Op-Ed: Fat shaming has no place in dialog about seats

With all the compassion of a schoolyard bully, a Jetstar passenger has used the power of the pen to ridicule and dehumanize a passenger of size whom he says was seated next to him on a recent flight from Perth to Sydney.

But rather than receive scorn for what must be one of the most vulgar, mean-spirited #PaxEx diatribes ever written, its author, Rich Wisken, has become an Internet sensation, watching with glee as his toxic letter of complaint to Jetstar has gone viral with the help of publications like the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail. I can’t in good conscience link to the article here so you’ll have to “Google it” if you want to read it.

05_WebBanner_300x300Wisken’s Twitter page says “I write silly things on the Internet.” No, sir, you write malicious things on the Internet. And sadly, you’re being celebrated for it. Fat shaming must surely be one of the last cesspools of prejudice in which society can wallow without fear of consequence.

If any good can come of this sad episode, perhaps it will prompt airlines to look more seriously at offering wider seats on board their aircraft. A few years ago, Airbus unveiled a new seat-triple concept for its A320 family. The design, developed by B/E Aerospace, featured two 17in-wide seats and a third, 20in-wide seat, the latter of which could accommodate passengers of size or reduced mobility (at a higher price).

While no airline customer for the 17in-17in-20in concept has yet been announced, the Irish Independent reports that Aer Lingus is keeping “under review” the possible introduction of wider seating, and hints that the Airbus seat-triple would be a good option.

Explaining how Airbus monitors trends on the ground to meet the needs of passengers in the air, Airbus VP cabin innovation & design Ingo Wuggetzer recently noted that the next generation of traveler is indeed wider in girth.

Let’s hope that the next generation of traveler also has more milk of human kindness than Rich Wisken.


  1. Rich WIsken is neither clever nor funny. His letter is simply mean-spirited. The real story here is that the average human being is getting larger (taller, broader, yes – even heavier), and oddly, the airlines just keep making their seats smaller. These days, flying commercially is an all-around uncomfortable experience.

  2. Shane

    He wasn’t fat shaming, he was complaining about the crap service he got from Jetstar.

    He didn’t name the fat person, he described his discomfort at being trapped next to an obese person who obviously didn’t fit into the seat.

    You’re like every other person who’s taken the high moral ground on his letter, you’ve missed the point entirely.

    If anything, it opens up a bigger issue of what is an obese person doing in an exit isle above the wing? What happens in an emergency? They get stuck in the exit and everyone gets trapped? In Australia the flight attendants are required to ask if you have any physical impediments that would hinder your ability to open the exit in an emergency. I cannot see how a morbidly obese individual could ever have the physical capability of opening an emergency exit and getting out, when they have difficulty standing up.

    How about you look at the real issue, which is safety, and not focus on the fluff of not offending fat people for being fat.

  3. I think the real question in all this that appears to have been lost is:

    What the hell were Jetstar doing permitting such a morbidly obese person into an emergency exit row? Aren’t those folks supposed to be able to open escape doors & perform other physical tasks as required?

    When I fly other airlines, flight attendants explain to those of us in the exit rows that we’re required to perform extra tasks and be called upon to help.

    No mention of whether the Jetstar folks did this or not and, if performed, how the large person in question was going to be able to perform the actions required.

    Given everything else we have to suffer for “Safety & Security” reasons, I’m surprised this issue hasn’t been pounced on.

  4. Lee

    I totally agree with his sentiments. It’s ridiculous that we have to put up with so many overweight people (who always have a convenient excuse) expecting the same treatment on a space and weight constrained mode of transport as people half their size.

    This person should have been forced to buy two seats.

  5. Mary Kirby

    The focus of his letter was not about safety. He was having a childish, cruel rant about a fellow human being. I don’t believe he mentioned the word “safety” even once.

    The issue of ‘passenger size and safety’ is certainly important, and could be a addressed in a way that does not dehumanize others. For instance, you’ve just made a very valid point without causing needless pain.

    The seat concept mentioned in this article – the Airbus 17-17-20 triple – might be worth some consideration by the industry. For visual reference, see: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/287948969899047608/

  6. I am a woman “of size” who fits in her seat. I refuse to give any clicks to the gentleman’s rant, so my comments are based on what Mary wrote and the group’s responses so far. First, there is no room in any discussions about overweight passengers for mean-spirited and disparaging comments.

    That being said, this is a discussion that needs to happen as obesity rates continue to rise. Airline policies on dealing with passengers of size are so random (from flight to flight and even gate agent to gate agent), there needs to be a single standard. Isn’t there a way to have a discreet place for a row of seats and ask people of size — tactfully — to see if they might need another seat? And I agree with Grant – do we really want to rely on a morbidly obese person sitting in the exit row during an emergency to help with things like handling a heavy door?

    While I’m happy to see that Airbus has developed a wider seat, are any of us optimistic that the airlines will consider adding it to their fleets as they find ANY way to squeeze everywhere to make those razor-thin profits? Again, this is all part of a bigger discussion that I wish was going to happen, but I’m afraid it won’t.

  7. Mary Kirby

    One of the reasons why airlines have not adopted the Airbus seat-triple concept is that global distribution systems have not kept pace with their ancillary offerings, such as extra legroom seats. Fellow Runway Girl Lori Ranson wrote about Delta’s current problems with gaining visibility for its Economy Comfort product here: https://runwaygirlnetwork.com/2013/12/22/delta-to-make-economy-comfort-option-more-visible-to-passengers/

    It seems to me if the distribution equation is addressed, airlines could offer far more creative seating options to passengers, perhaps even the proposed Morph seat, which is billed as being able to accommodate passengers of size, passengers with reduced mobility and truly anyone who needs a bit more space (as an extra-tall passenger, a wider seat would be welcome as it would provide me and fellow friendly giants with more legroom if we sat with our legs like this //.) See the Morph video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8REY-oXl3U

  8. Rob

    Thank you for taking a level-headed look at this.

    I agree, the issue of how to deal with larger folks… be it in weight or even height… needs to be addressed, but doing so by comparing another human to a baby hippo is not the way to go.

    He us expressing a dehumanizing, bigoted, discriminatory view and calling it “humor”. Maybe even more discouraging is that so many people are fine with it because he didn’t give the guys name or anything. So it’s ok to be bigoted… as long as your target is anonymous it seems.

  9. Mary Kirby

    Thanks, Rob. As the saying goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Nice site, by the way.

  10. Louise K

    Jetstar have a policy that if you have to wear a seat belt extender, you cannot be seated in the emergency exit row. Now either Jetstar didn’t adhere to their own safety rules or, more likely, Rich Wisken made the whole thing up to gain attention. I’m leaning towards the latter. Let’s hope Jestar picks up on this and challenge him for soiling their name. Thanks for writing this, I am still at a loss as to how people can support this kind of behavior.

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  13. The Airbus (Suzana Hrnkova) creative thinking will affect the APEX ease of feeder-travelling corpulent individuals in other ways, if Operators hear their proposals for (post-2017) VLCC cabin installation in A321, @ 28″ pitch/236 pax ?? … please, Mary : where exactly will corpulent individuals fit into such an environment ? This other controversial point is debated here :

  14. iain

    Seems more likely this article is what actually happened -http://gothamist.com/2009/12/03/new_photo_brings_flying_overweight.php#.

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