Readers debate the problem of oversize air travelers.

Science, technology, and life.
March 1 2010 7:42 AM

Fat vs. Tall: The Wisdom of Crowded Planes

Readers debate the problem of oversize air travelers.

See a Magnum Photos gallery on "Creatures Great and Small."

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Two weeks ago, I asked you and other Slate readers to weigh in on the problem of oversize air travelers. Some passengers are too fat to fit in a standard plane seat; others are too tall. I put the question this way: "Would you give the fat guy next to you the same deference as the tall guy behind you? Why or why not?"

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

Hundreds of you responded. You posted more than 300 comments in the first 24 hours and nearly 500 in the first week. But what really impressed me was the quality of the conversation. It's an exchange of ideas no writer could have come up with alone. It's time to salute your work. Tomorrow I'll look at your most interesting proposals for solving the problem of big passengers. (You can read them here.) But today I'll start with your best takes on how to think about it. The top 10:

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1. Don't assume the fat person next to you is responsible for his weight. Many of you, including Slate's Daniel Engber, debated the extent to which genes or behavior influence obesity. But there were clearly some people who had tried hard, without success, to lose weight. One reader, what2do, attributed his weight to antidepressants. Another, Sonnet, cited insulinoma, a pancreatic anomaly that can cause significant weight gain. "Tell me where my team of endocrinologists, dieticians, bariatric specialists, and sports trainers has failed me," she wrote. A third commenter, Julia Marie Sims Watts, warned readers that they "know nothing about the life of the large man [next to them] and how he came to be that way." So give him the benefit of the doubt.

2. Tall and broad-shouldered people use extra width, too. Fat people aren't the only ones who spill into adjoining seats. If a tall man's legs can't extend forward, guess where they go? Many guys "sit with their legs slightly splayed into my space," complained Rachel. Dani Martinez raised another objection: "What about overhanging shoulders and arms? Why is it not okay to take someone else's space on the bottom but perfectly okay to take someone's space on the top portion of the seat?" Dani noted that lots of men whose waists fit between the arm rests "do NOT fit in the seat up top. If sitting naturally, their shoulders and arms are wider than [the allotted] 17 inches."

3. Tall people suffer on planes. One of the biggest surprises to me was how many tall folks reported immobility and pain while flying. "I ALWAYS have bruises on my kneecaps from jamming my legs in the tiny space provided," wrote laidee-dee. Jonathan, a 6-foot-6 flier, reported, "I had a guy recline his seat all the way back when I went to the bathroom once. … I literally could not sit down." Before you lean back, think about what it's like to be that cramped.

4. Treat height as an in-flight disability. Many of you argued that fat people could lose weight. Others, such as Slate's David Plotz, cited social and economic advantages of being tall. But everyone agreed that tall people bear no responsibility for being unable to fit in plane seats. "I cannot change the length of my legs, short of surgically removing bones," wrote Eileen. So if you're stuck in front of a tall person, cut her some slack.

5. Don't ignore the person behind you just because you can't see him. Most of us are considerate to the people sitting next to us because we can see each other's faces. But reclining is different. "Since neither party can see each other very well, it's so much easier to act like a jackass," observed Bryn Swaney, a 5-foot-3 woman. Leland, a 6-foot-3 man, suggested a simple rule to rectify this problem: Before leaning back, "[t]urn around and see who's behind you."