April 16, 2009

Obesity and Airline Passengers

I was browsing thru CNN's site, looking for something interesting to read and/or write about, and saw a blog debating whether or not United Airlines was correct in their recent decision to charge the price of two tickets (or seats) for obese passengers. This is particularly timely for me, as we just returned from vacation last week and flew from the East Coast to the West Coast.

United is charging passengers an extra fare if they (1) can’t fit into a single seat, (2) can’t properly buckle the seat belt using an extender, and/or (3) can’t put the seat’s armrests down when seated. Should there be empty seats available, however, the passenger will be moved next to an empty seat at no charge.

According to United, they decided to adopt this new policy after getting more than 700 complaints last year from passengers who did not have a comfortable flight due to persons next to them who apparently invaded their personal space.

Naturally, this action has gotten the Obesity Action Coalition into an uproar, feeling that this policy perpetuates the stigma already associated with obesity.

Now, I am not obese and never have been. I am also not tall or stocky. But in certain situations (like smaller planes and the first row of coach seats) I have found sitting in airline seats for any extended period of time about as comfortable as lying on a bed of nails. My husband isn't obese either, but he's built like a football player and is 6 feet tall. Airline seats the way they are currently designed, at least in coach, are fairly uncomfortable for him.

I do understand United's stance on charging someone the price of two seats, if they are indeed encroaching upon their neighbor's seat. I do understand that people can't help that - - again, coach seats are ridiculously narrow, all things considered. I also understand how uncomfortable it is to be the encroachee - - as I once had to sit in the middle seat, with both a large man and large woman on either side of me, on a 5+ hour flight. Bad news was that I never saw, much less used, my seat's armrests for the entirety of the flight. Good news was that I had instant cleavage thanks to my arms being, at most, 5 inches apart for 5+ hours.

The obvious answer, to make all sides happy, would be to design airline seats a bit wider. But that would necessitate an overhaul of all planes and possibly cause the airlines to lose a few seats overall on each plane. In other words, that would cost the airlines money and while they certainly want to make money, I don't think they want to spend it in this recession.

What do I think? It may not be popular but I don't fault United, or any other airline that has such a policy. They are only implementing this policy when the planes are full. If an obese passenger doesn't wish to pay for an extra ticket, or suffer the possible humiliation of having to do so, there is always the choice of choosing a different flight. And to be honest, the only people who will know the passenger bought two tickets is either the ticketing agent or the agent at the gate. For what it's worth, if you cannot put your arm rests down or fit comfortably into a single seat, why would you want to force yourself to do so?

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