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Airline Obesity Policies

Is it fair for airlines to put the squeeze on big fliers?

The Shrinking Airline Seat
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We've all heard of airlines putting the squeeze on folks, but c'mon, this is ridiculous. The latest raft of airline policies (and revenue sources) now focuses on big people: United Air to charge obese double on full flights.

The headlines focus on United's new policy, but the airline merely had the bad fortune of attracting a lot of press; the fact is that pretty much all the other airlines already had a similar policy, including Continental (dating to 2004), Delta, JetBlue and Southwest (whose policy goes back decades). As noted in the article, these policies differ in degree and detail, but decree essentially that if you don't fit in a seat with an extension seatbelt and the armrest down, you will be charged for two seats or removed from the plane. For example, travelers on United "will be required to buy two tickets on the next flight or upgrade to business class, where seats are larger, if United's flight attendants can't find two open seats for them."

As a policy, it is almost maze-like: we'll try to find you two seats, but if that avenue doesn't work, you can buy a business-class seat, but if that is not available, you can buy two seats on the next flight, but if that flight is sold out, you can buy a business-class seat on that flight, but if business class is sold out ... God forbid a big person try to fly during a holiday peak or during thunderstorm season -- he could be stuck at the airport for days waiting for the airline to be able to offer him the privilege of paying for two seats. Add it all up, and what the airlines are saying to big folks who want any guarantee of actually getting to their destination is "you must buy two tickets or risk not going."

What Is a Big Person?
The policy and the papers are focused on "obese" fliers, but we all know that the range of human body shapes and sizes is so broad that one person's overweight is another person's "big-boned" (and I'm not trying to be funny). For example, I don't think I have ever mentioned it here, but I was on several U.S.A. rowing teams. On team travel day, I could have gathered up for you a dozen men and women who were all my height -- 6'1" -- and as fit as any human being alive, but whose weight varied by as much as 55 pounds from lightest to heaviest.

The range on the team overall was even greater -- there were some 6'9" folks on those teams, and coxswains could be under 100 pounds. Sitting next to a really tall muscular person is not much different than sitting next to an obese person -- either could completely fill up a modern airplane seat. The point is that some folks are just bigger than other folks; does a former Olympian who still races as a masters rower have to buy an extra plane seat?

What About Legroom?
Traveling with those big people, I noticed that it was almost impossible for them to sit in a seat in which the person in front of them reclined -- their kneecaps would stop the seatback from moving. So in most cases the person in front really could not recline at all. Should a long-legged person pay for the seat in front of them as well? Tall folks "spill over" from front to back; is this so different from spilling over from side to side?

Or to put the legroom on the other foot, isn't a tall person being penalized already because aircraft pitch (the distance from one row of seats to the next) is not really sufficient for anyone over six feet tall or so? Due to the genetic lottery of being born tall, should these folks then be paying lower fares to make up for their inconvenience?

Who Makes the Call, and When?
scale feet weigh weight overweightThe airlines' obesity policies bring up some rather sensitive issues -- and somewhere along the line, someone is going to have to make an uncomfortable judgment call. Who decides if someone fits in the seat, and when do they decide? Is it to be a flight attendant after the entire plane is boarded? If so, is she going to swipe the big person's credit card right there in the aisle? Is it somebody at the gate? At check-in? At the time of booking? Will there be a BMI (Body Mass Index) field on Internet booking sites now? Are we going to have to sit in a test seat, much like the metal cages that indicate whether or not your carry-on is regulation size? Is the TSA going to have a BMI scanner next?

Over the years, many of these questions have moved out of the realm of the rhetorical -- though there have been very few cases where the airlines' policies have been tested or disputed in public (not surprisingly, due to the very sensitive nature of the issue). Most big folks have simply taken the abuse, or made their case without going too public. Southwest's official policy statement says as much, but makes it almost wholly the responsibility of the traveler to avoid confrontation:
Won't this be embarrassing to the large Customer and the Employee?
It's tough to speak privately in an airport setting, and because a discussion about size is sensitive, we've cautioned our Employees to use discretion. Yes, it's difficult to deliver or receive a sensitive message, and to alleviate confusion, we encourage Customers with unique seating needs to proactively purchase additional seating (again, this is to notify us of the unique need). We ask this to accommodate our Customers in comfort and avoid embarrassing conversation. Ultimately, it is the Customer's responsibility to communicate with us upfront (at the time of booking) about his/her seating needs so that we may best serve him/her and all others onboard.
Marilyn Wann, a weight diversity trainer and author, made the case to CBS News that the policy amounts to a bait and switch tactic, where a bigger person has no idea if or for how much money they will be able to fly; it is hard to argue with the logic.


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