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jan 31 2008

Should obese airplane passengers pay more?

I read an article yesterday about a passenger who felt cheated by Delta because most of her plane seat was taken over by the overweight woman sitting next to her. The reader ended up getting a refund and an apology from Delta, which is a happy ending to the story. But I continue to think about the issue of obese passengers.

I had a similar experience on an overnight flight from NYC to Rome in June 06; an overweight woman next to me couldn't help the fact that she took up at least a third of my seat, too. While I wasn't disturbed enough to make the effort to get a refund, it was an inconvenience. But mostly I felt really badly for her: She was shoehorned into the middle seat of the three-seat row and spilled out on either side. She couldn't reach her feet, and she didn't get up once during the entire eight-hour flight. Worrisome!

Right now airlines seem to either ignore the problem—shoving overweight people into uncomfortable, embarrassing situations where neighboring passengers share the inconvenience and resent them for it—or forcing the obese to pay for two seats if they want to fly. How would airlines actively enforce the latter—assign weight parameters to airline seats and then fine violators when they get to the boarding gate? (Chances are there wouldn’t be two seats available at that point, anyway.)

The Canadian Transportation Agency recently tried to address the situation...

It passed a "one-person, one-fare" rule that prohibits Canadian airlines from charging those with disabilities—including the clinically obese—for a second seat, even if a seat is required for an essential caregiver. The CTA clarifies that the decision does not cover "persons who are obese but not disabled as a result of their obesity”—but it’s up to the airlines to make that distinction.

Putting that ruling into practice sounds like a nightmare to me—and it still doesn’t address the physical inconveniences for the obese and their neighboring passengers on an actual flight.

Since the number of obese passengers isn't going to shrink any time soon, I like the idea of mandating airlines to add a few plus-size seats to cabins and either sell them at a special premium economy rate or assign them to passengers at the last minute like bulk-head or emergency-row seats.

So where does the burden lie...

On the airlines—who should accommodate obese passengers at no extra charge?

Or on obese passengers—who should pay for the extra seat space they occupy?

Feel free to share your thoughts by posting a comment.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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