Ignoring outraged groans and complaints from other passengers, the woman on the phone continued her loud, fat-shaming tirade as if the body mass index of the people seated next to her meant they couldn’t hear her or weren’t entitled to respect.
The video from the United Airlines flight — posted by one of the tirade’s targets, Norma Rodgers, an award-winning nurse and advocate against gun violence — starts with the middle-seat passenger fuming on the phone.
The woman laments that she had flown with frequent-flier miles and did not have a say in the seat assignment that had placed her between two passengers she loudly referred to as “pigs.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to do this the next four hours … because they’re squishing me,” she says into her phone.
“But at least they’ll keep me warm,” she jokes.
One of the passengers she was mocking can be seen in the frame a few inches away, sitting silently.
Other passengers attempt to defuse the situation, saying there are open seats in other parts of the plane. But ultimately, they become fed up.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” one man tells the woman. “What you’re doing is so terrible.”
“I can’t breathe,” she responds. “I’m so squished. I eat salad, okay?”
In a statement, a United Airlines spokeswoman told The Washington Post that the disruptive passenger was ultimately removed from the flight.
“United flight attendants care about the safety and well-being of all of our customers which is why they acted quickly to find a different seat for the disruptive customer,” the spokeswoman, Maddie King, said. “When it became clear that this passenger’s behavior was likely to be problematic on this flight, she was provided alternate travel arrangements first thing the next morning.”
But in a flash, the outburst became the latest example of what can happen when tense travelers are crammed into tiny seats with recirculated air and not enough decorum to go around.
In 2017, an airport employee punched an infant-carrying easyJet passenger in the face as tensions flared after a nightmarish 13-hour delay in France. The incident was immortalized in photos and videos shot outside the gate.
Other incidents have included racist and politically charged rants, smashed wine bottles and a passenger who tried to bite a flight attendant. Families have been booted from flights over a birthday cake and a toddler kicking a passenger’s seat. Over the summer, one flight was delayed for so long that passengers trapped on the plane rationed food.
But even before buckling her seat belt, Rodgers had stumbled into a controversy that sparks usually silent anger in some fliers while causing others to worry about being publicly fat-shamed by a stranger. Debates have raged about whether larger passengers should have to buy a second seat or even whether people should be weighed before walking down the jet bridge.
Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton and a well-known animal rights activist, has become a figurehead for the Weigh More Pay More movement, which says fat fliers should pay more because airlines and fellow passengers incur additional costs and discomfort. People on the other side of the issue say airlines should find a way to both turn a profit and treat larger passengers with respect.
Even Rodgers found herself being criticized by people on her own public post, as commenters said that the complaining woman’s conduct was unjustifiable but that she shouldn’t have to suffer because of someone else’s size.
Rodgers did not publicly respond to those statements or return calls from The Washington Post seeking comment.
She is the past president of the New Jersey State Nurses Association. Her Facebook timeline is filled with posts about nursing shortages and research for caretakers. She won an award for advocating for a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that treated gun deaths as a public health issue.
But in the moment captured by her cellphone camera, she was an airplane passenger, struggling to keep her composure next to a stranger who chose to loudly complain about her size.
It boiled over shortly before the video ended — when Rodgers signaled a passing flight attendant.
"Can you find her another seat?” Rodgers said. “Because I will not be verbally abused by this b---- or anyone else.”