BGU researchers: Staring, not crowding, most bothers obese air travelers

Scientists recommend allowing overweight people to board first and redesigning seats and tray tables.

Overweight man [Illustrative] (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Overweight man [Illustrative]
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Fitting into too-small airline seats with too-tight seat belts is not the worst thing faced by the growing number of obese. Instead, feelings of shame and humiliation and the stares they encounter on board are much worse, according to an exploratory study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev researchers published in the Journal of Travel Research.
Prof. Yaniv Poria, chairman BGU’s department of hotel and tourism management in the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management, recounted the typical challenges they encounter while boarding, in-flight and deplaning.
Americans are among the fattest populations in the world, but Israelis are not far behind.
Researchers in Virginia interviewed 24 passengers – 11 men and 13 women aged 22 to 64 – deplaning off both direct and connecting flights who had been on short (less than two hours) and long (more than two hours) flights. Sixteen of the 24 passengers self-identified as obese, with a body mass index of 30 or above. Eight considered themselves morbidly obese.
“Most participants agreed that the way people stare at them during boarding and deplaning is humiliating and at times even shameful,” said Poria, who collaborated with Jeremy Beal, a graduate of Virginia Tech’s hospitality and tourism management program.
They suggest allowing obese people to board first and exit last and making design changes to rest rooms and seat trays that would make everyone more comfortable.
Additionally, they call on airlines to offer larger-sized seats.
Squeezing down aisles and into seats is particularly troublesome, the participants said, because they are unable to avoid touching other passengers. Many tried to be first in line to board so they could easily find their seats and “disappear.”
The researchers note that crew members can respectfully and discreetly make everyone’s flight experience more comfortable by moving a passenger sitting next to an obese person to another seat. Survey participants indicated 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 said. “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,” he explained. “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.”