Up, Up and Aweigh

Canadian airlines were recently ordered to make extra seating available for free to obese travellers. The airlines weren’t happy about this and Air Canada and WestJet responded by instituting a policy requiring obese passengers to provide a doctor’s note certifying their extra free seat requirement.

A lot of people don’t think it’s fair that just because someone is larger they should get an extra seat for free when obviously the cost of that seat is going to be passed along on everyone’s airfare.

Some people have suggested passengers should be charged airfare according to weight in the same way your extra baggage is charged. The thinking is that since weight is an issue overall on an airplane, fees for both passenger and baggage should reflect that.

This doesn’t solve the problem however of larger passengers requiring more space. Airlines regularly field complaints from passengers who’ve travelled next to a very large person who has significantly encroached on their seating space. They’ve had to refund millions to passengers who were squeezed out of their seats.

Southwest Airlines now requires larger passengers to purchase 2 seats for the “safety and comfort of each and every customer”. If you can’t fit between the armrests when they’re lowered, you need to buy the seat next to you as well.

They’ve been accused of discrimination, but defend themselves by saying everyone pays more for services they require above and beyond the average. If you want more food in a restaurant you pay more. If you want a suite rather than a standard room in a hotel you pay for it.

But buying or even getting an extra seat for free still doesn’t address the whole issue. My former boss was a very large man and a very tall man. He just simply could not squeeze himself into regular airline seats because there wasn’t enough leg room. Thrombosis is a real and serious risk for quite a large percentage of air travellers.

When he had to fly, he always went business class. On planes that didn’t offer business class, he always sat in an emergency exit aisle or a bulkhead aisle seat – both of which offer more legroom. And, he never ever used an airplane washroom because he couldn’t wedge himself into the tiny space.

Isn’t it outrageous that airlines can get away with offering a “service” that is so limited for so many people? I’m only 5′ 4″ and weigh maybe 125 and I find air travel horribly uncomfortable. Not to mention all the hassle and drama and endless queues…. and increasing prices of flights and the taxes, fuel surcharges, security surcharges and all those other hidden fees that double the cost of your ticket.

I wonder when it will occur to airlines to start making flying an enjoyable experience? Seating to accommodate human beings, fresh food, friendly staff, efficient scheduling, no lost luggage — passengers of every size and description happily enjoying the awesome miracle of flight.[1]

[1] About 5 years ago I actually had a flying experience like this on Skyservice  – a Canadian charter airline. The seats were enormous, both the ground and air staff were beyond friendly, we were served real food, the flight left and arrived on time. It was like a strange and wonderful dream.


25 responses to “Up, Up and Aweigh

  1. I think that obese people should pay for that extra seat.

    I was VERY unlucky coming back from Las Vegas in April. I got stuck in a middle seat, between two VERY obese women. They were sisters and you could tell that they were just hoping that I would complain and give up my seat between them so that they could have more room. I didn’t and was stuck on a 3.5 hour flight so tightly squeeze into my seat, that I couldn’t even open a book to read. Each of these ladies were overflowing from their seat into mine and the aisle.

    You might think I’m exaggerating, I am definatly not. I was extreamly frustrated.

    These ladies should have paid for my seat and have no one sitting there. If the flight wasn’t so full, I would have complained to be switched, but I could already tell what my answer would have been.

  2. I personally think that obese people should pay for an extra seat, as their size is a lifestyle issue, not a genetic one- (I am prepared to be challenged on that- but I firmly believe this- it’s the law of physics, you can’t argue with physics). I feel that obesity is being pandered to- but a choice to overeat is made- and more upsettingly is passed on to children as a way of life.

    However, I do think that tall people should be given seats commensurate with their size as they have no option but to be tall and should not be put at risk because of something they cannot change.

    However, I would like to see two things happen on planes: seats being fixed so that people cannot recline them unless they are the superdooper bed-seats. And a new standard for leg room generally on long haul flights. everyone can stand a bit of squishing for a couple of hours but long haul, it’s just ridiculous.

    Can I just say that I do not dislike fat people- I don’t care what anyone looks like- but don’t try and kid me that any human rights are being violated in circumstances like this. Obese people need to take responsibility for their own actions. And pay the cost of the lifestyle they have, effectively, opted for.

  3. I am huge now but I can say that at one time I was very very fit 6 ft tall and 180 lbs. At that time a trans Atlantic flight had me with sore legs for days after and at the time I couldn’t figure out why. While there is no doubt that a lot of the extra weight carried by many of us is self imposed, the airlines in fact have created seats that don’t come close to holding anyone slightly beyond the norm, either in height or weight.

  4. Air travel used to be fun, but since planes are now built with less leg room and seat width in order to squeeze in more seats, it has become total hell.

    Airlines have no incentive to offer any kind of service because we don’t really have the choice anymore. There used to be lots of airlines, now everyone is going under and those left seem to be getting together to cut service on all flights at every turn.

    Why is it, for instance that on Air Canada they’ll serve a meal if you’re flying to Europe, but not somewhere in North America where the flight is just as long?

    But waddaya gonna do? Drive? Take the train? It’s just not feasible. So since you don’t have the choice, you just board the Cattle Car Express.

    And I’m in the majority in thinking if you’re so obese you need two seats, buy two seats. It’s not a question of discrimination, it’s a question of lifestyle choices, as was mentioned in the comments.

    As to MissyM’s suggestion that seats should not recline, that would make things even more hellish – going from, for instance Montreal to LA or Europe (a five to six hour flight) without being able to recline your seat is horribly uncomfortable. I did it on a six+ hour flight once – my seat was broken and couldn’t recline. By the time we arrived my back was killing me. And I was ready to kill anyone who came near me. I get bitchy that way when I’m in pain.

  5. There is no such thing as comfortable air travel. Even in Business Class/First Class.

    I’ve always been fortunate enough to travel next to someone who fits in the seat, but I’m sure sooner or later my luck will run out.

  6. A&J – I think you can ask for a refund for your seat when something like that happens. I read that the airlines give out millions in seat refunds precisely because of things like this or someone else’s little kid barfing on a passenger or something similar. You should try.

    Lost – Ya! Turbo ships. Or jet packs!!

    Misssy M – I guess the argument is that obesity is a “mental disease”, like alcoholism. It’s also an alcoholic’s choice to begin abusing alcohol. But then again, if an alcoholic got on a plane and was disrupting passengers, he’d get booted off not given a free seat so he can have his delirums in peace. There are American employers who are now refusing to hire overweight people and giving employees who are overweight a year to lose the extra weight or lose their jobs. It’s all about spiking insurance claims/rates for the employer, absenteeism, etc. Human rights people are up in arms about that, too. It’s an interesting debate – whether obesity is a disability or a lifestyle choice.

    Bandobras – Airline seats aren’t even comfortable for those of us below the norm. Everyone should just stay home or travel by car, train or boat. Airplanes aren’t even less environmentally friendly than they are passenger friendly

    Jazz – I think MisssyM was just suggesting the non-reclining seats for short trips. And you’re right. There is nothing remotely fun about air travel anymore except finally getting off the damn plane – like hitting your head on a brick wall feels good when you stop. We DO have choices, however. With technology there is very little need for business travel anymore and we can always choose vacations that don’t require air travel. A beach vacation isn’t all that relaxing anyway if you have to go through the torment of flying before and after. The whole fuel/environmental thing is making air travel less and less popular as well. Who knows where it will all end up?

    Chris – At least in 1st or business class you have a bit more room. It’s a big difference from the poor folks section. And you get to board before the other schmoes which saves standing in line time.

  7. Ugh. Just the idea of flying and I get the hives. Okay…well, almost. (Once had a bad experience on a plane involving AN ENGINE CATCHING ON FIRE but even before that I was nervous.)

    I do think that it seems somehow wrong and insulting to make obese travelers pay for more than just one seat. I can’t really make an intellectual argument in this regard – and I do understand why it’s done – I just kind of feel that way in my gut. To me, the problem is the airlines trying to cram as many seats into their planes to make as much money as they possibly can – humanity be damned. Less seats = bigger seats = equals everyone is more comfortable. Except me. Who will have the hives and continuous visions of my own death. I’ll stay on the ground.

  8. I hate to fly, and the complete lack of service on planes only makes it worse now. It’s understandable that airlines have to cut back to save money, but then how can they expect to get more business when they’re cutting back on service/room/etc?

    I have to fly to Texas next month, and I’m just dreading it.

  9. I’m 5’7″ (and roughly 130 lbs) and I’ve always been comfortable in airline seats. *covering my ears from all the groans* It’s true! Maybe they’re designed for people of my stature. My hubby is over 6 ft tall (but relatively thin), so he’s never comfortable unless he sits in the Emergency Route row.

    That being said, there was a flight I was on that the passenger next to me overlapped my armrest. It was so uncomfortable for me, so I can only imagine how embarrassed and uncomfortable the passenger was. I couldn’t reach any of my buttons, and the whole experience was rather unpleasant.

    I’m not sure what the right answer is. Personally, my opinion is if someone needs more than one seat, they need to pay for more than one seat.

  10. Funny you should mention jetpacks. I’ve been saying for several days that jetpacks would be a solution to the OC Transpo strike. Mayor Warbucks should dismantle OC Transpo, sell off all its assets, and use the money to equip everyone in the city with their own personal jetpack.

  11. Lesley – I suppose this means you’ll NEVER be coming to visit. Harumph… Perhaps they could start instituting general anesthesia for airline travellers. Knock ’em out as soon as they get to the airport. Process them on gurneys which can just be slid into shelves on the plane. Unload at the other end. Everyone gets a good rest and no frills are required. No more air rage.

    Laura – Good luck with that.

    dguzman – It’s the age old catch-22 situation. They cut back service and lose passengers so they have to cut back service more because they’re losing money; so they lose even more passengers. If flying was pleasant and not so friggin expensive I know I’d fly often. As it is, I avoid it like the plague.

    CP – Of course, you always have to be the contrarian. Perhaps you sit still very well. That makes a big difference. I don’t sit still well. I get ansty in meetings, sitting at my desk, even sitting in the most comfortable chair in front of my TV. I almost never watch DVDs because I can never sit still for that length of time. And maybe your airlines aren’t as bad as ours. Ours are pretty bad.

    Bob – I’ll back you 100% on that jetpack thing, Bob. Will there be jetpack routes or will we just fly around willy nilly?

  12. As much as I would advocate willy-nilly jetpack flying, you just KNOW that some harebrained politician and/or some bureaucrat trying to justify his or her own job would want to regulate the damned thing and institute jetpack routes.
    Of course, enforcement would be the biggest problem.
    “Try to catch me, copper. You’ll never take me alive!”

  13. I buy two boxes of hair dye because I have very thick, curly hair. It’s not my fault I have this hair, but it looks best if left to grow longer, and that requires two boxes. Just the way it is.

    I’m overweight. My father’s side of the family is overweight. I didn’t grow up with them or him, but when I met them as an adult I realized we all had the same body shape. This was a bit of a relief for me, considering that my skinny mom and skinny stepdad produced my three skinny step-siblings. I also have a documented hormonal disorder that came prior to the weight and caused the weight gain. It also makes it very difficult to lose. All those excuses aside, I do like to eat and I overeat sometimes, too. So do my siblings, but they’re skinny. I also exercise every day and they don’t at all. Funny, that.

    However, if I were large enough to require two seats (which I’m not, thankfully) I suppose I would understand if I had to pay for them, just like I have to pay for the extra dye. But should my too-tall husband have to pay for the seat in front of him because he keeps hitting his knees on that person’s chair causing them to be uncomfortable?

  14. Loth – Yes, dammit, I am. Air Canada sucks and I refuse to fly Air Canada. The last time I flew I had to bring my cat to Ottawa from Halifax because there was just no other way to move him. Trains don’t take pets in the summer (plus it’s a long trip); I wasn’t about to take him by car because it’s a long trip and Air Canada wanted to put him in cargo. WestJet let me bring him into the cabin (squished under the seat in front of me, in a regulation soft-sided carrier and for 50 bucks, but still). Also, Air Canada people are all nasty.

    Bob – I think Ottawa would be a spectacular place with the entire population jet-packing about willy-nilly.

    The Maven – I was wondering where you were going with the hair dye thing. Why are you dying your hair? What’s the natural colour? And you’re right, there are a lot of reasons why someone might not fit into the standard airplane seats because the standard airplane seats suck watermelons. Buying the seat in front of him isn’t going to solve too-tall Mr. Maven’s problems either, I suspect. Stupid airplanes

  15. i dont fly so i have not run into problems like this. in fact i have flown one time too and from vancouver and then one time back from toronto and that is it. 3 whole times. and really.. i dont remember how comfortable i was.. i was busy shitting bricks thank you.

    i am all for the jet packs tho

  16. The ruling isn’t just for the obese but also allows for people who have attendants can travel for free.

    Some how, that doesn’t seem nearly so awful. Perception is that the obese a bit more room. I mean the obese like to eat and they are lazy aren’t they? Yet, who knows why they need an attendant. What if buddy had 12 beers, got behind the wheel of a car and killed three people and now has a brain injury and needs an attendant? Does that change how we view the need for the attendant to fly free? And surely that’s worse than like chocolate chip cookies a bit too much.

    The obese person could have any number of genetic metabolic disorders which makes it incredibly difficult to lose weight. (I was speaking to a doc, an endochronologist, who said he gets some of his patients down to 450 calories a day and they don’t lose weight even when they try.) So in that situation, this person is clearly sick. Do we owe it to them to make travel bareable?

    Then the slippery slope begins of who deserves a free extra seat.

    I do know that if it means that I don’t end up smushed next to two obese people on a flight, it might be worth it. (Also if they stopped those seats from reclining — that would make it so much better.)

    Obesity… it’s the new smoking.

  17. “I wonder when it will occur to airlines to start making flying an enjoyable experience?” <–I actually think the trend is going the opposite way. More inconvenience, more fees, less friendly and helpful staff, more cancellations and delays and all for higher fares.

    I’m a petite person (5’3″, size 4/6) and I still find the seats uncomfortable. I’ve been squeezed next to obese people and it’s hell. I actually do think they should have to buy an extra seat for their own comfort and safety as much as for those around them.

    But that said, the airlines sure could do a lot more to make flying a more pleasant experience.

  18. To add to the debate, how about Moms’ who travel with toddlers (who are too small sit in their seats by themselves, and have to sit on Mummy’s lap?)

    Yeah, that’s great that it saves the parents the price of getting another seat. But what about the poor bastard who has to sit NEXT to them?

    I’m sorry. There are TWO passenger here. There ougta be a law. Shouldnt’ the parents have to pay for two seats? (even if the one next was left empty)? Why shoudl the other passengers be penalized?

    If anyone thinks I sound mean, well, just try to sit 5 hours next to a fidgeting kicking screaming kid, and then come back and me know what you think. 😦

  19. Wow. That knock us out/stack us on shelves thing is – and I don’t think I’m exaggerating at all here – nothing short of brilliant!! I would SEEK OUT flying if that was the case. Free, medically supervised naps! Hey. They do sedation dentistry these days. Why not sedation flying??

  20. Jobthingy – Wise woman. Stay on the ground where humans belong. Brick-shitting is a good response to air travel.

    Nat – Yes, I left the “otherwise disabled” out of the debate deliberately because I wanted to keep the focus narrow, but you raise some good points about where the line would be drawn. I guess the difference is that the person with brain damage is now permanently disabled – he can’t do anything about it. And while there are certainly some people who are obese due to a metabolic disorder, they are very rare. The thinking is that obese people choose to be obese. I think there’s a lot more involved. In the end, though, I think if airlines want people to keep flying they need to figure out a way to accommodate ALL people a bit better. Like I said, even having 2 seats doesn’t address most of the comfort/health/safety issues.

    Kimberly – Agreed. It seems like every time I fly they’ve managed to squeeze a couple more rows of seats in the planes and hired only the most disagreeable staff available.

    Friar – Welcome. And yes, I’ve sat next to squirming, screaming (shrilly), barfing, seat-kicking, running up and down the aisles kids on a plane before. I was pretty sure that was going to be the plane that went down and the kids’ parents would die and I’d be stuck on a desserted island dragging their nasty offpsring kicking and screaming to survival. If it had been a movie, that’s definitely what would have happened.

    Lesley – I know, eh? I’m an evil genius.

  21. we’re the same height! i envision you as taller for some reason. i have nothing intelligent to add about the airlines, other than when i was traveling for work if i ended up in the exit seat i would trade with a long/tall/big person so they could stretch their legs.

  22. DP – you’re such a martyr. A short martyr, but a worthy one nevertheless. Everyone always thinks I’m taller, even when they meet me and/or have known me forever. I guess I seem and look a lot taller. Or maybe I’m not very good at measuring. Hey! No wonder I’m uncomfortable on airplanes. I’m probably 6 feet tall or something.