This weekend was spent up in Sydney where I took myself off to the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Being in Australia, I miss the variety of art that's available in European cities. This is not to say that we don't have great art for the viewing over here, it's just the variety is nowhere near as good as it in in Europe. I try and get to the major exhibitions about the place and Francis Bacon is a favourite of mine from long back. I reckon I'll take myself up to Canberra to see the Toulouse Lautrec early next year too.
The Bacon exhibition, a view of the artist's work over five decades, was thoughtfully curated and wonderfully confronting. Bacon is an artist who has no boundaries when it comes to physical and emotional violence. I remember the press in London when he died 20 years ago which piqued my interest back then. I've liked his work ever since.
The exhibition was a fascinating display - some images were disturbing, others tender, others you just have to wonder about. It was a great way to spend a morning before coming back to Melbourne - and it helped the dim the wine and cheese hangover that was throbbing away after spending a very pleasant Saturday with some friends in a bistro by the harbour.
Grabbing my overnight bag from the coat room, I made my way to the airport for the flight back. Being a bit early, I found myself an uninspiring lunch and waited for the flight. We boarded on time, no probs at all.
It turned out to be one of the more uncomfortable flights I've had in a while.
I took my window seat over the wing. No problems. Being a 2-3-2 configuration, there was only one person next to me. I regularly fly and regularly take this seat for a reason. With only one person next to me it's about as comfortable as you can get on a plane - and I like my space.
On this flight the person next to me was morbidly obese.
Space was an issue.
It's one of those sensitive topics that noboby wants to handle. It's a subject that really nobody can provide a right or wrong answer to. What happens to people when they are too large to fit into a standard economy airline seat?
The cynic in my is screaming that nobody over six foot tall can be comfortable in a standard economy airline seat, having taken numerous flights with gangly male friends in this category and watching them have to concertina their limbs into the small space - on short flights it's not too bad - but what must it be like on long haul flights?
I'm also going to come at this with a view from the other side. In the past I was large enough to have the tray table knock against my stomach when it was down. Thankfully the seatbelt has always done up. I'm now of a size that the tray table and seatbelt are of no issue and I've always managed to not take up any more than my own allocated space - but I was gettting there for a while. Thankfully this isn't the case for me now, but I do understand the feeling of humiliation I felt as I comprehended that if I kept on the track I was on I'd be too large to fly unless prized into the seat with a shoe horn. It was one of the drivers to get me losing weight.
This gentleman on yesterday's flight was very large. At under six foot and the bulk of two standard rugby players, he looked apprehensive as he took his seat beside me. He required an extension seatbelt and he could not put his tray table down. Jammed into the seat his body encroached over my side of the arm rest. It was a full flight. There was no moving about and I pressed myself up against the window to avoid touching him. It's not that I have anything against this person - I just don't want to be wedged up against him for the the hour flight back to Melbourne. I like my personal space.
Nor did I make mention of this to the cabin crew. It was a full flight. I made no effort to ask to be moved, nor did the guy next to me. There was no point.
Here is the difficulty. When is somebody too large to fly? Or more to the point, what is the point where a person - or the airline makes arrangements for the space for a large person to be able to have a seat that does compromise their own or other people's comfort?
I have a friend who's six foot seven. Over the last twenty years he's taken numerous flights. He actively avoids some airlines, accrues frequent flyer points on other so that he can fly business class or premium economy at a reduced rate or tries to arrange an exit row seat beforehand so that he, and the people next to him, can have a modicum of comfort during the flight. My friend actively tries to work with the airlines to ensure that he, and everybody around him are as comfortable as possible.
I've heard many really tall people taking measure such at these. They have bodies out of the projections of the aircraft designers. The thing is, aircraft designers haven't taken the fact that people are becoming wider into consideration either. It's all about how many people you can fit onto a plane. He told me that most people of his height will try and make these provisions. It better for everybody.
There are, of course, the anti-descrimination aspects of being extremely large and travelling on airlines. How does an airline define when somebody is too large to fly? I'm technically obese, but I have more than enough room in an economy seat. Calculating this on BMI is certainly not the way to go - most travelling rugby teams would be screaming blue murder if this was the case anyway.
Looking around the web, it appears that most airlines have a policy that if a person requires an seatbelt extension and cannot fit into their seat with the arm rests down that they will be moved to a place where there is a free seat next to them if available. Some airlines in the US and Europe insist that if you need an extension belt and can't fit into the seat with the airm rests down that you are to purchase two seats or upgrade to Business class. End of story - no questions asked.
It's the elephant in the room (pardon the pun). Airlines are continually charging more for baggage services. Go a kilo or more over your baggage allowance and you are royally stung. Will there come a time that if you are over a certain weight or size you will be charged as well?
This is the third flight I've had where the person next to me has been of a size and girth where they have encroached on my general comfort. It's not great, sure, but I'm too polite to say anything or asked to be moved. The people next to me didn't say anything to the cabin crew either (Although on all three occasions the flights have been full to the brim - you're not going to get moved regardless of asking). The most I got out of one passenger next to me was, "I'm big, sorry I take up so much room." The others have said nothing. Why should anybody have to apologise for their size? Then again, why should I be uncomfortable because the person next to me is spilling into my seating area.
Something is going to have to give at some stage. Or maybe, like my very tall friend in the States, people will have to start taking active responsibility and start working with the airlines to gain a level of comfort for themselves and those around them.
Possibly airlines could make a couple of seats available with extra width in economy - although most would call this business class and be done with it.
Who is to take responsibility for the comfort of all? Is it a personal charge or one for the airlines to maintain?
It's a hard one.