Letter from Johannesburg
By Mwangi Githahu

Over the last few years there have been reports from no less an august
body than the World Health Organisation (WHO) about a dramatic
increase in obesity on the African continent.

As one who has a tendency to fat myself, I often catch myself reading
and occasionally saving news reports about such developments. I am
something of a nerd when it comes to the gathering of useless

That’s how some years ago I came to find out about a study carried out
by the interestingly named International Association for the Study of
Obesity which claimed that in South Africa 64 per cent of the black
population and 50 per cent of the white population are overweight or

Now this would have remained just some more useless information that I
had stored up, were it not for a recent report from the European
aircraft manufacturer Airbus who have decided to offer their clients
the option of super-sized seats for large people on its A320 planes.
According to a front-page story in South Africa’s Business Day
newspaper, one of the first airlines to confirm that was thinking
about the new option for its fleet is South African Airways (SAA).
The newspaper reported Theunis Potgieter, SAA commercial GM saying,
“These seats will be wider with more legroom and will easily
accommodate larger passengers.”
Nevertheless, for the time being Potgieter said the economy class
seating configuration on SAA’s fleet would remain the same, with seat
dimensions “that are well within industry standards and better than
key competitors.”
Potgieter was reacting to questions from a reporter who recently
visited Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France where she learnt of
the Airbus expansion plans from Zuzana Hrukara, Airbus’s head of
aircraft interiors marketing.
Hrukara explained to the Business Day reporter that in a standard
Airbus A320 economy cabin, there is a single aisle, flanked by three
seats on each side, all 18 inches wide.
To accommodate the super-size seats, all aisle seats will be 20 inches
wide and the other two will be reduced to 17 inches.
According to Hrukara, “Countries and airlines recognise obesity as a
growing phenomenon. This concept was discussed and used in active
campaigns in North America.”
She said the new offering was driven by demand from the US, but that
“If operators are interested, we will install it across the cabin (or
in specific areas).”
Hrukara said it was up to individual carriers to decide if they wanted it.
According to the Business Day report, Airbus thinks airlines will be
in a position to charge an additional fee for the wider seats,
estimating that additional revenue would total $3m over 15 years.
However, indignant journalists attending the Airbus briefing said they
objected to subsidising the larger seats, and paying the same for
smaller seats.
To which Hrukara said that pricing would depend on airlines, and noted
that the obese seats “improve the travel experience for those sitting
close by”.
Meanwhile, until the new seating arrangements arrive at your favourite
airline, perhaps I should leave you with some tips I picked up on the
internet for flying seated next to those of us with a wider than
airline-seat average girths.
If you’re seated next to a large passenger:
Keep in mind that, just like you, your seatmate is a ticketed
passenger. They may be more uncomfortable than you are. You’re going
to be in this together, so be polite as you settle in.
If another passenger is taking up part of you seat space, stay put
until everyone else has been seated. If the flight is not full, you
can move to a nearby empty seat before take-off.
On a full flight, you’ll just need to make the best of it. Be patient:
this isn’t a permanent situation and you’ll eventually get to your
Rather than sit and stew, get up and walk up and down the aisle a bit
or find a spot out of traffic to stand and read a magazine or chat
quietly with another passenger.
And as long as you and your seatmate may be, literally, cheek-to-cheek
for a few hours, try getting to know him or her. Your seatmate is
probably as fed up with air travel as you are. You might end up making
a new friend or business contact and shedding some stereotypes along
the way.
If you are a large passenger:
Again, keep in mind that, like you, your seatmate is a ticketed
passenger. You’re going to be in this together, so be pleasant and
polite as you settle in.
Always get an aisle seat. As an oversized person, I would take a more
inconvenient flight if necessary to avoid the dreaded middle seat, or
even some airline’s window seats. This allows your shoulder to hang
over into the aisle a little bit (and if the stewardess keeps brushing
against you its not all bad).Also you can stick your feet out into the
aisle to stretch a little bit.
If possible, do not store anything under the seat in front, so as to
free up a little leg room.
Humble yourself and ask for a seatbelt extender.
Avoid using the airplane’s bathroom. It would be very embarrassing to
get wedged in that tiny space and have the fire department pry you out
at the next stop.
Sit in the emergency exit aisle. There is a LOT more legroom. You do
have to agree to lift a 50 pound door, throw it out of the plane,
climb out and assist other passengers, but I haven’t had to yet. And
in an emergency I would be the first one off the plane, which is good.
It’s not your fault airline seats are so tiny. If you find yourself
cheek-to-cheek with your seatmate, try to make the best of it. You
might end up shedding some stereotypes too.

You may also like...