Being stared at while boarding and leaving a plane bothers obese air passengers even more than the tight seat belts and tiny seats, according to researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Israel who explored the challenges obese passengers must face while flying.
“Most participants agreed that the way people stare at them during boarding and deplaning is humiliating, and at times even shameful,” says Professor Yaniv Poria, chairman of the Department of Hotel and Tourism Management at BGU’s Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management.
Poria, along with co-researcher Jeremy Beal, a graduate of Virginia Tech’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Program, suggest that airlines allow obese people to board first and deplane last. They also suggest making design changes to rest rooms and seat trays which would make every passenger more comfortable.
Planes should also offer seats of varying sizes, argue the researchers. Squeezing down aisles and into seats is particularly problematic for obese passengers, because they are unable to avoid touching other passengers. Many obese passengers report that they try to be first in line to board so they can easily find their seats “and disappear.”
The researchers add that crew members can make everyone’s flight experience more comfortable by respectfully and discreetly moving a passenger seated next to an obese person to another seat. Survey participants reported that African American female crew members seemed to be generally less judgmental and more helpful.
“We assumed that the greatest difficulties obese people faced on planes were caused by tight, confined spaces,” Poria says. “We were surprised to find that the way other people reacted to them was so ‘unpleasant’ and ’embarrassing,’ causing them to feel universally ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘uneasy.’
“Obese people think that others regard them as individuals who intentionally decided to be disabled,” Poria explains. “Moreover, obese people feel that they are perceived as thieves, since their ‘chosen’ disability increases costs for other people. Obesity is a social disability as it prevents obese people from feeling safe in public.”
For the study, researchers interviewed 11 men and 13 women, ages 22 to 64, who were deplaning off both long flights (more than two hours) and short flights (less than two hours) as well as both direct and connecting flights. Sixteen of the 24 passengers self-identified as obese, with a body mass index of 30 or above, and eight considered themselves morbidly obese.
The study, titled “An Exploratory Study About Obese People’s Flight Experience,” published in the Journal of Travel Research.