Fat Fliers: What Should Airlines Do?
Southwest Airlines continues to get pilloried for tossing director Kevin Smith—a self-confessed fat guy—off one of its 737s a couple of weeks ago. It has devolved into a mildly amusing public trading of insults and apologies.
I would have found it a lot funnier if I hadn't had the pleasure—maybe four or five times—of being seated next to a massively obese person. So, at this point, reader discretion advised.
The absolute worst was a short Delta flight from Raleigh to Charlotte—a weird little connector that must have been a special section of some sort. I don't remember the details. But, brother, do I remember my seatmate. I boarded at the last minute, with a center seat halfway down the airplane. Although the airplane was full, the window seat was unoccupied so I figured fortune was with me.
Then she appeared, struggling down the aisle and barely able to clear the seats on either side. If she weighed an ounce, she was over 300 pounds and she was navigating to the only empty seat on the airplane—the window next to me. The FA practically stuffed her into the row and out came the seatbelt extender. Forget the arm rest coming down, she was fully a third into my seat.
Seeing my pained look, the FA gave me a glance back that said, "I'd move you if I could, but the airplane is full." It was a short flight—I was in the seat for 40 minutes, maybe, so I just sucked it up. But I was unhappy about it. I wrote Delta to complain and ask about their policy toward obese people—sorry, I refuse to use "person of size"—and as if to further insult me, they said they didn't have one because it wasn't a frequent problem. It's amazing to me that companies think their customers are that dumb, but some do.
So, what should they have done? I like Southwest's policy of requiring an obese person to buy the adjacent seat if the arm rest can't be lowered. Here's Southwest's express policy: "The armrest is the definitive gauge for a customer of size. It serves as the boundary between seats and measures 17 inches in width. Customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who compromise any portion of adjacent seating should proactively book the number of seats needed prior to travel."
The italics here are mine. Compromising the adjacent seating means that the large person is taking up more than his or her fair share of the seat and is denying the person seated next door what he or she paid for. And that's just wrong. I can't get past the idea that if I buy a seat on an airliner, there is some expectation that I should be expected to put up with another person occupying some portion of it because that person is obese. I can live with rubbing shoulders and having no armrest space.
I will readily concede that a degree of tolerance is necessary here and even though like everyone else, I have trouble summoning it when overweight people are involved, I do try. I understand that the airlines are public transportation and anyone using them has to reasonably tolerate screeching babies, loud and non-stop talkers, people with body odor, passengers who can't find their butts much less their seats and, yes, being somewhat crowded by a wide load in the next seat.
But reasonable has its limits and some people the airlines allow to fly stretch this to the breaking point. So Southwest's policy attempts to address this. Unfortunately, policies are adjudicated by people and people make mistakes. That may have been true in Smith's case and if so, that's unfortunate. But I'm having trouble being very sympathetic with the fat-people-have-rights-too argument when I think about my experience on that Delta flight.
That we discriminate against overweight people is a settled fact. Consider the safety argument, the basic concept being that a fat person could block an aisle or exit during an emergency evacuation. That's true. But on the last flight I took from Atlanta to Tampa, there were four wheelchair passengers. Such passengers also represent a cabin safety compromise, but we are tolerant and even solicitous of them. Why? Because in general, we view obese people not as handicapped but lacking the will and discipline to eat properly and exercise. That's also true, but not universally so by any means. Some overweight people really are handicapped.
As the U.S. population continues to grow ever more overweight, the airlines will have more of this rather than less. I think Southwest is on the right track in having a policy to deal with overweight people and if having to buy the adjacent seat or risk being yanked from a flight isn't motivation enough for a person to drop some weight, I don't know what is. Others include heart disease, diabetes, joint failure…you know the rest.
I'll concede a degree of intolerance on this issue. It's just one in a largish catalog of personal failings and character flaws, ever reinforced when I'm into the 30th mile of a bicycle ride wondering if I can hack the pain and still do 50.
As for Kevin Smith's wounded self-esteem, I can't get myself as incensed as he appeared to be. Why is it such a bad thing to suggest a stop at the salad bar on the way to the gym?