TOM UTLEY: Why should airlines give a free extra seat to passengers too fat to sit in


The most uncomfortable journey of my life I spent squashed in economy class between two enormously fat passengers, on a jam-packed overnight flight from London Heathrow to New Delhi.

Veritable human elephants they were, with bottoms, thighs and tree-trunk upper-arms spreading far into my territory in the middle seat.

For nine hours I suffered there, hardly able to breathe, my shoulders hunched and my elbows tucked in front of my chest, finding it almost impossible to manoeuvre my food and drink into my mouth without spilling it down my shirt.

If you’ve ever sat down to a Christmas dinner for ten, round a kitchen table designed for six, you will understand my difficulty.

I thought of that flight this week, when I read that an American woman described as a ‘plus-size travel influencer’ is campaigning to make airlines offer free extra seats to passengers of her substantial proportions, who take up two or even three each. It’s a question of their human rights, apparently.

TOM UTLEY: The most uncomfortable journey of my life I spent squashed in economy class between two enormously fat passengers (stock image)

TOM UTLEY: The most uncomfortable journey of my life I spent squashed in economy class between two enormously fat passengers (stock image)

‘People with smaller bodies get to pay one fare to get to their destination,’ says Jaelynn Chaney, who keeps her weight private but admits that her frocks are an impressive size 6XL (that’s 24 UK, or European size 50). ‘But we have to pay two fares, even though we’re getting the same experience. If anything, our experiences are a little bit more challenging.’

Call me a brute, but I would have thought that if she wanted her experience of air travel to be a little less challenging, the remedy might lie in her own hands.

Isn’t it just possible that her discomfort in single seats may have something to do with the quantity and quality of her diet?

Dare I say it, wouldn’t it be within her power to slim down, if only she were to limit her intake of calories?

Not possible, says her champion Gabor Lukacs, the founder of an organisation called Air Passenger Rights. ‘Being a large-size person is not a choice,’ he says, ‘as many people mistakenly believe.’

Thus, in a single sentence, he dismisses the age-old notion that human beings are endowed with free will.

I’m reminded of that brilliant comedian Peter Cook’s waspish rejoinder when someone said that it wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor’s fault she was putting on weight. It was all down to her glands.

‘I know, poor woman,’ he said. ‘There she is, in her suite in the Dorchester, harmlessly watching television. Suddenly her glands pick up the phone and order two dozen eclairs and a bottle of brandy.

I thought of that flight this week, when I read that an American woman described as a 'plus-size travel influencer' is campaigning to make airlines offer free extra seats to passengers of her substantial proportions. Pictured: Jaelynn Chaney

I thought of that flight this week, when I read that an American woman described as a ‘plus-size travel influencer’ is campaigning to make airlines offer free extra seats to passengers of her substantial proportions. Pictured: Jaelynn Chaney

‘No,’ she screams, ‘please, I beg you!’ but her glands take no notice. Determined glands they are, her glands.

‘You’ve never known glands like them. The trolley arrives and Elizabeth Taylor hides in the bathroom, but her glands, her glands take the eclairs, smash down the door and stuff them down her throat.

‘I’m glad I haven’t got glands like that. Terrible glands.’

All I will say, cruel though this may sound, is that you don’t see many morbidly obese people among the wretched souls fleeing from famine in refugee camps.

Now, as regular readers will be quick to point out, I am the last person on Earth qualified to get on my high horse and preach against people in the grip of addictions. After all, I have a revolting 50-a-day cigarette habit, and I know how terribly hard it is to quit. I imagine the same must be true of people who are addicted to doughnuts and sweets, Big Macs and chips.

Indeed, I’m sure that it’s only my half century of addiction to nicotine that has kept my own weight down to between 10½ and 11 st since I was 18 — or rather less, over recent months, since my rotting teeth began to make eating a bit of an ordeal.

It’s almost certain that if I were to give up smoking now, and get my teeth fixed, I would exchange the hit I get from my Marlboro Reds for the comfort of over-eating. No doubt my figure would balloon, as has happened to so many of my friends, with stronger wills than mine, who have managed to wean themselves off the evil weed.

(I hasten to say that I can’t recommend chain-smoking or avoiding the dentist as wholly satisfactory ways of losing weight. The former is cripplingly expensive, at well over £14 a packet these days. As for the latter, I find that children tend to shriek and run away, terrified, when I smile.)

All I will say in my defence is that I fully acknowledge my weakness, I don’t blame anyone else for it and I try, as far as possible, to avoid letting my self-indulgence cause discomfort to others, never lighting up in the presence of people who object.

Oh, and unlike Jaelynn Chaney, who appears to believe all passengers on a flight should share the cost of awarding her an extra seat, I don’t expect anyone else to suffer financially because I won’t make the effort to kick my anti-social habit. Yes, I know. Anti-smoking fanatics will tell me that my vice costs the health service a fortune, estimated by NHS England at £2.6 billion a year.

To them, I can only point out the Office for Budget Responsibility’s estimate that tobacco duty alone will raise £10.4 billion in the current financial year.

What’s more, the obesity epidemic is claimed to cost a whopping £14 billion a year, which is the amount the NHS would save if everyone were of a healthy weight.

That’s according to an authoritative study last month, led by Dr Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, a public lecturer at Imperial College London and head of health analytics at a consultancy firm, Lane Clark & Peacock.

But, no, I’m not for one moment disputing Jaelynn Chaney’s right to be fat. Nor do I begrudge overweight people the subsidy from other passengers which they already enjoy if they occupy single seats, since every extra pound of flab aboard increases the amount of fuel a plane needs and so pushes up fares for all.

Isn't it just possible that her discomfort in single seats may have something to do with the quantity and quality of her diet? (file image)

Isn’t it just possible that her discomfort in single seats may have something to do with the quantity and quality of her diet? (file image)

Still less would I suggest that in the UK, the NHS should refuse to treat patients who have brought their suffering on themselves — whether smokers, fatties, speeding motorists or enthusiasts for dangerous sports.

All I am saying is that Jaelynn should acknowledge her personal responsibility for her enormous size, and accept that she could do something about it, if only she put her mind to it. As with me and my smoking (all right, Mrs U, and my drinking too), she has a choice.

No doubt I’ll be roundly condemned for ‘fat-shaming’. But then we nicotine addicts are constantly shamed for our habit, banished like lepers from enclosed public spaces, and scolded by warnings on our cigarette packets that our selfishness harms others around us, and stunts our unborn babies’ growth.

But you won’t hear many of us whimpering that this is an abuse of our human rights.

I would even argue that the shaming of smokers, whether by governments of every hue or by hosts at private parties who tell us to light up in the garden or the street, ‘if you really must’, has improved the health of the nation’s lungs.

Of course, the annual increases in tobacco duty have been by far the most influential factor in bringing the number of UK smokers down from roughly 40 per cent of the adult population in the 1970s, to the mere 13.3 per cent recorded in the 2021 census. But the campaign to shame us must surely have helped.

By the same token, mightn’t a spot of concerted fat-shaming help slim down the Great British buttocks, and save our own growing army of Jaelynns from themselves?

But let me end with a plea to airline check-in staff the world over. As a nicotine addict, I have a great deal of sympathy with people who can’t bring themselves to say no to that extra slice of cake. But the next time a pair of human elephants waddle up to your desk, please don’t seat me between them.



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