Fri. Apr 19th, 2024

Kimmy Garris, who describes herself as a “fat solo traveler,” probably had no idea that her 30-second TikTok video was going to cause a sensation when she recorded herself in September politely asking a Southwest Airlines gate agent if she could avail herself of the airline’s “customer of size” policy.

Her TikTok post went viral because of what happened next.

The gate agent hands Garris an extra boarding pass, she walks onto the plane, asks for a seat-belt extender, takes a window seat and places the extra boarding pass in the middle seat.

Opinion Columnist

Robin Abcarian

“If anyone tries to sit in it,” she wrote, “I kindly let them know I have two seats booked. To be honest, I almost never get approached because no one wants to sit in the middle seat next to a fat person on a plane.”

You were expecting some kind of made-for-social-media airplane meltdown, right? The video went viral, I think, because people have been shocked and delighted that an airline can be so accommodating and empathetic.

“Southwest is the only airline that allows you a second seat at no extra cost even if the flight is FULLY booked,” wrote Garris, who was traveling from her home in Nashville to Los Angeles.

Garris has invoked the policy a dozen times, she noted, and has “never had an issue or been denied.”

Crazily enough, Southwest says its “customer of size” policy has been in effect for three decades. Large people can purchase a second seat in advance, and Southwest will refund the cost of the extra seat after the flight. No matter the demand for seats on that flight, the free extra seat is guaranteed. Or, if there is room on the flight, passengers can simply ask at the gate, as Garris did, for an extra seat. They also get pre-board privileges.

“The armrest,” says the official Southwest policy, “is the definitive gauge for a Customer of size. It serves as the boundary between seats. If you’re unable to lower both armrests and/or encroach upon any portion of a seat next to you, you need a second seat.”

I don’t know which gods are smiling on Southwest, but Garris’ TikTok post could not have come at a better moment for the beleaguered Dallas-based airline.

This week, Southwest was slammed with the highest fine ever imposed on an airline by the Department of Transportation — $140 million — for its spectacular holiday 2022 operational meltdown that led to the cancellation of nearly 17,000 flights and stranded more than 2 million passengers. (Garris told me she hadn’t heard the news.)

Of course, not everyone is happy that Southwest gives fat people a free extra seat.

“I have gotten a lot of backlash,” Garris said. “People are upset that I am stealing a seat from a skinny person. It’s a Catch-22: ‘You are disgusting and I don’t want to sit next to you, but you are stealing a seat.’ You can’t have it both ways.”

Traveling while fat can be a miserable experience.

“A few years ago, I was in coach in a middle seat. I was so uncomfortable, and the guy next to me was texting about me: ‘I have this fat girl sitting next to me.’ I was mortified,” said Katie Sturino, 43, a popular content creator and influencer who founded Megababe, a cosmetics company that sells products that help with chafing thighs, boob sweat and body odor.

Last week, Sturino, who describes herself as a “body acceptance advocate” lauded Southwest for its policy. “Bravo Southwest,” she said on Instagram. “It’s a kind and generous policy.”

Over Zoom from New York, she told me, “I think it’s acknowledging a reality, which is that in America, the majority of our country is larger. There are some people whose bodies absolutely don’t fit into an airplane seat. It’s a people-over-profit move that’s getting Southwest a lot of love. Other airlines should take notice.”

Other airlines do allow large passengers to purchase a second seat, but none offers to refund the cost afterward.

There is a lot we don’t know about obesity, but one thing is certain: It is certainly not a choice.

Recent scientific consensus says that obesity is a disease with many contributing factors. Regardless of the cause, a large percentage of Americans are considered obese. The Trust for America’s Health, a nonpartisan public health policy and advocacy organization, estimates that nearly 42% of adults are obese and that nearly 20% of children between 2 and 19 are obese. People of color experience the highest rates of obesity, “often due to structural barriers to healthy eating and a lack of opportunities and places to be physically active.”

Last spring, the plus-size travel blogger and self-described “fat activist” Jae’lynn Chaney, who says she is a size 6X, started a Change.org petition demanding that the Federal Aviation Administration require airlines to give larger passengers as many free extra seats as they need to fly comfortably.

“The industry needs to realize that the average woman is no longer a size 14,” Chaney told BuzzFeed last year. “They are now a size 18 and beyond. Yet, as we’ve gotten bigger, things like airplane seats, clothing and everything else has gotten small or stayed the exact same.”

The FAA does not mandate seat sizes, and it has focused instead on whether smaller seats impede evacuations in the event of an emergency. So far, there is no proof that they do.

Garris, 31, who loves traveling, told me that during her 20s, she wouldn’t fly because of her size. “I would think, ‘I am too big, let me lose weight first, I’m not going to fit.’ I got tired of waiting, and I decided to travel and share my experiences.”

Now, said Garris, who recently began taking aerialist classes, “I’m finding joyful ways to live in the world.”

Just as all people deserve joy, all people deserve to fly in comfort, whether they take up one seat or two.

Or, hell, even three.

@robinkabcarian

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