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Jul 5, 2021

Are We Getting Too Fat to Fly?

Airlines are worried about aviation in an age of obesity

By Ed Goldman

Will the new jingle for a major airline’s commercials become, 🎶 “Fly your fleshy thighs (if United”)?

Evidently, America’s recent collective weight gain—which is being blamed on the cause-and-effect relationship of COVID-19 isolation and easy access to KitKat candy bars—is causing some consternation in the aviation industry.

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A Wall Street Journal article in early June, headlined “Heavier Fliers Mean New Safety Limits for Airlines” pretty much spelled it out: 🎶”Up up and away/TWA” may well have to be re-recorded as 🎶“We’re sagging today/ How much do you weigh?”

Or how about this familiar tune? 🎶“Delta is ready/But you’re lard.”

This gives some fodder to the paranoia many of us already feel when flying: that if we tilt a certain way in our seats, the plane will follow suit— especially if, since our last flight, we’ve added a few pounds to our body politic.

While I’m all for assigning culpability to COVID for every possible shortcoming I have or am likely to develop—provided God grants me the time and continued access to KitKat candy bars—I need to recognize that I actually shed a few pounds during the pandemic.

This wasn’t a conscious effort, believe me. I just found myself walking more and eating a bit less (though never walking and eating simultaneously—yet I imagine this could have evened out any weight gain or loss). It’s just that, when I began working at home fulltime 37 years ago, I realized early on my situation could soon have me increasing the size of my staff (me)—and that if I wanted to continue to work at home, without having to buy specially fitted desk chairs or expand the width of my doorways, I’d better get with the program.

So, for years I continued to go on lengthy daily walks in my then-neighborhood, East Sacramento. I stopped doing that for the first four years in my new digs, which I’ve dubbed Far East Sacramento (not because it has an unusual preponderance of Asian restaurants but because it’s five miles east of my former home yet remains one block within the city limits).

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But in the past six months I started walking again—and even using the chin-up bar I’ve hung in each of my home offices for decades to do more than de-wrinkle freshly washed, non-Perma-Press shirts.

While I’m far from trim, I’ve never had to pay for two seats while traveling alone on a plane or bus. This wasn’t the case for a friend of mine who clocked in at “exactly 500 pounds”—a statistic he snarled at me despite the fact I’d never asked him his weight nor even mentioned it. It was, to deploy a rather cruel phrase in this instance, the elephant in the room. I imagine he’d been wondering if I’d been wondering how much he weighed.

I wasn’t. I understood that my friend, who died at the age of 63 a few years ago, had an illness not unlike alcoholism or compulsive gambling except for one thing: those other maladies can be hidden from view much of the time. And if you communicated with my friend exclusively by phone or via social media, you’d have had no idea he was morbidly obese.

To get back to the theme of today’s ramble: When some of the airline execs started babbling to the news media about their need to adapt as America continues to pudge up, I thought about my friend and his life of constant humiliation—needing to be seated at a bench in a restaurant, having to be hoisted onto a plane, needing to take freight elevators in office buildings, being ridiculed by children and some utterly insensitive adults who assumed Terry was a jolly fat man who enjoyed a good chuckle at his expense. He didn’t.

To accommodate the irrefutable fact that we weigh more than we used to, commercial airlines are going to simply have to forego squeezing every last drop of money from their passengers and fly fewer of them. It won’t help my friend but by flying everyone who can afford the price of a ticket, regardless of their girth, it may make the skies friendly again.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).