A travel agent who helps ‘people of size’ see the world

obese woman on beachAccording to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 68% of Americans are either overweight or obese. But the width of an average coach-class seat on an airplane is just 17 inches, and with the economy picking up and airlines cutting back on flight schedules to stay competitive, empty seats are becoming a rare commodity.

The Canadian government passed a one person, one ticket law in 2008 that classified obesity as a disability and required major Canadian airlines to provide obese passengers with as many additional seats as needed at no extra charge. In the U.S., airline staff occasionally ask larger travelers to buy a second seat but the issue can be contentious. Two years ago, a flight attendant on a Southwest flight removed filmmaker Kevin Smith from an Oakland-Burbank flight because he couldn’t fit into one seat and the flight was full. Smith had booked two seats but decided to go standby on an earlier flight. They allowed him to board but then asked him to leave once it was clear he couldn’t fit into the one seat.

Smith was outraged and tweeted, “You [messed] with the wrong sedentary processed-foods eater!” among other things to his 1.6 million followers. But anecdotal evidence suggests that many airlines allow obese travelers to travel on one ticket, even if it’s obvious they can’t fit into one seat. In November, a traveler from Pennsylvania claimed that he had to stand for the duration of a seven-hour flight because his seatmate was too large for him to sit comfortably. The incident garnered widespread media attention, with many readers noting that they’d had similar experiences.

Spirit Airlines offers “big front” seats for an additional fee and other airlines also have new classes of service somewhere between business and coach, but most offer only additional legroom and not wider seats. According to the New York Times, at least three airlines do not allow obese passengers to sit in the emergency exit row. When it comes to airline travel, size clearly matters and the issue of weight and passenger comfort is likely to remain contentious.

Tony Harrell is a board member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), and founder of Abundant Travel, a travel agency for “people of size” based in Alexandria, Virginia. In the interview below, I spoke to Harrell about a variety of issues pertaining to obesity and the travel industry.

How did you decide to start a travel agency specializing in overweight and obese travelers?

I started Abundant Travel two years ago, and my main inspiration was my then-girlfriend and now fiancée, who is a larger person. We were trying to find properties and destinations that would accommodate us and it got me to thinking there have to be other travelers who have similar concerns.What type of concerns are you referring to specifically?

Whether the property itself is accommodating as far as infrastructure goes; if the staff is likely to be friendly or ambivalent or even hostile to larger travelers; whether the destination is more known for the glamorously thin, so to speak, rather than everyday people.

What type of infrastructure issues do you look at in planning a trip for a larger traveler?

Where the rooms are situated in the hotel. They don’t have to necessarily be more spacious rooms, but in cases where we have travelers with limited mobility, an abundance of accessible rooms is helpful. But also getting from the lobby to the room, the number of steps someone has to take to get there. Things like that. And I would try to avoid hotels without elevators.

Or hotels that have long corridors that require a significant walk to get to the room?

Correct.

So when someone wants to book a trip with you, do you try to ascertain how large they are?

I definitely don’t ask for their dress size or weight. If they haven’t flown in a while, I will let them know that most coach seats are, on average, 16-18 inches, which is equivalent to a person with a 38-inch waist being able to be comfortable.

If you have a waist size above 38, you probably won’t be comfortable in a coach seat?

Correct. Even at 38, it’s not exactly the lap of luxury. I’m in that range and flying isn’t fun, even for me. So I advise them that there are other options to consider, including buying a second seat, or sharing a third seat with another larger person.

But it’s awfully expensive to buy extra seats or book in business class isn’t it?

It is another expense. You may be aware that the Canadian government has a one passenger- one seat law, which requires airlines there to only charge passengers for one ticket, no matter how many seats they require.

I imagine the airlines probably aren’t very happy about that law.

As a travelers’ advocate, it emphasizes the point that it would be more beneficial to provide more ample seating to accommodate larger travelers and even people who just have broad shoulders.

So do you think the U.S. should adopt the Canadian law?

I certainly would support that. I think another fair solution would be to create a section with more ample seating in the coach class and charge about one and one-half times a normal coach seat.

Like an economy plus section?

Right but most economy plus seats aren’t actually wider; they just have a bit more legroom.

obese man on beachHow should airline staff deal with larger travelers who purchase only one ticket but can’t fit in just one seat?

Overall, agents could use more sensitivity training. Perhaps discretely talking to the passenger and letting them know the situation and tell them what their options are without embarrassing them in front of their fellow passengers.

But on a full flight, you have situations where people end up standing because the person they’re next to is spilling over into their seat. In November, a traveler, Arthur Berkowitz, claimed he had to stand for 7 hours on a flight due to being placed next to an obese man. Some have suggested that there should be a strict standard applied to larger travelers who try to board a plane with only one ticket. Do you agree?

I can see where they’re going but it reminds me of being at an amusement park where they won’t let you ride something if you’re not tall enough. I don’t think it would be effective.

Do you think larger travelers are being discriminated against or is this just a practical matter of airlines trying to accommodate everyone and maximize profit?

Frankly, I think airlines have been trying to fit more seats in for a long time and if they are discriminating against larger travelers, it’s because they’re looking at their bottom line and don’t want to give away free seats. Some airline staff members have been insensitive in dealing with unprepared larger travelers. On the other hand, some larger travelers need to be more realistic and proactive about air travel and be prepared to make a larger investment in their airfare than they may have anticipated. That’s something we can help with at Abundant Travel.

But some larger travelers probably don’t want to admit they need two seats, right?

I’m sure that is the case with some. At NAAFA, we deal with people who are at different stages of self-acceptance. For people on the beginning stages of that spectrum, they might be in denial about needing a second seat. But when I travel with my fiancée, I take about one and one-fourth coach seats and I’m only on the high side of average. So I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting you need another seat.

So when you travel with your fiancée do you book more than 2 seats?

We always book three seats.

Airlines aren’t the only place where the seating issue with larger travelers comes up. For example, on crowded buses or trains, some travelers complain if larger passengers occupy more than one seat, forcing others to stand. What is the proper etiquette for trains and buses, should larger travelers give up their seat if the bus or train is full?

On public transportation, you’re paying for the right to use the system, not necessarily just for one seat. Perhaps some travelers could stand, but some could not. If there are parents holding small children or elderly people, perhaps larger persons could try to accommodate them, but otherwise, I think they should be able to stay in their seats.

Nearly 70% of Americans are obese or overweight; presumably some of them don’t travel because they don’t think they’ll be comfortable. Is this an untapped market for the travel industry?

Absolutely. This was the main driver for me to open this agency. It’s an underserved market, helping people of size.

Some might say that helping larger travelers enables them to continue living an unhealthy lifestyle. If a larger traveler can’t fit into one seat, it might also serve as a wake-up call that they might need to think about revising their diet or lifestyle, correct?

I see it more as a wake-up call for the airlines to realize they have a variety of travelers and need to accommodate them with more options. If they don’t create new alternatives for travelers they’re going to keep having these sorts of unfortunate situations.

Have you heard horror stories of larger travelers being treated poorly at hotels?

People who patronize trendy destinations tend to be slim and those guests may not be as welcoming to larger travelers.

So are there certain destinations you’d recommend more than others for larger travelers?

I would say Texas is one good option because a lot of the major cities there have a high percentage of larger people. They are places where larger travelers can go to and blend in, especially in a place like San Antonio. I would also recommend Disney World and other family friendly resorts where people are more relaxed and less uptight.

What about places like Aspen or South Beach, would you advise against places like those for large travelers?

Unless they have a real interest in those scenes, I would be hesitant to recommend those places to my clients, but of course, they have a right to go wherever they like.

What about cruises?

Cruises are pretty good, actually. For the most part you get to watch the scenery pass you by as opposed to having to walk around to admire it. But the cabins can be small, and when it comes to taking a shower, or if the passenger gets around by scooter, you have to make sure you pick a comfortable cabin.

Do you sympathize with travelers who are seated next to larger travelers that encroach on their space?

I respect where they’re coming from. No one wants to be uncomfortable on a flight, no matter what their size is. But again, I come back to the fact that airlines need to do a better job accommodating people of all sizes. Once they offer wider seats, it’ll make all the customers happy.

And what’s the best way for travelers who find themselves next to a large person and are uncomfortable to handle the situation?

If there are open seats, then it’s easier to handle. If not, I guess the person should just be respectful and approach the flight attendant discretely and see what arrangements can be made.

Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s fattest countries.

Photos courtesy of Tony Harrell, (Female traveler photo from Corbis) and final photo via Kyle May on Flickr.