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Airline Obesity Policies

Guaranteed Chaos
airplane plane seats newspaper passengers airlineUnited says its new policy is in response to over 700 complaints last year from passengers who had an experience where an adjacent passenger impinged on their seat space. (Honestly, a few hundred complaints doesn't seem like too many -- you have to wonder if the airline simply liked the revenue possibilities of the policy.)

It's easy to understand why air travelers are upset about having to share their seat space with another passenger. First of all, they paid for a full seat; more importantly, airplanes are already tight enough spaces without having to snuggle with a stranger.

But let's look at some possible scenarios.

Let's say a big flier purchased his ticket late and was forced to buy a middle seat, and he is judged not to fit in the seat. And let's say the plane is nearly full, but not quite -- in fact, there is one empty seat on the plane, and it is the middle seat right next to where you are sitting in your comfortable aisle seat. The flight attendant must find two adjacent empty seats, and the only way to produce that scenario is for you to surrender your aisle seat, and go sit in the big person's middle seat. It's either that or you tell the flight attendant to forget about it, and you wind up being the selfish, evil person that caused someone to be booted off a plane. This is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.

That's just one scenario. Perhaps a flight attendant is inattentive or doesn't want to be the one who kicks someone off a plane. (So much for the policy.) It isn't hard to imagine instances even simpler than that -- you're sitting next to a big flier, and it falls to you to say "it's okay, I don't mind." No one involved wants anyone to be in that position.

And let's say a big traveler does have to get off a plane, perhaps on her return flight from a trip. The policy says she has to buy an extra seat on the next plane. But what if that plane is full? And the next, or perhaps the last for the day? What if a big person bought a seat on an empty plane, but the airline cancels that flight and puts the person on the next flight, which is full? The airlines are already awful at re-accommodating travelers on missed or canceled flights; it's hard to see this going very well. The first big person who gets stranded in an airport for days is going to have lawyers begging to take the case.

Since the critical measure is whether you can put down the armrest, the moment of truth is right there as the plane is getting ready to go. This is what happened to Michael Gigliotti on a Southwest flight a few years ago, when the airline officially began enforcing its decades-old policy.

A Southwest supervisor boarded the plane, knelt next to Gigliotti's seat on his outbound flight and told him he would have to purchase a second seat for the return flight. "This won't hold up in court," Gigliotti said.

"It already has," replied the flight attendant.

Interestingly, it was another passenger that brought this situation to the attention of the flight attendants; the policy clearly pits passenger against passenger in any number of potential scenarios.

Obesity is a hot-button topic, and many will argue that some big folks simply need to pare back on the super-size fries. But what if a passenger has a thyroid disorder that cause them to gain weight -- or some other serious health issue? Is a flight attendant going to have the power to say "sorry, doesn't matter, the armrest doesn't go down so you're off the plane"? With government estimates putting nearly one-third of American adults in the "obese" category, the variety of potential conflicts is mind-boggling, and there's just no sensible way to address all these issues.

theater seats red movieThe Numbers
How big is an airline seat anyway? I did considerable research on this a few years ago for The Shrinking Airline Seat, a column in which I compared the seats on several airlines and planes to one other place Americans are expected to sit still for a couple of hours or more: movie theaters. It's not hard to guess who is going to come out on top in the comfort challenge.

The "standard" airline seat is 17.2 inches from armrest to armrest, which goes up to 18 - 18.5 inches on some planes. By contrast, the elbow-to-elbow distance I found in most movie theaters was more like 23 inches. Any theaters that were smaller than that were in the process of tearing out and replacing all the seats. That's a massive six-inch difference.

I can think of very few seats that are so small, constricting and uncomfortable as a seat on an airplane. And while some folks undeniably do take up more of the available space than others, the airlines aren't helping matters at all by literally squeezing us all into these metal tubes designed and configured not for the comfort of the paying customers, but rather to maximize revenues for the airline.

The Solution...
...is simple, of course: bigger seats on planes. You could even charge for them in some reliable and sensible way that falls far short of "buy another seat or go wander around the airport until we call you." In the same way that airlines offer Economy Plus sections that offer more legroom, they could have rows that have fewer and wider seats. (I know there is always the option of business class in this case, but you could do the same thing in economy class, just without the free booze, dedicated loo and big upcharges.)

The airlines claim that it would be too costly to retrofit planes to include larger seats. If they hold that line, perhaps a legislative intervention could come to pass; earlier this year, the Canadian Transportation Agency instituted a "one-person, one fare" rule that dictates that anyone who can produce documentation that they will need an extra seat to be able to fly will be eligible for two seats at no extra charge. (A small factoid buried in the article: The CTA's estimates of the cost to the airlines are "a fraction of the cost estimated by the airlines in their submissions to the agency." Can't say I'm surprised.)

If the airlines can't figure it out (and it's not likely that they'll take my advice), then maybe they should leave it to the passengers to figure out -- witness this guy's offer to sell big folks part of his seat. Hey, if the airlines aren't going to get it right, maybe we can figure it out amongst ourselves. Getting this right would make everyone happy -- big and little alike.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

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