and no one else’s business. Ever since 2006, I have started to have trouble with discrimination by airlines and have experienced a great deal of pain, humiliation, discomfort and anguish as a result. American airplane seats in economy class are not, in general, comfortable for any human — even if the width is OK, the legroom is non-existent and when the person in front of you reclines their seat, you end up with your knees up around your ears and forget being able to use your tray table!

    In 2006, I had to fly across the country to deal with a parental health emergency and I was terrified and upset. I was told I couldn’t sit in an exit row if I required a seatbelt extender. No one could explain to me how being large made it impossible for me to help out in case of an emergency. Luckily, I just barely fit into the seat with no extender, but it was painful. Since then, I’ve found that it’s the luck of the draw whether you have to interact with a kind or supercilious flight attendant in this situation. I’m very grateful to the kind ones, but I’m also angry that I have to pray for pity as if I were a leper.

    It’s very clear to me that airlines have made seats narrower in order to maximize profits and are now victimizing passengers because of their own greed. Last spring, just as United was implementing their new second seat policy (I didn’t find out about that until afterward) I was treated abominably at an airline boarding gate. I was recovering from a broken ankle and had availed myself of airport wheelchair assistance to get to the boarding area. The boarding attendant called me up to the desk to confirm that I would be able to board early and then suddenly looked me up and down and told me loudly that if I couldn’t fit into my seat, I’d have to buy another or be left behind. At first, I couldn’t figure out what she was saying — it seemed so random and out of the blue. I politely asked why she was saying this to me when she had no idea whether I might have any trouble fitting into my seat. We had an increasingly heated exchange because she had no idea how to handle the situation diplomatically and just kept repeating the rule without trying to speak like a human being. I asked why this was being done before I boarded rather than at a time when it might be determined that there was a problem and also whether she was making this scene based only on my appearance. The whole scene was being observed by everyone in the small boarding area. I felt as humiliated and angry as if I had been spat on in public. As usual, I barely fit into my seat, with pain and discomfort. And to top it off, the flight was sparsely filled and I had a row to myself, which this boarding attendant could see perfectly well — there had been absolutely no reason to embarrass me. I realized that this was a very inept employee trying to carry out her orders in a clumsy way; this was a brand-new policy and she felt she had to implement it. I was angry at her for being so insensitive, but I didn’t blame her, I blamed the airline.

    When I got home, I had a day off from work, and I spend it trying to find out why this had happened. I found out about Southwest and the unsuccessful lawsuit against them, I found out about United’s new policy, I found out that this was an issue being discussed on flight attendants’ forums, passengers’ forums, etc. I cold-called a public relations person at the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance and she sounded very discouraged and resigned about the whole issue. She did provide info on how this is a gender issue because men who have large bellies can be perfectly OK as long as they have a seatbelt extender, but many women carry their weight lower so seat width is more of an issue for us. I called the ACLU in NYC and was told that this was not an issue they considered worthy of exploring.

    In August, I was flying to LA and was fortunate enough to fly Virgin America for the first time. I called in advance and they told me their seats were a little wider. They were still not totally comfortable (I’ve sat in First Class ONCE and I know what a truly luxurious seat is like!) but they were human-sized and that was felt like a miracle! Whenever I can, I will fly Virgin America because they treat me like a human being. Unfortunately, I will be traveling over the holidays to a destination they don’t fly into and may have to fly United again as it is almost the only airline that flies into that airport.

    The comments on this post http://www.smartertravel.com/blogs/today-in-travel/man-misses-funeral-after-southwest-kicks-him-off.html?id=3873157&source=dealalert&value=2009-11-25+00%3A00%3A00&u=379DEFFB1D show how much hatred there is out there for larger people. I’m sorry to ramble so much and use the comment area of your post to do so, but this is one of the first and only places I’ve found online so far where there is some sympathy and understanding about this issue, and I feel like I’ve just been given a lifeline. Congratulations to you on this determined and fact-filled and reasonable exchange of letters. United doesn’t care, I know, and will only care if they truly start to lose profits, but your correspondence gave me comfort and inspiration to keep speaking out about this.

    I am a polite, clean, educated, courteous human being and I’m tired of being thought of as a monster by people like those commenters at Smarter Travel and flight attendants I’ve seen quoted in forums who really think they have the right to blame me for existing as a larger person.

    • fibrofatty Says:

      thank you so much for your comment, but I’m so sorry you’ve had such terrible travel experiences! I’m going to keep Virgin in mind if I travel in the future (although honestly, this whole thing makes me never want to fly again! My husband and I took Amtrak recently and it was so wonderful– comfortable ample seats, tray tables with plenty of room, no security humiliation, wide aisles, etc).

      Regardless of whether or not an individual would be healthier if they lost weight, or should lose weight, or if they just believe in Health At Every Size and try to be healthy where they’re at, it’s not an airline employee’s job to tell us these things. It’s their job to treat us at they’d treat any passenger, of any size or ability.

      Would you mind sharing the name of the airline you flew in 2006? I certainly would never spend hard earned money on an airline that treated even a stranger that poorly.

      Thank you again for sharing your story. No one has the right to treat you like that, and we should not stand for it.

  5. humanbeing Says:

    Thank you for your kindness — it feels incredibly healing after seeing the hateful comments at other sites. I wish I could remember the name of that airline in 2006, but I was flying to help my mom recover from a stroke and most memories of that trip have been wiped out by the challenges that followed (she’s in really good shape now, btw!) The experience with United this last spring (whoever called it profiling is exactly right!) was by far the worst I’ve had so far. It really does look like I’ll have to fly them over this holiday season and I’m dreading it. If we had an affordable high-speed rail system in this country, I would never fly again! Trains are the best.

    I wish I hadn’t found it too late to sign the petition you link to. Was that submitted?

    I love the way you write about this issue and you’re right, no one should be treated the way the airlines have been treating larger passengers. It seems, alas, as if fat people are the only group about which our society still feels comfortable expressing open hatred. But I am very happy to have found a few sites (I came over here from fatshionista) that take a different stance.

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