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United Airlines weighs in on ‘seat infringement’

United Airlines joins others in requiring passengers who don't fit in one seat to buy another, while Ryanair floats a “fat tax” proposal.
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

The cattle-car quality of air travel is getting even less comfortable for some plus-size passengers.

United Airlines on April 15 announced it will require passengers who do not fit within one seat to buy another when no alternative can be arranged.

And Euro-discounter Ryanair is advancing the idea of a fat tax, which suggests to many observers the company may price its tickets based on body mass.

It's not the first time airlines have looked for ways to account for the fact that more fliers don't fit in one seat. At least a half dozen other U.S. airlines have policies about seat spillage.

In 2002, Southwest began making large passengers buy two seats when there were no open seats on a flight. Later that year the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance made the Dallas-based carrier's policy the central topic of discussion at its national conference in Atlanta.

Space invader
United says it changed its policy after receiving nearly 700 complaints last year about "seat infringement." If there are no extra seats available on an overweight traveler's scheduled flight, United will rebook the passenger on a later one, charging the same fare for a second seat.

"Should the flight be full, which is rare in today's economy, and United is unable to re-accommodate the guest who is infringing on someone else's seat, we will offer the second seat on another flight at the same fare that was originally paid ... even when a second seat is purchased on the day of departure, which is when fares are often much higher," United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski wrote in an e-mail.

On its site, the airline says "we care a great deal about all of our customers' well-being, and we have implemented this policy to help ensure that everyone's travel experiences with United are comfortable and pleasant."

The fact that the U.S. has become a nation of rotundity has done little to soften the stigma around heavyweight fliers.

Writing under a pseudonym on The Atlantic's Web site, a Washington reporter who had gastric bypass surgery describes various indignities the obese may encounter on a plane. Airlines offer seatbelt extenders for those who need them, but the request and occasional search for one can be uncomfortable. Regional jets often must be weight-balanced by asking passengers to shift to different seats, which can be embarrassing for heavy people.

A quick review of other online sentiment finds that Southwest and United are often singled out by many fliers as hostile to the overweight, while Delta Air Lines is seen as accepting.

Lara Frater, a blogger, activist, and author of the 2005 book, "Fat Chicks Rule," has begun an online petition drive seeking at least 700 people to sign a protest against United's policy. As of April 20, the petition had 311 signatures.

Coach, but not second class
Not surprisingly, the petition has generated a lively debate. "I am a fat person who is tired of being blamed for airline woes. You should also know that I can fit into a coach seat, so this policy doesn't affect me," Frater wrote on her blog. "However I am writing this as a plea to not treat fat people as second class travelers."

"If you really want to address the actual problem, it's seat sizes overall," one signatory named Wendy wrote. "Not just fat folks but anyone who's bigger than a hummingbird has a problem fitting in the average coach airline seat. That's because in the interests of money, airlines have decided to ignore the real world and install seats that in no way reflect the average size of their actual customers."

Added another person named Arlene: "Who's next? Parents of small children? People who aren't attractive, and might 'visually offend' if they sit too close to the next passenger? Amputees who might need extra room to place their prosthetic leg if they have to remove it mid-flight? People with bad breath? I can just see it now: 'Ma'am, please step over here and blow into this tube. Oops! You'll have to buy two tickets so the person next to you won't complain!' Geez."

Frater and other activists advocate a "one-person, one-ticket" policy on the grounds that the Southwest and United policies discriminate against one group and curtail air travel availability for fat people.

The air-cargo model
Ryanair, meanwhile, encouraged people to vote on its weight-based ticketing idea in a survey on its site last week. This proposal, which mirrors the way air-cargo carriers charge for freight, has generated positive reaction from some people who note the direct correlation between an aircraft's weight and its fuel consumption. The logical extension: Why not carry your own weight, so to speak, when it comes to the fare?

Zeke Adkins, co-founder of a Luggage Forward, a Boston-based baggage delivery service, predicts that airlines will eventually consider a traveler's total weight — checked and carry-ons, plus body weight — when it comes to assessing fees.

"It is the model used by virtually every company who profitably uses airplanes for transport—except airlines," Adkins says.