Petite Life

Flying while petite: Is it really an advantage?

We short people face discrimination in virtually every walk of life, from employment to shopping to dating. But, in this era of shrinking seats, airline travel is generally assumed to be the one shining exception. Unlike tall passengers, who are crammed into tiny seats with their knees up to their elbows, we petites can luxuriate in our roomy seats and enjoy the one place where we actually have an advantage.

But do we, really?

I’m a travel addict. By my rough estimation, I’ve been on over 300 flights in my lifetime, logging over a thousand hours in the air, and travelling a distance equivalent to the moon and halfway back again.

In the past three decades, people have gotten bigger, but airplane seats have gotten smaller. Much smaller. Economy class seats used to regularly have 33″ and up of seat “pitch” (i.e. distance between rows) and now some budget airlines have shrunk this space to as low as 28″. Similarly, seat width has been reduced from an average of 19″ to 17″ in that time — this despite the fact that people are getting bigger.

Needless to say, this means that, for anyone of above-average height or size, flying in economy class has gone from bearable to unbearable. Passengers of size are routinely required by airlines to book two seats if they can’t fit properly in one, and are shamed or even thrown off flights. Meanwhile, tall passengers are forced to pay extra — sometimes double or triple the price of an economy fare — to book premium economy or business class seats, just so they can squeeze into them. The airlines have few, if any, restrictions on how much more they can squeeze their seats in the name of profit. So this is a problem that’s getting worse, not better.

But we short people don’t get away scot-free on planes, either. Despite the fact that we have an easier time squeezing our knees into the seat, there are other problems that short people face while flying. And, while there are thousands of articles about the problems of flying while tall, I haven’t many discussions around the issues facing petite flyers.

It’s a tight fit for us, too

There’s some misconception that we petites are really small. Like, lilliputian small. But honestly, we’re not that much smaller than most people. Those seats that you find so uncomfortable? Yeah, we find them uncomfortable, too.

I’m 5’1″. That’s over a foot shorter than many tall men. And even I find a the smaller seat pitch to be unbearably uncomfortable. The seat in front of me is basically in my lap. The one beside me is on top of me.

And, remember, unlike taller passengers, I usually can’t see over the seat in front of me. That can make flying feel especially claustrophobic.

Seat ergonomics and headrest placement

The worst thing about flying while petite is that those seats were not designed for us. They, like most everything else in the world, were designed for average-height men. That means that most petites are at 8-10″ too short to sit in them properly.

The so-called “ergonomic” seatbacks are, for petites, anything but. The headrest, which is designed to curve inward at the base of the neck and support the head, inevitably hits me at the top of my head even on its lowest setting. This forces the rest of my head and neck forward, hunched over in an extremely painful position as long as the seat is upright. The minimal lumbar support, such as it is in the newer slimline seats, also hits me at around the shoulder blades. A portable or inflatable neck pillow helps a bit. But let’s not pretend that there’s any advantage to being short in this situation.

Now, those seats ain’t exactly comfortable for average-height or tall people either. So you may think you understand the discomfort. But trust me when I tell you, unless you’ve ever experienced a seat like that at my height, you can’t even imagine how painful it is. And, remember, we’re sitting in these seats for hours at a time.

The recline wars

As seats get closer and closer together, a war has naturally emerged about that touchy subject of seat recline.

Some airlines have started installing seats that don’t recline on their short-haul aircraft. A product called the knee defender came to brief prominence a couple of years ago for blocking the seat in front of you from reclining. When a passenger tried to use it, he got into such a heated argument with the person in front of him that it actually required them to ground the airplane. The argument goes, you have a precious few inches of legroom, so why give them up just so the person in front of you can recline?

But, when you’re petite, an inch or two of recline is sometimes the only thing stopping you from having serious back pain on a flight. When you’re too short for the seatback, as described above, that neckrest is going to push your head and neck uncomfortably forward when your seat is upright. Sitting that way for even the twenty minutes or so of takeoff and landing is nearly unbearable. Sitting that way for any longer would be akin to torture.

Taller passengers — who have the biggest knee space problems — don’t know what that feels like. And, since tall people speak louder than short people and are accorded more respect in our society, it’s their voices we hear the most often. It’s their insistence that reclining your seat is “being a jerk” that we hear and, sometimes, internalize.

I personally try not to recline more than I need to. I’ll move my seat back up during mealtimes on a long haul flight, and try to limit recline as much as possible the rest of the time. But it’s a real problem for shorter people on planes. I’d personally like to know when someone will start selling the neck defender.

That dangling problem

Having legs that are too short can be just as bad as having legs that are too long. In my case, like many petites, my legs are too short to comfortably reach the floor on standard airplane seats. That leaves them dangling an inch or so off the ground. Have you ever tried that on an eight-hour long haul flight? Holy pins and needles, Batman!

Once upon a time, planes had footrests at most economy seats, which helped to alleviate that problem. But those have pretty much disappeared over the last couple of decades, much to my chagrin. What’s more, with the narrower seat width, you can’t even curl up or cross your legs anymore to try to get around this issue. I used to happily curl myself into a window seat with my feet tucked under me, and I’d manage just fine. These days, there’s simply not enough room to do this.

So I’m left resorting to a number of tactics that consist of “bad passenger behaviour” — seat yoga, putting my feet up on the back of the seat in front of me, crossing and uncrossing my legs every five minutes to prevent my feet from falling asleep, shifting uncomfortably in my seat all flight, pacing up and down the aisles rather than sitting down, or removing my shoes so I can use my backpack as a footrest. I’m not proud of these things. I’d like to be able to rest my feet flat on the floor. But I’m just too short.

By the way, have you ever had the unfortunate experience of sitting in front of a small child who was kicking your seat? Yeah, it’s annoying as heck. But try to have a little sympathy. Their legs don’t reach the ground either, and they’re just doing what they can to prevent their feet from falling asleep.

Side note: I’ve heard of some inflatable or portable travel footrests for kids on airplanes. I’ve never tested any of them, but maybe I ought to? Doesn’t this look comfortable?

The overhead bin is a reach

At my height, reaching the overhead bin to load and unload my luggage is a bit of a stretch. Literally. And I’m far from the only petite traveller to have this problem.

I can just about manage to get my bag up there, sometimes standing on tiptoes. Getting it down is an exercise in futility. I’ve sometimes managed to hop up on the edge of a seat or even on an armrest to do it, but the rest of the time, it’s just too high.

What’s more, most airline regulations now prohibit flight attendants from helping out. So I’m utterly reliant on the help of a good samaritan passenger to help me get my bag down after a flight. Which isn’t humiliating or anything when you’re a grown woman, right?

People make assumptions

Being petite means that you get disrespected a lot, and airplanes are no exception. People frequently assume I would be happy to switch seats with them and take the middle seat just because I’m small. The chutzpah with which they make that assumption is galling, to say the least.

One of my most frustrating flying experiences was on a recent Air Canada Rouge flight home from Havana, Cuba. Now, anyone who’s flown Rouge knows how tiny and uncomfortable those seats are. Knowing this, I splurged ahead of time for a premium window seat that had extra legroom. In this particular plane’s configuration, the window seat had more legroom than either the middle or aisle seat in the same row. When I boarded the plane, there was a couple sitting in the window and aisle. I gestured to them that I’d like to climb into my seat, and the woman stood up and said “would you mind switching with my husband please?”

“Um, I don’t see why,” I replied. They were sitting together.

“Well, I do,” she replied hotly. “My husband is much taller than you. He deserves that legroom, not you.”

Now, remember, I paid for this seat. This guy had just as much of a right as I did to pay for an upgraded seat, too. He didn’t. He had some nerve assuming he was entitled to my seat, and I told him so, rudely. (It was 5am. I hadn’t had my coffee. I was not in the mood for this.)

He didn’t reply, but his wife gave me death stares for the entire rest of the flight.

Good times.

It’s not about us versus them

Ultimately, this divide-and-conquer strategy employed by the airlines results in tall and short passengers blaming each other. Short people who don’t give up their extra legroom seats or who recline to avoid back pain are “jerks”. Tall passengers who don’t pay extra for premium seats are “cheap”. Larger passengers who don’t fit into their seats are fair game for fat-shaming or worse. And so on, and so forth.

But this is what the airline wants. Because while we’re busy attacking one another, they’re squeezing more and more seats onto a plane to make more profit. And, with almost no regulations about this, the problem is only going to get worse. What’s an issue for people over six feet or larger passengers today will be an issue for all of us tomorrow. Already, some airlines have floated  ridiculous-sounding ideas like standing-room only flights … which probably means it’s only a matter of time before these ideas get implemented somewhere.

Let’s stop fighting each other. Let’s start placing the blame squarely where it belongs — with the airlines — and pushing for minimum seat pitch and width regulations that make sense for all of us.

Flying, after all, shouldn’t be unbearable. At any height.

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