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.

NEXT: Calling it Quits

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  1. Yes! I couldn't agree with you more. it's not my fault the fatty next to me cant put down the fork, I should not have to share my seat with them because of it. if you overflow out of a single seat and take up any space in a second, then you should be required to purchase a second seat. Instead of crying about being discriminated against put down the fork, get off the couch, and go do something about your weight.

  2. "...Yes! I couldn't agree with you more. it's not my fault the fatty next to me cant put down the fork, I should not have to share my seat with them because of it..."

    Please answer this question: Why is it acceptable to talk about fat people like this? We're still human, you know. I pay for my two seats ahead of time and I don't always have a fork hanging out of my mouth. I don't even eat dinner most of the time. Tell me, is it NOT discrimation to talk about another human being like this? You should be ashamed...

  3. I completely disagree with everything this guy is saying. When deciding to fly, you are not purchasing the space that you believe you deserve. You are paying for that mode of transportation only. Fat people are paying for that mode of transportation just like everyone else on that flight. If they take up more than one seat the airline should accommodate that and stop acting like fat people don't exist. Lynch said its like buying real estate. Okay, let's see how that would work. My cousin weighs less than 100 pounds but is required to buy a full fare ticket like everyone else. She barely takes up half a seat. Should half of her fare be deducted because she is not utilizing all of her "real estate" that she purchased? No right? So why should we charge a person more for using up more than one seat. Airlines, stop being so greedy by booking flights to full capacity when you know it is a chance that bigger size individuals may fly.

  4. I get the argument. And as a super-plus-size person, I don't mind paying a little more for my clothes -- they require more fabric.

    The problem is the airlines offer no incremental option. If you don't fit, you pay double. And business class? Hah! It costs 3-4x as much as economy.

    The standard airline seat is 17" wide, plus a couple of inches for the armrest. By contrast, movie theater seats are 18-20", plus about 4" for the armrest. Office chairs are typically 20" wide, plus armrests that you don't have to share.

    Now, a healthy tall adult male, say, 6 feet and 180 lbs., is about 23" wide elbow-to-elbow.

    The point is...people well within "normal" range DON'T FIT already. The airlines count on a substantial portion of the passengers to be women and children, and not to be at full occupancy. A cabin full of 6-foot, 180-lb. adult men would be miserable. The seats simply aren't big enough for three people at the upper end of normal size to sit side-by-side comfortably.

    If seats were, say, 18.5" (as they are in the Boeing 777), the issue would be substantially minimized.

    How about even just one row of XXL seats in a 3-2 configuration? That would give up ONE seat -- practically a non-issue overall since airlines don't operate at anything near 100% capacity.

    So yes, it is up to the airlines to offer a product that accommodates the marketplace effectively. There are solutions that wouldn't require people who are a little larger than normal to pay double or triple fare.

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