Flying Fat

Passengers should pay for the space they eat up.


Southwest Airlines recently demonstrated why it's one of the few profitable airlines: It puts its customers first. That's the motivation—and the effect—of Southwest's recent announcement that it will start systematically enforcing its 22-year-old policy of requiring passengers whose girth places them in more than one seat, to pay for the extra space.

Fat activists (yes, in a country where everyone's a victim-and every conceivable victim has a self-anointed professional advocate, there are such people) are blasting the policy. "It's just discriminatory and it's mean-spirited," Morgan Downey, executive director of the American Obesity Association complained to the Associated Press.

These activists ought to get back to complaining about the calories in a super-sized Big Mac combo meal-or passing out dieting tips-because their objections are unfair and utterly misguided.

I've suffered through an agonizing cross-country flight where my oversized neighbor took up his entire seat, plus a quarter of mine. Southwest's policy is fair and just. And unlike its quick turnarounds, low fares, and profitability, it's not even unique to the industry. (American, Continental, and Northwest quietly ask customers who overflow their seats to purchase extra space. Delta and United are fat friendly.)

"If you consume more than one seat, you will be charged for more than one seat," says Southwest spokesperson Beth Harbin.

But even that understates the extent to which the airline is willing to go to accommodate all of its passengers-including its large ones. News reports claim that fat folks have to pay double to fly. That's wrong. Under the policy, those who buy a discounted ticket, and as a frequent Southwest flier I can assure you those tickets are deeply discounted, can buy their second seat at the same low fare, even if they buy it one hour before boarding the flight. Full-fare customers will only have to pay the discounted child's fare for their second seat, as if that extra 100 pounds they have accumulated is the equivalent of a 30-pound two year old. So unless they take up three seats, passengers will never have to shell out double the full fare. Even better, in the event that the flight isn't full, Southwest will assume the expense and inconvenience of refunding the extra fare. Sounds more than fair to me.

"The policy is intended to promote the safety and comfort of all customers onboard and to ensure that no customers are deprived a portion of the space they have purchased," Southwest's policy states.

This is the core of the issue, and the reason the policy is not only fair, but will prove wildly popular now that its widely known. Fat activists act as if the an airline trip is akin to an all you can eat buffet spread, where everyone pays the same entrance fee and those who eat less subsidize those who pile up their plates. "You are buying passage from point A to point B," says Marilyn Wann, who wrote the book, FAT!So?. "You are not buying real estate."

She couldn't be more wrong. Passengers are paying for real estate, a well-defined seat bordered by two armrests that is barely sufficient to provide a tolerably comfortable flight. Overweight people have no right to eat off another person's plate in a restaurant and they have no general right to occupy part of the seat that another person has purchased on an airplane. That's why 90 percent of the complaints Southwest receives come from passengers such as myself, who have been denied the space they purchased on a flight because of an oversized neighbor.

An overweight woman sued Southwest for its policy two years ago, but a judge threw the case out of court. It's not even a subjective decision—if a passenger requires that the armrest be raised and needs an extended seatbelt—they should have to purchase the extra space.

It's not the fault of the person sitting in seat 3C that her neighbor in 3B is too large for his seat. To the extent that he consumes even a small portion of her seat, he ought to pay for it. Whether or not he gets an extra bag of peanuts, well that's between him and the flight attendant.