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I am currently in the process of changing employers and will be relocating to a new area, and a new exciting position. This new job requires me to travel long distances by plane 3-4 times a year.

My new employer has a policy of allowing employees to fly first class, provided they have a medical reason behind it. I have two herniated discs in my spine. Sitting for long periods of time (driving especially) tends to cause really nasty pain and numbness in my legs. At my desk, I periodically stand and stretch to alleviate the pain, but for the most part I find my day-to-day activities unaffected by the pain. I'm still able to enjoy a fairly active lifestyle and by looking at me you would have no clue about my condition. For some odd reason, weight lifting (with the exception of deadlifts and squats) does not cause pain, but sitting in a weird position does. In the past, this has led to some interesting discussions between management and myself regarding my office chairs and requiring chairs with significant lumbar support.

As a result, I can foresee a bit of awkwardness with traveling with my team. While the rest of the team is in economy class (including members far more senior than I am), I would be in first class. I have found that (in the past) economy seats can vary wildly in the way they affect my back. Sometimes I feel fine, but for the most part, I am reaching for a bottle of pain medication after an hour or so. Also, standing and stretching is sometimes frowned upon by the stewardesses given that there is either turbulence or they are serving beverages.

What adds to this is my pride. I played a lot of sports growing up and unless my leg was severed totally from my body, I would "suck it up." In retrospect this attitude actually caused a nasty flare up that had me off of work for several weeks receiving treatment. I refused help from my wife with a heavy box and that caused a really nasty episode.

So here are my questions:

  1. How should I approach this?
  2. Do I have to divulge my medical condition to my teammates?
  3. Will they not believe me since I am still fairly active? Will they feel like I am abusing the system for my own personal gain?

Thanks for the help.

  • Heh, I was raised by my cowboy grandfather who came of age before WWII. He didn't stop working even when blood was coming out of his ears. When I developed a serious medical problem, my attempts to emulate my grandfather, got me hauled unconscious out of the office by EMTs, twice. I caused way more work interruption and stress on my colleques than if I'd just called in for a day or two or even taken medical leave. – TechZen Jul 10 '14 at 21:28
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    Is it a widely known policy in your company that you need a medical condition to get first class? Are their any other reasons that you can get first class? If it is widely known and there are no other reasons, just bring a doctors note to HR and you won't have any issues. – littlekellilee Jul 10 '14 at 21:30
  • Is it normal in your (new) company for everybody to be on the same flight? Some places actually have rules against that (for risk reduction). – Monica Cellio Jul 11 '14 at 1:08
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You should get a written document from your doctor describing why you need to fly in larger seats and what other accomodations are needed to do your job effectively.

Then you should take it to HR and ask them to authorize you to fly first class.

Now you have the problem of team resentment. You do not have to disclose to your team other than you havea medical reason why you need to be in the first class seats. If anyone asks for further details, you can say that your medical history is private and refuse to discuss. If you don't discuss the problme though, people will still speculate and wonder if you are gaming the system, especially if you do not appear to have a problem at other times.

However, I have noticed that there tends to be less resentment when people are more aware of the problem and why you need an accomodation. If you feel comfortable explaining about your back issues, I would tend to think you should. I would strongly suggest that you include your boss when you contact HR for teh accomodation, so that he can diffuse any problems if peopel seem to be uset that you are getting special treatment.

I would also tend to think you should stop sucking it up and trying to do what you should not be doing. If you are consistent about not doing things becasue you havea back problem, then people are more likely to beliwve you have one. If you pick up heavy things at work, then you show your teammates you are not really disabled. If you play on the company sports team, it also looks suspicious. If you want an accommodation, you need people to believe it and doing things that look suspicious doesn't help your case with your co-workers. Nor is sucking it up and doing things out of pride good for your long-term health. Leave the heavy stuff for your healthy co-workers. Make sure to do stretches in front of them and get up from the desk often. It looks funny that you can sit at a desk without moving for hours and can't sit in an airplane seat too. In fact if you shouldn't be sitting for long periods, consider also asking for a standing desk.

Besides not doing other physically stessful things that could put you flat on your back for weeks, I would make sure to be known as a good team player as far as the work goes. People are going to resent you less for flying first class if they like you for the way you contribute to the team. Go out of your way to help (except for the heavy lifting!) and you will be given the benefit of the doubt most places and amounfg most people.

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    The other option is to upgrade the other staff on that flight, Texas Instruments used to do this. – Pepone Jul 10 '14 at 21:24
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    @Pepone - When I was Apple, HR just flat told me I had to fly first class because of my height. They usually bumped everyone else up to a certain number of people. – TechZen Jul 10 '14 at 21:30
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    If you back problems require something other than the companies standard office chair, most people will probably suspect you have at least some level of back issue even if you never say anything. – Dan is Fiddling by Firelight Jul 11 '14 at 13:38
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To avoid the topic entirely you could also claim:

  • You cover the difference from your personal funds. (Many companies offer this option)
  • You have a large quantity of miles from an earlier company, and you are burning them off. Though unless your company always uses the same airline, they will get suspicious that you have so many miles on so many airlines.

But I believe honesty, without details, is the best policy. They don't have to know, but if they push just say it from a pre-existing medical condition. Only jerks would push for more information. Though if funds are tight you could get some team members who ask management or HR about it.

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    Option #1 is probably not realistic. The price difference between economy and first class on a long distance flight can be thousands of dollars, easily more than one's entire biweekly paycheck. – Andrew Medico Jul 10 '14 at 21:28

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