Fat Traveler Prepares For 'Plus-Sized Ordeal'

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Airline travel is a pain for just about everyone. But for many overweight passengers, traveling isn't simply an annoyance — it can be physically uncomfortable, expensive and humiliating. As Rob Goldstone explains, the travails of travel for a heavy person extend far beyond the airplane.


Long lines, intimate pat-downs, scanner boycotts, baggage fees - no one needs reminding, particularly on the day before Thanksgiving, of the indignities of air travel.

But if you're fat, travel can be physically uncomfortable, expensive, embarrassing, even humiliating - at least as Rob Goldstone described it in The New York Times. Try squeezing through the metal detector, navigating transit turnstiles and enduring jibes and cruel stares.

His recent piece in The New York Times is "The Tricks and Trials of Traveling While Fat." For the heavier listeners in our audience, is this your experience? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Rob Goldstone is a former travel writer and joins us today from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. ROB GOLDSTONE (Correspondent, The New York Times): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And you describe a routine you've developed with flight attendants every time you step across the threshold and get aboard an airplane.

Mr. GOLDSTONE: It's true. I've done it for many years now. And I think people are getting wise, because I'm not the only person. But as soon as I get on the plane, the most important thing for me is to locate the very, very scarce seatbelt extender. And there's usually two, maybe three on the plane. And as we all seem to be getting a bit larger, whereas it used to always be mine, now I have to make a beeline for the friendly flight attendant. I give them a wink. I pat my stomach, they nod and they know what I want. And then as soon as they've done their demo, they give it to me.

CONAN: So they slip you the seatbelt extender quietly and...

Mr. GOLDSTONE: Very discreetly.

CONAN: And the airplane has to be among - you're a travel writer, you've done a lot of flying.

Mr. GOLDSTONE: I've done a lot of flying. And ironically, as, you know, technology and we've got cleverer, planes have got smaller. If anything, they're giving people more leg room. But to be honest, the last time I looked around at my fellow passengers, it wasn't their legs that were growing; they seem to be getting a bit wider rather than taller.

CONAN: And there are a couple of airlines, as you note in your piece, that if you can't fit in the seat with the arms down, they require you go buy two seats.

Mr. GOLDSTONE: They do, and more and more of them are doing this. And I think a lot of plus-sized travelers - I call myself a fat traveler, but some people hate that word, so we'll use plus-sized...


Mr. GOLDSTONE: ...and fat. We'll mix it up a bit. But they already know that. And where possible that, you know, I try to either buy an extra seat or a middle seat, or I smile sweetly at a check-in agent and hope that they'll block the middle seat. But it does give for a lot of extra stress in something which is already extremely stressful as you know, and the holiday season makes it even more so.

CONAN: And it begins, I guess for you, on the security line.

Mr. GOLDSTONE: Well, security line - people forget that. You know, you have to go through these scanners. And not only are they looking to see if we're smuggling things aboard, but if any part of your body actually touches the side of the scanner, it will beep.

And so someone in the TSA told me, a long time ago now it seems, that the way to do it is to kind of contort your body and fold your arms in front of you, kind of like as if you're being laid out, like you've just died. And you put your arms, you fold them in front of you and you scuttle through, and it never beeps. Well, it would beep if you had something you shouldn't. But as long as you're clean, it doesn't beep. But you try walking normally and you're a bit big, it will beep every time.

CONAN: Have you gone through the new scanner?

Mr. GOLDSTONE: I haven't. I can't wait for that one.

CONAN: Oh, because you just kind of stand there and hold your hands over your head and not a whole lot happens. I think they're a little bit bigger too.

Mr. GOLDSTONE: Yeah. And again, maybe that's going to be a plus for us plus-sized travelers because, you know, these are quite narrow, the ones we have now. And most travelers just don't realize - you go through over and over again. It's beeping and you've taken everything off. Well, chances are it's just you're touching the sides as you go through.

CONAN: It's interesting - and perhaps not a surprise - there have been almost 300 comments on The New York Times website about your article, many of them asking, why don't you just lose some weight?

Mr. GOLDSTONE: I found those interesting as well because - I think the reason I wrote the article wasn't just about could I or could I not lose weight. It was using my examples, some of which I hoped were humorous, to show that there are people that are fat for all kinds of reasons that couldn't lose weight.

I, over the last however many years, have been skinnier and fatter and thinner. And sure, you could just lose weight. But for a lot of people, it's like saying, you know, if you had somebody that was disabled next to you and it was causing a problem, you wouldn't say to him, I wish you were just a little bit less disabled. It will be so much easier.

You know, for a lot of people, being overweight is a medical issue or it's an issue that they haven't yet been able to deal with. And it's not simple as just saying, you know, go to Weight Watchers.

CONAN: And even if you strike out with determination to exercise and eat less, it's not going to help you today.

Mr. GOLDSTONE: It's not going to help you today. And what I found interesting was that not only did a lot of people use that reasoning, but so many more said I'd rather sit next to a fat person than a screaming child. And the thing is, you can't necessarily turn to that person and say, oh, I wish you didn't have that child. Could you just get rid of that child - it's a bit illogical to me. Yes, everyone knows that people would, perhaps, feel better and fit better into airline seats if they were thinner, but they're just not.

CONAN: We're talking with Bob Goldstone, whose piece in The New York Times was titled "The Tricks and Trials of Traveling While Fat." And we want to hear from the plus-sized travelers in our audience about their experiences. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Matthew is on the line from Minneapolis.

MATTHEW (Caller): Hey, yeah. How's it going?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

MATTHEW: Good. Yeah. You know, I'm a big guy. I'm 6'6", and I'm about 300 pounds. You know, I'm a big guy. And you know, when I go through security and such, it's a, you know, everyday is a struggle. And these TSA agents, you know, I have a feeling that they kind of look down upon the larger traveler, you know? They kind of - they don't see us as just a normal traveler because they know that we're gonna be causing, you know, inconveniences for people on the planes. Other people don't like seeing us on the planes when we get on. I had one time, when I was trying to get on a plane, I was in a middle seat, man, that was - the people next to me were very upset, almost to the point where they were, you know, asking they could switch seats and stuff.

And it's not like, you know, I'm overflowing on - in the left and the right of me. I fit and there's no, you know, there's no extra room and, you know, it doesn't help the fact that I'm 6'6" either so...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And do you have the same problem with the metal detectors or the scanners that Bob Goldstone was describing?

MATTHEW: Well, yeah, because, you know, as soon as you go through it, you know, a lot of times - you know, sometimes, you know, they kind of look at you, like, okay, is this guy going to be able to get through? And in other times, you know - one time, they had me - they segregated me as separate because earlier in the day, a large person tried to smuggle in like a knife or something in there and they were checking the larger passengers separately - so...

CONAN: Well, Matthew, thanks very much, and we hope if you're traveling this holiday weekend, your experiences are better.

MATTHEW: I'm going to be driving. That's for sure.

CONAN: Okay.

MATTHEW: All right.

CONAN: Thanks very much. This email from Barbara in South Bend: My son weighs about 400 pounds. So the last time we traveled, we bought him two seats. At the time we bought the tickets, we explained why we needed two seats. The woman thanked us for thinking ahead and for asking for two seats. When we arrived at the airport, we discovered they had assigned the seats apart and they gave us a hard time trying to reassign them. Imagine that. Has that happened to you, Bob?

Mr. GOLDSTONE: Well, it's interesting. I'd like to answer both of those actually.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. GOLDSTONE: The gentleman that called, what's interesting is - and he brings up that subject, I think, and I tried to make it clear, it's not easy for the fat passenger either. I think that's what other people don't understand. It's not like that when we try to squeeze ourselves into a middle seat or whatever, we don't realize that it's going to be awkward. And I think that's the biggest problem, is that people go, don't you realize you couldn't fit into that seat?

Well, the question may be is that the airlines maybe should look at selling a premium, not a business class seat because that's a whole different expense and a different story, but maybe they should look at selling a slightly larger seat in the way they sell seats with bigger leg room - or more extensive leg room.

CONAN: Yeah. On some airlines, yes.

Mr. GOLDSTONE: In the case of what was just emailed in, you know, I think, it's absolutely - it's all sort of the same thing, it's all happened to me, you know? People do look down on you and you're treated differently, and I just think so much of what was said - not just here now, but in those comments that came in, from people like me and bigger than me, who have said that they really feel like second class citizens when they're traveling in what is a very stressful time for a lot of people anyway.

CONAN: Let's go next to Charles. Charles, with us from Kansas City. Charles? All right. I guess Charles is not there. Let's go next to Aaron. Aaron, with us from East Lansing.

AARON (Caller): Hi. Yes. I'd just like to call and talk about, you know - it's not just the larger or fatter or plus-sized individuals like people like to say it. I am about 6'7", 6'8" and a healthy 250, 260. And it used to be, when I fly I'd ask for bulkhead seats when I arrive at the airport. Last couple of times I flown to visit family in North Carolina and other places, they don't offer that anymore. You got to purchase that. And it's an extra premium for the seat. And I also have issue of - I'm very, very broad in the shoulders. And the last time I traveled down to Charlotte to visit family in North Carolina, I actually was asked to pay for an extra seat just because my shoulders would impinge on the people next to me.

CONAN: And is that fair or unfair, do you think, Aaron?

AARON: I think it's kind of, you know, unfair. It's - I have stopped flying because of it. You know, I'll either rent a car or make sure my vehicle is in good repair and I'll make the, you know, 11-hour drive from Michigan to North Carolina just so I don't have to avoid - you know, just so I can avoid the issues with the airport and the security scanners, because I've had that issue as well, you know, trying to walk through there. You know, I'd gotten to the point where I had to walk through sideways and then they'd question me, well, why are you walking through sideways? Well, if I walk through, you know, forward, I'm going to brush the sides.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. So you're - are you driving this weekend?

AARON: Yes, I am. I'm actually driving from East Lansing down to St. Joseph to spend Thanksgiving with my fiancee and her family. And I had a chance where -one of my friends has a pilot's license. We could have flown from Lansing Airport down there. You know, just like I told him, I'm sorry, man, it's just - it's easier for me to make the drive.

CONAN: Okay. Aaron, thanks very much and drive carefully, okay?

AARON: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Rob Goldstone about his piece for The New York Times, "The Tricks and Trials of Traveling While Fat." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Tim is on the line, Tim with us from Davenport, Iowa.

TIM (Caller): Hi. I just am a plus-sized person. I don't fortunately have to use a seat extender yet, but it's close. And I find that sometimes when you're sitting in the aisle seat and there's another large person in the window seat, and then the unfortunate person that's got the middle seat comes to sit down, and you get up and you're getting situated, I usually turn to them and my standard comment is, don't worry, my wife thinks I should lose 50 pounds too. And that'll sometimes lighten the mood and, you know, I'm not going to get any smaller on the flight, but at least shows I've got a sense of humor about my weight.

CONAN: Rob, do you find humor sometimes cuts through some of the stress?

Mr. GOLDSTONE: Absolutely. And you may have heard me just laugh with what the gentleman said. I do the exact same thing because, as I said, it's not fun for us. It's not like we don't realize that we are larger than the average passenger.

I did want to comment, the person that talked about the split seat when you book two seats. I've booked two seats a number of times, and I've had it happen a couple of times. And I've had to ask a person who's sat in another seat and say, I booked two seats, but you actually have one of them next to me. And the reason I booked two was to be together. And the person on the plane was fine, but trying to explain it at check-in, surprisingly, was weird. They said these are the seats you've been assigned. And I was like, well, I obviously booked two because I don't fit.

And so it seems to me that sometimes airlines follow their rules, like they say, and you just have to treat every situation different, in the same way as when you ask them if they would block a seat. I've had so many that have blocked a seat with no charge because there's been room. But sometimes you have to have humor because there is nothing else that's going to work.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Tim. In fact, Rob, you were - you told a story in your piece, traveling not in this country, but in Vietnam, where you were told not to take a rickshaw.

Mr. GOLDSTONE: Well, it all started out - I was going to say booking two seats here is now getting to be the norm. But try it in somewhere like Vietnam where not only do they have no idea why I would buy two seats and wanted to resell the seat even though I bought it. But on arrival at the airport, the customs agent, when looking at the form, said to me, how many kilos are you? And I said, is that on the form? And she said, no, I'm just interested because you would break our rickshaws.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDSTONE: So - and - but she was doing it in such a sweet, non-threatening, helpful kind of way. She was also semi-correct - I didn't break the rickshaws, but it was touch and go - that it was a different attitude, but it still came from the same place.

CONAN: Let's get another call in. This is David, David with us from Portland.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

DAVID: I wanted to just let your listeners know that there - I'm six-foot four, about 350. And, you know, it's okay in the society to be big and it's okay to be tall, but it's not okay to be both. And you've had several callers who fit into that category like I do.

One thing I discovered a couple of years ago is that you can go online and find your own seatbelt extenders. I carry with me the two most common types of seatbelts that airlines have. And I no longer have that issue of having to ask the flight attendant for a seat belt extender. I check the belts right when I get on the plane, make sure I've got the proper extender and then I don't have to worry about it.

CONAN: Ah. How much are they?

DAVID: They're relatively expensive. I think they were, like, $40 each or something. But it's - it avoids so much heartache because there's always the flight attendant who is not quite so subtle about it and comes down with it flopping in the air like carrying a dead rat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: Here's your seatbelt extender, sir. And so I no longer have to put up with that particular umbrage anyway.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the advice. And safe travels.

DAVID: Thanks for the topic. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Rob Goldstone, thank you for your time today. And I hope if you're traveling somewhere for Thanksgiving, it's no hassle.

Mr. GOLDSTONE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Rob Goldstone, a frequent traveler, many parts of the world, a former travel writer. You can find a link to his New York Times piece, "The Tricks and Trials of Traveling While Fat," at our website. It's at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us today from our bureau in New York.

Tomorrow, fighting poverty for profit. Plus, as you gather for the holiday, who is not at your table this year? You can email us your stories now. Talk@npr.org is our email address. We'll read those tomorrow in this hour. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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