Flying by the Size of My Pants

When you fly on anything smaller than a jet, I have news for you: you are cargo. And as cargo, what you weigh is crucial. In Alaska where I live, small planes rule—and not only in the roadless areas, which is most of the state. If you want to see what lies beyond the few urban areas, or even go flightseeing over a glacier, expect to have to disclose your weight to the ticket agent, to the people behind you in line at the counter, to the pilot, and to anyone else in hearing distance in the waiting room. And here is something else: no one wants you to fudge on how much you weigh. Because it matters. You don’t want to be the one sweating bullets when the plane has difficulty taking off because of too much weight.

I can hardly tell myself the truth about what I weigh. So telling a complete stranger takes guts. So I look her straight in the eye and I whisper the real number, not my ideal number, not the number I will be when I quit eating bread, not the number that the weight and height chart says I am supposed to be—yes, of course, I am large-boned, but not that large-boned. Sometimes I want to say it loudly so that I will be a good example to the people standing behind me who have suddenly stopped talking as soon as they heard the ticket agent ask me the big question. But I don’t have enough nerve to do it.

Often, I don’t have to actually tell anyone what I weigh. Instead, I step up on a large scale at the counter that looks as if it should be there for weighing luggage, but sadly isn’t. The only saving grace is that only the agent can see the number, and I think they must be trained in treating it as just another number. No raised eyebrows. I feel sorry for other passengers who start talking loudly about that big breakfast they just had. I want to tell them, with kindness, that there is no way it could have added on the ten pounds that they would have shaved off had they only had to answer the ticket agent and not hop on the scale.

Air taxi companies know that people routinely lie about their weight, which is why ticket agents always add on an extra ten pounds to whatever people tell them. Even though that is an absurdly small number. If you were actually going to lie, wouldn’t you subtract a whole lot less than ten pounds? I would. Maybe ticket agents become like carnival hucksters who can guess your weight with amazing accuracy. Bottom line: nobody wants to be on an overloaded plane because passengers lie about their weight. Just think of yourself as a piece of baggage that is getting transported and tell the truth.

And here’s a tip I learned the hard way: always use the bathroom before you get on a small plane. They don’t have bathrooms. What seems like an empty bladder on the ground fills up at 3,000 feet. And you won’t like it. Best of all, it will lower your weight a bit.



Bridget Smith lives and writes in Juneau, Alaska. St. Martin’s Press published her adult mystery novel Death of an Alaskan Princess in 1988, and a film, Raven’s Blood, followed. Her essays have appeared in several national and regional publications, including Christian Science Monitor. Alaska Public Radio has aired more than 30 of her commentaries.

Categories: Airports, Airplanes, Airlines

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