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The battle for the economy class armrest


Airplane interior, Flickr image by ma1974Recent events both aeronautical and financial have been daunting enough to scare anyone off banks and aeroplanes forever. Forced however to do some time in the national capital, I found myself flying home last week via Melbourne: unless you depart at dawn or after sunset, you can't fly Canberra/Adelaide direct; you change in Melbourne, or Sydney, or possibly Luanprabang, or forget it.

I resolved to use my air time to think deeply about the global crisis. If I'm going to be 'on the brink of systemic meltdown' I want to know what exactly that means and where better to grapple with this conundrum than 37,000 feet up in the air precariously jousting with a different kind of brink?

So, with an array of gloomily headlined morning papers, a heavy heart, light head, average knee and sluggish liver, I boarded what the pilots call 'our short flight down to Melbourne'.

Just my luck though. Having secured as always an aisle seat as far forward as possible, I find myself alongside a very large person, or, not to put too fine a point on it, grossly fat — a key player in one of the other crises of our anxious times: obesity.

His wife is small, but she takes the window. He, like many large people on planes, immediately overflows the middle seat and our shared armrest. Then he positions his newspaper so that it cuts out the sunlight (which in any case his wife, being not only small but apparently light-sensitive, cancels fully by pulling down the shade).

As for me, I'm leaning so far into the aisle that the pilot can hardly see to back out.

An idea I've had, which I intend to pass on to the appropriate philosophers who plan our wellbeing in the skies, is to take a line from clothing measurements and have Economy Class XOS. Every few rows, they could have not three seats but one XOS (probably about double size) alongside one ordinary economy squeezy.

During the safety demonstration I consider the problem presented by my adipose companion. Not wishing to look like an aeronautical neophyte, I generally don't watch the safety demonstration — I already have noticed that all aeroplanes 'subtly' differ from each other — but I have to admit to a sneaking regard for the Life Belt instruction which involves complex references to tags, tapes, passing things round your waist and tying them somewhere, pulling down on this one but not on that one, blowing whistles and turning on lights, not to mention visions of being stuck in the doorway inflated beyond the dreams of physics, while panicking passengers jab at you from behind with pins. So I take unobtrusive glances at that bit: if we're going to come down in the Hume Weir, I'll be ready.

It turns out to be a tough struggle with my amplitudinous travelling companion and this renders my plan of thinking through the troubles of the hour, let alone reading about them in umbrella sized broadsheet pages, almost untenable. Bracing myself by anchoring a foot against the seat in front, I make guerrilla attacks on the armrest, taking valuable territory when he turns a page, losing it again when he resettles.

A baby behind us proves an unexpected ally: when she begins to scream loudly, my seat mate says 'Oh shit' and puts both hands over his ears; whereupon of course, I enfilade the armrest, bracket his base position, and have troops bivouacking deep inside his territory before you can say 'The two biggest share routs on record were the 49.2 per cent crash of 1987 and the 46 per cent plunge of 1929'.

Then the baby cops a mouthful of dummy and I'm once again fending off beefy biceps in the shade of his Sumo shoulder.

In cases like this, you have to try everything — get the enemy off guard. 'What's your favourite scientific principle?' I say to him suddenly. 'What!' A real charmer this one. 'Mine's Bernoulli's Principle,' I tell him. 'Air passing at speed over a curved surface creates a vacuum. Very important to us at the moment — it's why planes fly. Let's hear it for Bernoulli, what do you reckon?'

He gives me as much of a pitying look as shuddering, overlapping jowls will allow, and his petite missus shows her disdain by turning to look out the window — which is bad luck because the shade's down and the effect is lost.

All in all, not a good trip. I get no thinking done and so the great problems of the day remain unresolved. Personally, I blame Bernoulli. We probably weren't meant to fly — especially the larger among us. It's not conducive to deep thought: it's not only above the curved surface of the wing that you find a vacuum on planes.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG. 

Topic tags: brian matthews, market crash, plane crash, economy class



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Existing comments

They have those metal frames at the departure gate to check for oversize carry-on baggage. They should have similar frames to check for oversize passengers, with a big sign saying "No Fat Bastards". How's that for Christianity!

Richard Olive | 15 October 2008  

You poor baby. Have you forgotten that the world is made up of fat people, thin people, tall people, short people etc etc. Next time fly business class and you won't have this problem.

pat | 15 October 2008  

I recall a cartoon with Jesus saying, 'The thin shall inherit the earth". Apparently they are the only ones entitled to inherit the air as well.

CHRIS WATSON | 15 October 2008  

Just extend that problem to include rail travel.

Last week I booked online to travel on the XPT from NSW into Brisbane. Paid the extra to get some rest overnight with reclining seat and extra legroom, but found my seat next to a lady of ample frame did not allow room even for an armrest to separate us.
Obliging conductor found another seat.
It was above wheels and provided
screeches and groans of tortured metal all night. Give me air travel anytime - it would have been over in an hour, not all night.

Kel Hutton | 15 October 2008  

Mmm ... I so relate to the arm rest resistance. Just like luggage we all should be weighed in and excess weight charged for! Maybe check Occupational, Health and Safety regulations as well - I'll leave this to your imagination. What about the likes of me, whose feet tickle the ankles of the passenger in front? A skyscraper class for me. Wonder who will sit next to me next Monday.

jo dallimore | 15 October 2008  

We no longer attack folk verbally or in print because of their gender, race or colour. Why is it now okay to jeer at, humiliate and deride people who are overweight? Are we deemed to have no feelings; and/or to have deliberately gained weight in order to irritate and annoy others? Shame on Catholic News for elevating Matthews' piece. No, fat people are not perfect: are you?

Pirrial Clift | 16 October 2008  

You can be lucky, or you can be unlucky. I once sat next to a young Japanese couple, me on the aisle, her (very pretty) in the middle, him at the window. We took off and, almost immediately, she fell asleep, with her head on my shoulder, and stayed that way for nearly the whole two hours of the flight. I thought I was lucky.

Gavan | 16 October 2008  

Pirrial - To my reading, Brian's article is more about his travelling companion's lack of consideration, than his weight per se. In this instance the passenger in question is overweight, but it could easily be someone who is excessively muscular or, indeed, very skinny but too rude to share their armrest. Regardless of size or shape we should be considerate of the needs of those around us.

Charles Boy | 16 October 2008  

By my reckoning, a bank of 3 seats would have, at most, 4 armrests to share between the 3 travellers. Brian, having the aisle seat, would already have one armrest. Why should he be the only one entitled to 2 armrests? Selfish, skinny scribbler.

eclair | 20 November 2008  

this bloke's living my nightmare on the 4:40 To Campbelltown. it's about time they started charging these bastards double fares!

Phil | 11 May 2009  

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