Window or Aisle? Obese or Non-obese?
December 14, 2000 11:46 AM   Subscribe

Window or Aisle? Obese or Non-obese? Geez. It's not like airline seats can fit regular size customers as it is.
posted by terrapin (34 comments total)
Don't worry. It's probably just a matter of time before this is overturned on an ADA complaint. No reason for people to have to be inconvenienced because of their own actions (or inactions as the case may be).
posted by CRS at 12:07 PM on December 14, 2000

Tell 'em to book through a Canadian airline. Fat people fly better in Canada anyway... Don'tcha know.
posted by josholalia at 12:18 PM on December 14, 2000

No reason for people to have to be inconvenienced because of their own actions (or inactions as the case may be).

That's very close to perpetuating a stereotype, if it isn't directly.

I dunno, this ruling feels awfully discriminatory to me.
posted by hijinx at 12:55 PM on December 14, 2000

In this particular case, the woman rode entirely in her own seat with the seatbelt extender, and another passenger flew comfortably in the seat next to her. There was no justification for forcing the purchase of the second seat. This is like forcing a tall passenger to buy a seat on the bulkhead whether they want to or not, whether they and those they travel with are comfortable in regular seats or not.

If the airline's concern was with the woman's safety and comfort and that of those around her, why not offer her an upgrade to the roomier and more personal (solid armrests = no possible butt-n-arm overhang) first class which would probably not have been nearly as pricey as a second seat in coach? And why, in a service-based industry, did they feel the need to be nasty with the woman about the second seat purchase? (If I'd been her, all hell would've been raised in that airline terminal, but then, I tend to have a look on my face that dissuades people from trying to pull such crap with me.)
posted by Dreama at 1:00 PM on December 14, 2000

The reason she could not upgrade is because Southwest (The airline in question) has no first class. Southwest has cheap fares but you do get what you pay for, they treat passengers like cattle and their idea of customer service is the well it's not my problem approach.

I had to fly Southwest on business a few weeks ago I had a connecting flight in Baltimore and got to the gate about 30 minutes before the flight. I proceeded to wait in line to get a boarding pass (no you are not guaranteed a seat on Southwest) because they grossly oversold the flight there was allot of commotion at the desk, people begging to get on the flight etc.., which was the last one out that night. When I saw what was going on myself and a fellow passenger went up and said we had tickets and wanted to get our boarding passes before they gave them away. I was harshly told to wait my turn as they were busy with the standby passengers well needless to say when I go to the front of the line they had given my seat away and had no more. I asked if they could put me on another flight and they said no, unless I paid for it. Flustered I then asked for a hotel for the night because after all it was their error and I was already inconvenienced enough. I was again told well it's not our problem if we gave your ticket away if your not at the gate ten minutes before the flight it's not our problem. I explained I was and the lovely customer service manager proceeded well that's to bad we won't do a thing about it. Needless to say I will never fly them again even if their flight was $100 cheaper. Sorry had to vent.

So she probably has a valid claim as I would not doubt that Southwest would deny something like this and be rude about the whole thing.
posted by remo at 1:48 PM on December 14, 2000

Alternative data point: I've always had great experiences with Southwest.
posted by rodii at 1:59 PM on December 14, 2000

The first time I flew Southwest, they served too much alcohol to my SO the father of my daughter, thus precipitating the most mortifying day in my life.

But I digress.

As a six-foot-tall person who has had the uncomfortable and un-enviable experience of having to fly alone with an infant in my lap in a middle seat between two burly fellows who were *NOT* massively overweight, I have to say that I think the airline's policy sounds fair.

A plane ticket entitles you to one (1) standard seat. If you need more, pay for more, otherwise other passengers are deprived of the having the one (1) standard seat which they payed for.

In my case, there was no way these guys on either side of me could sit without putting their arms on the arm rests. It *SUCKED* raw moose dick the whole flight, let me tell ya.

I could barely move my arms - my elbows were banging into them no matter what I did. And my daughter was upset, needing to be nursed, but I didn't have anywhere near the space to do it. So I ended up horrifically, painfully engorged on one side by the time the flight was over. (Imagine a large, liquid-inflated grapefruit on your chest that feels like having a bruise punched any time anything so much as brushes it, and you get the picture).

I'd have screamed bloody murder if it'd been any worse - if I'd been forced to sit next to someone, dare I say between two people who were far exceeding the seat capacity (as it was, the two guys were *right at the very limit* of the seat capacity, so I didn't consider it appropriate for me to lodge a formal complaint).

I'm not blaming anyone for being obese, just saying that I deserve every little cubic inch of the space I paid for, dammit! So stay out of it!

Now, if the airline employees were excessively rude, abusive, or incorrect in their application of the rules, then yeah, they need to be disciplined. But from the story, I don't read any evidence that that was the case.
posted by beth at 3:43 PM on December 14, 2000

You really only get 50% of an armrest, though, Beth, so you could've just elbowed your way to get your share. And in this case, the woman and her travel companion were both comfortable in the two adjoining seats. That would indicate to me that the airline *was* incorrect in their application of the rules, presuming that the woman was too large (because she took them up on the offer of a seatbelt extension) without considering that her extended girth did not necessarily equate extended width.
posted by Dreama at 3:58 PM on December 14, 2000

What all these stories say to me is that there's something essentially discriminatory about the way airlines set up their coach-class seating in the first place. Sure, a plane ticket entitles you to one standard seat, and it's not right that a person should be encroached upon because the person next to her is large. But especially considering the fact that a person need hardly be obese to risk depriving his neighbor of some of the space she paid for, it seems frankly wrong that standard seats provide as little space per person as they do.

Most people can't afford to fly first-class (or business class, either, though it seems to me that that intermediate class isn't as common as it used to be). However, I bet people would be happier if airlines were forced to provide a little more space for every passenger even if that meant paying, say, $20 extra per ticket to make up for the missing seats.

Oh, and Dreama: I think it's quite possible that the woman's friend who bought the ticket was comfortable because it's much less unpleasant to have your space encroached upon by someone you know. The friend could lean on her shoulder, for example, which Beth obviously wouldn't do with her burly neighbors.
posted by redfoxtail at 4:02 PM on December 14, 2000

hey beth -- sounds to me like you should have bought and paid for a second seat for your child so that you could have had enough room to do what you had to do...
posted by palegirl at 4:21 PM on December 14, 2000

the standard seat size is too small for average sized people. increase the friggin seat size you cheap skate airlines! especially Qantas
posted by lagado at 6:02 PM on December 14, 2000

1) what would happen if someone of average size *did* purchase two seats on a very full flight (just for the sake of comfort)? i'd bet that that flight crew would do just about anything to get them to give up that seat.

2) contrary to popular belief, not all overweight people are that way because they eat like pigs. some are just born that way and it is impossible for them to lose the lbs. some people have medical conditions. they shouldn't have to purchase two seats to fly in a plane. why don't airlines offer slightly larger seats at a slightly larger price? "special needs" seats for the obese, nursing mothers, etc?

3) about southwest. who are we kidding here? it's called the greyhound of the skies for a reason. it's dirt cheap! yes it's uncomfortable, there's a chance of being bumped, etc. but for short trips it's so worth saving the money. i fly them frequently and i've flown other airlines. frankly, unless it's an extremely long flight, i don't think it's worth it to pay more. one of the worst flight experiences i've ever had was a full fare flight to seattle on twa. legend (rest in peace) was cheaper and kicked american's ass on comfort and service. i suspect most people are aware of what they're going to get when they choose southwest so i'm confused as to why people here seem to expect something better.
posted by centrs at 6:59 PM on December 14, 2000

As a former aero engineer, I have to chime in: most airliners have seat width designed for the 95th percentile (i.e. accommodate 95% of the population). OTOH, seat *pitch* (i.e. distance from seat back to seat back) is left up to the airline as it is way more flexible: less pitch --> more seat rows (or more comfortable first class). Plus airliners tend to grow in length after redesigns.

Considering that the airline goes into considerable trouble to accommodate as many people as possible, as comfortably as they can afford to pay, and that seat space is the single highest factor of determining cost per flight (dollars per passenger per mile), I think that a *discount* airline should be given the flexibility to provide seats in any way it pleases. In other words, if you want wider seats, *pay* for them by flying a more comfortable airline or upgrade to business class.

Flying on a private, low-cost airline is not a *right*; it's a convenience...
posted by costas at 8:36 PM on December 14, 2000

95th percentile as of when? 1949?

It is good to hear from someone in the industry--but I truly do question the date of the research. That would mean out of 100 folks I see on a plane, 95 of them are comfortably seated. I'd go with 60 or 70, but not 95.

For various and sundry reasons, there is a higher percentage of larger people in the U.S. than there has been in the past.

Maybe recent complaints about airline comfort are more about a changing population than an intentionally inconsiderate seat design.
posted by frykitty at 9:07 PM on December 14, 2000

As a six-foot-tall person...

Um ... it sounds like you're quite outside the "normal" size range for females. Why shouldn't it be you that has to ante up for the extra seat? Or all three of you in that row?

Which plays right into my main complaint about this: Even if one were to concede that it's "fair" to charge more for "overweight" people, the fact is that the decisions are being made arbitrarily, and are thus discriminatory. This woman was merely eyeballed and then ordered to buy an extra ticket. And it appears in her case it wasn't even necessary: The person next to her was not inconvenienced. A different flight attendant would likely have not made the demand at all. To say nothing of the fact that the airlines make arbitrary decisions as to the size of the seats in the first place. There is no law, legal or physical, that says an airline seat must be so small. It's purely done to shoehorn in more cattle. And since the seats tend to be different from airline to airline, or even plane to plane, the "fat" standard shifts again. Arbitrary, and thus discriminatory.

This is stupid in other ways as well. What if two only slightly-overweight people end up sitting next to one another, because of random seat assignments? What if one fat guy ends up sitting next to someone with anorexia? Why don't tall people have to buy the seat in front or back of them all the time, in order not to subject "normal" passengers to the "inconvenience" of not being able to lean back in their seats? Why couldn't an overweight person inform the airline of their "disability" when making their reservation, so the airline could leave a seat open next to that person until/unless the plane gets filled up? People with other disabilities make special requests all the time.

(BTW, what about people who, for some reason, really DO need more space, such as people who can't get out of their wheelchairs easily? Aren't there laws preventing the airlines from gouging them?)

...with an infant in my lap in a middle seat...

A few years ago, the Clinton Administration attempted to force through a directive ordering that all children on commercial flights have to have their own seats - and thus their own tickets - for some of the same reasons given here: Too much human in too little space, also risk of injury during a crash landing or turbulence where the rugrat isn't belted in, etc. Luckily, this was one of the rare cases where science won out over emotions and photo ops proving "we care": Studies showed that the increased cost of extra tickets would spur so many families to drive instead that there would end up being more car accidents, and thus more dead kids, than if the government did nothing and just risked the rare in-flight incident. How would you have liked that, being discriminated against for being a mother? You obviously didn't want to spend extra to have more space on the flight you were on.

Flying on a private, low-cost airline is not a *right*; it's a convenience...

I'm not sure I agree it's not a right, as long as you have the cash to pay for it. Like it or not, we live in a society where, often, being denied the ability to fly can be a serious detriment to your quality of life. It can affect what jobs you can hold, etc. To just start pointing at people and saying, "Okay, YOU have to pay $250 more each way or you can't go," could mean your company won't let you travel as much, and thus you don't get the promotion, etc. Airlines are an integral part of our society, and the economy would fall apart tomorrow if they suddenly disappeared. If they weren't so important, there wouldn't be nearly as much regulation of them as there is.

This decision will be overturned on appeal, unless the woman's lawyer is a complete moron ... which he may be to have lost this in the first place.
posted by aaron at 10:49 PM on December 14, 2000

Aaron, it's more likely that a company would just make the employee pay an extra fare (for upgrades or extra seats) themselves, out of pocket and non-reimbursable. If you fly say, 36 times a year, imagine the cost! You'd quickly find a non-travel job, methinks.

Which, within the corporate travel paradigm, then makes "permissible" physical size into a class/position/status thing, as managers and execs are typically permitted to fly business or to upgrade at lower cost via coupon, and often have more flexibility as to which airline they may choose. So, if you're outsized and a plebe, you're SOL, but you can be larger and be okay if your job offers more spoils.
posted by Dreama at 4:02 AM on December 15, 2000

...and if you're overweight, studies have shown that you will earn less in your job than an "at weight" or skinny person. And, if you're an overweight female, you'll earn even less.

So you won't be able to go first class, so you'll be stuck in coach, so you'll have the same problem, which runs far deeper than seats on an airplane.
posted by hijinx at 4:20 AM on December 15, 2000

some are just born that way

there is a higher percentage of larger people in the U.S. than there has been in the past.

(Separate posts). Can someone explain how? Is there some kind of evolutionary process that is selecting larger people?

posted by andrew cooke at 4:34 AM on December 15, 2000

i've heard before that populations with especially high obesity often have famine in their collective past. individuals with the ability to store fat were selected for then, and now suffer in this time of plenty. which is a fun idea to believe, cause it makes so much sense.

see also: the pima paradox by the always-excellent m. gladwell.
posted by palegirl at 5:01 AM on December 15, 2000

Methinks that the time is ripe for the return of Braniff Airlines, once renowned for their service, colorful aircraft, and those oh-so-chic hostesses.
posted by Avogadro at 5:06 AM on December 15, 2000

famine in their collective past

we're talking USA, right? "collective past" meaning typically, what? two generations?

posted by andrew cooke at 6:36 AM on December 15, 2000


Genetic Legacy of Early Ancestors Increases Risk of Obesity

Genetic clues to obesity

And although I do not agree with this article, it gives you the obesity stat you're looking for:

Headline Watch: Obesity in American

posted by hijinx at 6:45 AM on December 15, 2000

It's true that many people view things as "rights" in flying (and many other circumstances) when they're not, but the right not to be discriminated against is a real right. Being obese is not really a choice. Face it: people have different metabolisms.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:36 AM on December 15, 2000

But even if it were a choice, why should one be discriminated against because of it? What if it is a true choice, and someone chooses it? (I'm not saying that this is the case, mind you; just playing up another angle.)

In any event, there's no reason I should be discriminated against whether I'm fat or not. That includes getting equal rights while flying.
posted by hijinx at 8:57 AM on December 15, 2000

It's frustrating to me that there's no more intermediate/business class on many airlines. Your choices are coach or first-class, with an enormous gulf between. I'd gladly pay biz class rates for slightly more seat room and the same level of in-flight amenities and service as everyone in coach, but I don't have that choice.

People who fly 36 times a year have miles they can cash in for upgrades. I fly maybe once every 18 months or so, my family being nearby, so it's nigh impossible to build up those miles for those upgrades, especially now that miles can expire.
posted by dhartung at 8:58 AM on December 15, 2000

For the record, after that flight, I *HAVE* bought a child's ticket (usually half price) for my daughter whenever I have traveled with her. I always bring her car seat, too, and strap her in (she screams, but apparently sedating her for the journey is not permissible as it is with cats).

Before that flight, I hadn't had any major problems, and I didn't anticipate having such bad luck with seating. Ah well, I suffered for it! My bad.

And yes, if my daughter had been injured in any way, even by mild turbulence or some such thing, because she was in my lap and not in her own 5-point harness in her rated-safe-for-airplanes baby seat, I would have felt like the Worst Mother in the Entire Universe - I would have known it was *my fault*.

And yeah, I'm big, but I'm perfectly capable of staying within the boundaries of my seat, which is the operative issue here, I think. I do not spill over into any other passenger's space, nor the aisle, and I'm capable of sharing or alternating use of the armrests, even on long flights.

People who sit in front of me have no problem leaning back in their seats, even though it displaces my kneecaps from where I prefer them to be...

For those who do NOT think it's fair for Very Large Persons to have to buy additional seating to accomodate the size of their bodies, how would you handle the complaint of a customer forced to sit next to such a person, who didn't have enough space for themselves? Would you tell them to "shut up and deal with it"?

What do you think would really be fair?

This story concerned a 300-pound woman. How would you feel having to sit between, say, two people who were 600 pounds apiece on a very long, totally full flight?

I think they should have a "maximum person size" chair/box thingie to test yourself out with at the gate, such as what they already have to text the maximum permissible size of carryons.

If you can fit into the maximum box without encroaching outside of it, then you get on with one coach ticket. If you can't, you have to buy another one (or two or whatever).

That way it's impartial, objective, and the same for everyone. No harassment - just a limit.

They already limit the size of carryons, so what's the problem with limiting the size of how much of a human body can be reasonably expected to fit in one (1) coach seat?

You can blame the people all you want, but it's three-dimentional reality and physics which are the true sources of the limit.

And of course this woman didn't encroach on her friend - it was her *friend*, fer chrissakes! Just out of curiosity, was she on the aisle, in the center, or in the window seat?

If not in the window seat, did any part of her body (need to) spend any significant length of time extending beyond the boundaries of her seat? Just curious...

I think many of us know how easy it is to scrunch into a space a little smaller than what you need for a brief period of time, as well. (I'm talking minutes, as a flight attendant walks by, or brings a cart along the aisle).

I don't see anyone in this thread faulting anyone for being obese, so I don't get where the defensiveness comes from. It doesn't matter at all why or how a person is large, *it matters if they cannot fit into one coach seat without encroaching on other passengers*.

F'rinstance, if you had a person who was ill and needed to lie down during the whole flight, I think it's fair that they'd need to pay for as many seats as they'd need to be able to lie down. In no way would I dream of ever blaming the person who was ill - having to buy extra tickets is part of the cost of the illness, not a "punishment" or something.
posted by beth at 9:12 AM on December 15, 2000

I think they should have a "maximum person size" chair/box thingie to test yourself out with at the gate, such as what they already have to text the maximum permissible size of carryons.

LOL! I'm sorry Beth, but this is blatant physical discrimination and is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever read. No two ways about it. This would effectively shut out more than 25% of Americans from flying, simply because of size, and it would put well over 50% at possibly being shut out (more than 50% of Americans are "overweight").

The defensiveness comes from the ignorance being portrayed here and there throughout the thread, methinks.

I'm sorry, but airlines should accommodate. Making a person buy two seats just because (s)he is fat is definitely not the way to do it. No one's space nor comfort should be compromised because one person is larger than another. That should include fat people, but you seem to want to accommodate only thin or average-sized people.

If in fact you were required to buy a seat for your child, even if (s)he didn't sit in it, would you like that? What if you used maybe... 10% of the seat's physical space for your child?

I wonder if this would be an issue if the person in question was large and muscular versus large and fat - after all, society sees nothing wrong with large, muscular people.
posted by hijinx at 9:44 AM on December 15, 2000

If a judgement must be made, then I agree that an objective standard is required; however, treating human beings like luggage isn't the answer. Fat or thin, I'd never fly again (hey! that was a pretty good rhyme!).

Some type of objective standard would certainly have interesting consequences. How many tall, muscular men do you think would have to be double-charged before policies suddenly changed?

posted by frykitty at 10:15 AM on December 15, 2000

what is the barometer of discrimination? certainly to inherit obesity is a cruel trick. so is inheriting nearsightedness. there are corrective remedies available for both.
posted by jyoung at 10:18 AM on December 15, 2000

certainly to inherit obesity is a cruel trick.

You will find that roughly half or so of the "cruelty" of being obese comes from external sources... society.

there are corrective remedies available for both.

This makes the large assumption that obesity is a disease and is not genetically-influenced. That is pretty ballsy.

Let's assume that's a valid argument, though. The "remedies" for obesity include dieting and weight loss surgery. Changing your diet and exercising will not necessarily cause you to lose weight. There are plenty of fat people who exercise daily and eat well, yet are still fat.

Weight loss surgery is an option truly designed for the mordibly obese, yet lots of other people do it anyway. It gives them such a promise: you'll live longer, you'll feel better, you'll be thinner. The reality is that while it is possible for weight loss surgery to do these things, the chances of something going wrong are far greater.

This is topic drift. The barometer of discrimination is as plain as day: if you're fat, you must pay more. That's just as discriminatory as demanding that people of color sit in a particular area. The only way you can understand this is if you are fat.

I'm very surprised no one has recommended sectioning fat people off from everyone else, yet.
posted by hijinx at 11:31 AM on December 15, 2000

well paul, why not? various sized seats in coach for various sized bodies in coach.
posted by palegirl at 12:00 PM on December 15, 2000

I am fat.

I'm 6'2", and I way ~250 pounds (It's been a while since I've bothered with a scale). I'm obviously not morbidly obese, but I'm certainly a big guy. (If it helps, I'm bigger than Paul is in his picture of him with his car. Yeah, I delved deep into your site to find that. I'm taller and wider. Similar body structure as Penn (of & Teller fame), but he has a few inches on me, height-wise, and I have a few inches on him, gut-wise)

I don't often feel discriminated against because of my size anymore. Growing up? Most certainly, kids and cruelty and whatnot. But now? I'm mostly used to it.

When I go to a movie theatre and I'm late and I have to sit in front of someone, I hunch down and deal with it. If I'm early I make sure I pick a seat without anyone behind me, and I make sure I'm sitting up straight at the very least until the movie starts; people deserve to know what they're getting into by sitting behind me. If they still choose to sit there, it's their choice.

I'm going to be flying to Florida (from Toronto, a nice short trip) at the end of January with my family. My brother's about a quarter inch shorter than me, and probably 20 pounds or so lighter. He's a big guy too.

We're getting aisle seats. We've requested aisle seats, and if it turns out we have to get boarding passes and request them at the desk or something, then we'll get there early and make sure we get aisle seats.

I'm pretty certain I'd be able to cram myself into the BethBox (grin - it is an amusing picture), but I do understand that I'm larger than average, mostly because I choose not to excercise or only eat 100% healthy food, or any of the other options I have available to slim myself down.

What is truly needed is a quantitative measurement to know if a person is going to be too large to sit in the airplane seats. The airline makes a choice as to what size seat to offer. They would be doing themselves and their clientele a servive by saying "The coach seats are 40 inches wide, the first class seats are 90 inches wide. If you don't fit those dimensions you will have to purchase extra real estate."

Having someone at a desk eyeballing their clientele and saying "Hello, porky, pay up for an extra seat" is just plain wrong. Quite frankly it's stupid, from a business standpoint, because then droves of Internet-aware self-proclaimed pundits sit around and talk about how bad the service the business provides actually is.

If they were to offer a section of wider seats in coach, charging more money only makes sense. Space is at a premium on airplanes.
posted by cCranium at 12:25 PM on December 15, 2000

HANG ON! No-one has presented any convincing evidence that most Americans are overweight because of genetic factors. Yes, there is some evidence for genetic obesity in some cases (see links above), but that cannot explain Americans being more obese than others. Americans as a whole do not share a common genetic ancestry.

So, if the *majority* of people who are obese are not genetically so, it's hardly the same as discriminating against skin colour..

Personally I couldn't care less about the seats issue. What I am worried about is people thinking that they are fat for "unchageable" genetic reasons. Seems to me diet and psychological/social problems are much more likely. And even if someone is genetically disposed to obesity that doesn't mean it is guaranteed.

Genes are not God - check out, for example, Dawkin's Extended Phenotype, where he argues very convincingly that genes are just one factor in how what we are/become...

Bottom line: if you want to be obese, fine. If you don't, and are, then you may well be able to change it. Just as people genetically disposed to becoming addicted to tobacco can kick the habit. Or people genetically disposed to being intelligent can be pretty dumb if they don't get an education, or people genetically disposed to being stupid can be helped by good education, or...

posted by andrew cooke at 12:33 PM on December 15, 2000

this is one of those threads where i keep checking peoples profile pages & going to their websites & digging out a photo of them... & guess what. nobody's girth or lack thereof has surprised me yet. people, why must everyone be so predictable. somebody surprise me!
posted by palegirl at 3:58 PM on December 15, 2000

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