Okay, look, I have nothing against weight-challenged people. I could stand to lose a few pounds myself. Believe me, I know what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night and eat an entire chocolate bundt cake. But there are limits to these things, aren't there? Perhaps you'll understand after hearing the disturbing tale of....
HUGELY FAT GUY
By Joe Tyburczy
February 1999. As you know, those nasty American Airline pilots went on strike that month. Their actions resulted in the cancellation of many flights, overtaxing other carriers as disenfranchised passengers flooded the system. The results of this tragic condition were felt immediately and most notably by me when I showed up an hour ahead of time to check a single piece of baggage at LAX's Delta Airlines ticket counter.
"We only have middle seats available, Sir". The ticket agent made a pinched face and pecking motions at her keyboard. "If you want an aisle or window, there may be some cancellations at the gate. Ask there".
I went to the gate. It was a pandemonium of standbys, transfers, and overbookings. I asked anyway. "HA HA HA! Another for the WISH LIST!" the agent guffawed over her shoulder.
After twenty minutes I boarded, wishes ungranted. I resigned myself to the relative discomfort of a middle seat. Ironically, I'd had more than my share of good luck in the past, snagging the coveted "emergency exit row" seat (the one with extra leg room) several times in succession.
"Guess my luck has to run out eventually", I mused, the ever-savvy traveler. What's the worst that could happen? Sandwiched between two beefy businessmen with laptops? A screaming, hyperactive, snot-nosed toddler? A fat guy with a bad case of the flu? It wouldn't be so bad. I'd done it before. I could handle it.
How mistaken I was.
As luck would have it, I was the last person to board. I struggled down the aisle and made my way to seat 34F at very back of the aircraft. People stared at me as I passed. Some giggled. Many looked at me sorrowfully. One lady made the sign of the cross.
When I got there, I saw why. Spread out over 34E, 34F, and most of 34G was THE FATTEST MAN IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE. (Here, I must state for the record that though I have been prone to hyperbole in the past, I swear to God, this is no exaggeration. I was looking at an authentic Guinness Book oddity. He was so big that his chest touched the seatback in front of him. His vast bulk extended out into the aisle for a foot or two. The armrest separating his seat from mine was removed because of his sheer width. In essence, there WAS no middle seat any more!)
But that nonexistant middle seat is where I'd been assigned to sit. "Ladies and Gentlemen we're next in line for takeoff," crackled the Captain's voice over the intercom, "please fasten your seat beats".
This couldn't be happening, it must be some kind of CRUEL JOKE, I thought. A pair of flight attendants rushed about their business, avoiding eye contact with me.
As the plane jostled down the runway the fat guy stood up with great difficulty and I numbly entered the row. Inside I discovered a passenger I hadn't seen before; a bearded man hugging the window, his eyes clenched shut, his lips moving in some sort of prayer.
The plane lurched skyward, its downward motion jamming me into a tiny, dark 6-inch cavity between juddering walls of sweat-soaked, heaving flesh. My mind reeled as the facts sunk in. Good God, I'd be spending the 4 1/2 hour flight from Los Angeles to Florida like this!
After a brief period of abject self-pity, I decided that the thing to do was complain, and complain loudly. My head rested against the fat guy's stomach. Several feet above, fitful wheezing noises issued from the vicinity of his face. Despite his unfortunate condition, he looked like a decent guy. I hated like hell to alienate him. Hey, it wasn't his fault. He was not to blame for this. It was the airline. Yes, I'd make the airline the villain. I'd make them pay. But I knew there'd be resistance. The flight was indeed full and no other available seats existed. To make this play work, I'd need an unshakeable strategy and a firm resolve. I hatched a plan, the centerpiece of which involved making a total unrepentant ass of myself.
BINK! the seatbelt sign winked off. I got the fat guy's attention and said, "Sorry, but I need to get up". He rose with difficulty and swayed into the aisle, momentarily jerking the aircraft off-course. I slid past, clamped a hand to his shoulder and said, "I'm going to see what I can do about getting us both some more room". He nodded mutely.
I approached a motherly-looking flight attendant in the galley. "I have a problem" I said. Her eyes rolled in sympathy. "Oh yes, I can see your problem," she said, "but unfortunately it looks like we can't do anything about it. This flight is really full".
"Okay, I need to speak with your supervisor" I said. Moments later a wiry young black woman arrived to face me down. "Look," I began, "Any reasonable person can see that there is not adequate room in my assigned seat. You are endangering both me and the passengers beside me. This is a very serious situation and I expect you to do something about it immediately".
"There's nothing I can do, Sir" she recited, her expression a mask of steely resistance, "there are no other seats. This a full flight".
"What about YOUR seat?" I shot back, raising my voice to what I hoped was an irritating whine. "What about HER seat?" I jabbed a finger at the other stewardess. "What about the FLIGHT DECK? I'll take the first officers seat, or maybe the co-pilot's". I added some brisk arm-waving gestures to good effect as several rows of passengers now turned to watch the desperate little drama unfold.
"Regulations," she seethed, "do not permit us to do that, Sir".
"DO REGULATIONS," I bellowed, "PERMIT YOU TO ENDANGER MY LIFE? This is an unsafe seating condition. And the way I see it, I paid for one entire seat and have only gotten half a seat. The man next to me should have been allotted TWO seats".
"That would be DISCRIMINATION," she fired back, pronouncing the word with an extra measure of satisfaction.
"Oh I see. How unfortunate," I said, whipping out a small, spiral-bound notebook and pen. "I think a judge and jury might view this all very differently. Your name, please?" I said, pen poised.
She paused, thinking it over. Clearly, her use of the D-word had failed to deflate me. "Let me check and see if there are any mothers with small children that might move to accomodate you, sir" she said, dripping malice. "Good idea" I snapped right back.
I stood in the aisle as she headed forward. I spotted the fat guy. He flashed me a V-For-Victory sign. The motherly flight attendant sidled up to me, confessing, "you're in the right, you know". I jotted her name, rank and serial number down in my notebook as a potential witness for the upcoming Trial Of The Century. Yes, it'd be me against the airlines and I'd sway them with my tale of abuse and neglect. A couple of fellow passengers sought me out for counsel, "I've had the same problem on other flights" they told me, "I thought there was nothing I could do".
Minutes passed. It soon became apparent that several mothers with small children had refused to give up seats they'd paid good money for. And why should they? This was all the airline's fault. Murmurs of solidarity filled the economy class compartment. Talk of a Class Action suit buzzed among the passengers.
Finally, the head flight attendant motioned for me to come up front. She indicated an empty seat at the bulkhead. "I'm not supposed to do this but you can have my emergency seat. You'll have to vacate it during landing". I sat, slowly, triumphantly, and asked, "why didn't you do this in the first place?".
A small, but perceptible huzzah arose in the cabin. I'd won.
During landing I sat with the fat guy again. He thanked me for making the flight better for him. He was a programmer working on the Y2K problem and had many entertaining tales to relate about how civilization would come crashing down around us in the months ahead and we'd all be eating cold beans out of tin cans inbetween fending off hoardes of looters. We parted friends.
On landing in Tampa, I was promptly escorted to an office just outside the gate by the head flight attendant, who deposited me before a uniformed Delta ticketing agent. Mr. Red Blazer listened courteously to my tale of outrage. "Would $150 help?" he said. Sensing that this was going to be the outer limit of their generosity, I quickly accepted a gift certificate in that amount.
A few days later, I checked in to Tampa International for the return flight to LAX. By sheer coincidence, the guy behind the counter was Mr. Red Blazer. "Jeez, I hope I get a good seat" I said to him, winking like a dolt. He grinned back, nervously.
Despite the crowded flight, I enjoyed an entire bulkhead row to myself that featured plenty of legroom, a free movie, and complimentary wine. It turned out to be one of the best airline trips I'd ever had.