4 lessons this chubby flyer learned from 15 years in the air

Jul 29, 2020

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I’ve traveled to more than 40 countries, and have come to realize the nuances of getting from A to B as a plus-size traveler differ massively from a “normal” sized person. Yet, it’s hard to access the information because very few airlines are currently trying to tap into the needs of the chubby traveler. Airline marketing is still churning out stock photos of sculpted, slim people staring out plane windows. Plus-size people are totally omitted from the public narrative, generating the misconception that we shouldn’t take up space in the travel arena.

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Jeffrey Jenkins -- Chubby Diaries
(Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Jenkins, ChubbyDiaries.com)

We’re surprisingly invisible in some ways

Our invisibility in the aviation industry is very much disconnected from our day-to-day reality. There are 128 million (42%) chubby (obese) people in America today, so we’re literally everywhere! Potentially, we’re a huge — and valuable — chunk of the tourism pie. As a body-activist, influencer and avid explorer, I intentionally put myself in front of the camera to show others they can live their life now and not wait until they hit their ideal weight before hopping on a plane.

Then there are the head games we have to play

The mental gymnastics for plus-size people to even board a plane, let alone zipline through a cloud forest in Costa Rica, is a huge deterrent for plus-size individuals. First, there are practical issues: Will I fit in the seat? What if the seat belt won’t stretch out enough? How can my big clothing items fit in this micro-carry on?

To a large extent, these points are ironed out through trial-and-error. I’ve educated myself on how every airline’s policy accommodates plus-size travelers. I can reel off commercial airline seating dimensions and have an eagle-eye for spotting an empty row and bagging the window or aisle seat.

Then there’s the anxiety of a personal attack. It hurts when you clock a passenger exhale with relief when you don’t sit next to them. For me, conversations are essential drivers of change, and I’ve openly discussed the matter with frequent flyers who’ve owned up and apologized for past insensitive behaviors and judgments. In my body journey, and countless flight interactions with strangers, I’ve found calling out the elephant in the room from the get-go can often win you a seat buddy in the skies.

The airline makes the difference

Most media outlets, travel agents and airline websites don’t include this special information for the plus-size traveler about seat-belt extensions, weight/size restrictions or packing tips on their landing pages. So I’ve taken it upon myself to share nuggets of knowledge on my blog with the community.

From my personal experiences, I can tell the chubby collective that the most accommodating national airline is Southwest. You can buy two seats and they will refund you for the additional one. If the flight’s full, they’ll switch you to the next one available free of charge. I used to have to bring my own seatbelt extension, but now the majority of commercial fleets provide one that the air stewards hand over discreetly.  These small touches are just some of the meaningful ways airlines can show their plus-size community they care for our wellbeing on board.

Related: How to buy a second seat for yourself on US airlines

Jeffrey Jenkins Chubby Diaries
(Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Jenkins, ChubbyDiaries.com)

Hoping for roomier flights post COVID-19

I’m an optimistic soul and do recognize the major headway we’ve made in dismantling standard vacation myths that have shamed the plus-size population for decades. Self-love and body-activism are trending topics across the board, and it’s a ripple effect. When I first started Chubby Diaries in 2018, I was a unicorn, so it’s truly gratifying to see the body positivity fat-activism movement taking shape. The more plus-size travel is normalized, the more plus-size people will feel motivated to get out there.

With fewer people taking to the skies, I would love to see more international airlines use this downtime to reflect on how to make their marketing and physical space an inclusive and inviting environment for the bigger tourist.

Before, the only way a plus-size passenger could ensure a comfortable journey was by forking out for a first-class ticket or buying two seats. Now, health and safety concerns have sidelined the packed plane culture with empty middle seats becoming the new norm.

Roomier planes mean a more comfortable journey for everyone, regardless of your seat category. If that doesn’t continue past the pandemic, then Economy Plus (also known as premium economy) is a happy medium I like to recommend. It works out more cost-effective than buying an extra seat and usually has some extra flying perks, like priority boarding and extra baggage allowance, which are also big wins for plus-size travelers.

Jeffrey Jenkins - Chubby Diaries
(Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Jenkins, ChubbyDiaries.com)

Bottom line

I remember everything about my first time in the air — the limited legroom on a Delta flight to Japan. As well as countless other memorable plane rides and airport lounges, the human connections that all contributed to my passion as a traveler and the birth of Chubby Diaries.

There’s no feeling quite like the anticipation you feel as you clutch your ticket at the boarding gate. Everything from the belly flop at takeoff and the panoramic cloud vistas from the window seat, right down to the miniature sodas and conversations with strangers next to you. Your plane journey is the precursor to the rest of your travel story and it’s a feeling I would love even more people to experience — whatever their size — in the future.

Featured image courtesy of Jeffrey Jenkins

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