Wide Passengers Don't Sit Well With Airlines
By SCOTT MCCARTNEY
The Wall St. Journal
The scales have tipped against oversized airline passengers, much to the glee of some frequent fliers. As travelers complain about losing any of the scant 17 inches of width they get in many coach seats, airlines are increasingly trying to force "passengers of size" to buy an extra seat when they fly. Earlier this year, UAL Corp.'s United Airlines joined Southwest Airlines Co. and several other carriers in implementing a formal policy to get obese customers into two seats instead of trying to shoehorn them into one.
"Airlines mandate that carry-ons have to fit certain sizes, so why not passengers?" says Willis Reed, a credit-union vice president who was miserable on a US Airways Group Inc. flight when the passenger beside him didn't fit into his seat.
"I was just sitting there thinking, the company paid for me to sit here, but what do I get?" Mr. Reed says. "Do I surcharge them for encroaching on my seat?"
Frequent travelers and advocates for the obese would like to see airlines offer a few rows of wider coach seats and charge extra -- just as they do with rows of expanded legroom.
Instead of six seats across a typical single-aisle plane, why not have four or five seats and charge 50% extra on a coach fare? That's still a lot less than first-class prices, and perhaps an effective way for airlines to meet a customer need while boosting revenue at the same time.
"We're willing to pay for what we are rightfully using," says Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.
Buying two seats is a bad solution because of safety issues with seatbelts and comfort issues with armrests that don't fully retract, she notes. Plus, most people don't need two full seats. "What we really need are seats half-again as wide," she says. "Legroom is fine for nice tall men but does nothing for fat passengers who are being imposed on right now."
United, which offers extra legroom in "Economy Plus" rows to frequent fliers and customers who pay extra, says it will review the wide-seat idea.
JetBlue Airways, another airline that sells extra legroom to customers, says it hasn't considered selling extra-wide seats. JetBlue does note that its Airbus A320 aircraft have wider cabins than the comparably sized Boeing 737, so seats are more than 18 inches wide, compared with 17 inches for Boeing 737 and 757 jets. "This is one of the reasons we chose the A320," a JetBlue spokesman says.
The tight squeeze of seats on Boeing single-aisle jets has been an issue for decades.
In the 1950s, a Harvard University study of New England passenger trains concluded that the minimum acceptable seat width was 18 inches, and that was the norm on most passenger aircraft. But in 1954 the Boeing 707 was designed with a cabin allowing only 17-inch wide coach seats, needing the narrow body to give the plane the speed and range to fly coast-to-coast.
Boeing stuck with that layout for the 737 and 757 jets, despite complaints that coach seats were too narrow; widening aircraft adds weight and makes jets more expensive to fly. The first 737s were originally designed for short trips, so tight seating was considered adequate. Later versions had better wings and engines for longer range -- and the same 17-inch seats. There's been no accommodation for wider passengers since.
United said it received 700 complaints last year from customers who had to "share their seats with their neighbor," said spokeswoman Robin Urbanski. With those complaints rising, the airline found eight other competitors had instituted "passenger of size" policies, and so United joined in.
If a passenger doesn't fit into the confines of his or her seat, United can force the oversized customer to leave the plane and wait for another flight with two empty seats side-by-side. If the traveler doesn't want to wait on the standby list for two empty seats, United will sell a second seat at the same ticket price the customer paid.
"In the past, we re-accommodated the customer in a seat with an empty seat beside it. But if there was no empty seat, in past we said, 'Sorry, if you've got to travel, have a nice flight,' " Ms. Urbanski says.
Southwest has had a similar policy since the 1980s. "Customers of size," in Southwest parlance, can book two seats online by repeating the passenger's name with XS as a middle name for the second seat. At check-in, the customer gets a boarding pass, a Reserved Seat document to block other passengers from the extra seat during open boarding and a form for a refund if the plane doesn't oversell and the airline doesn't bump passengers.
More than 97% of all customers who buy the second seat end up with refunds because flights didn't oversell, spokeswoman Beth Harbin says. Fewer than 1% of customers require a second seat, but complaints about passenger discomfort from encroaching seatmates have declined substantially in the past two years, she says.
Southwest's policy requires that armrests be "comfortably lowered into position without trapping the passenger in the seat," which would be a safety hazard. Crew members have some discretion, Ms. Harbin says, in deciding whether to force a customer to buy a second seat. Some airlines require an extra seat for passengers who can't buckle up without a seat-belt extender, though most handle the issue on a case-by-case basis. Even when rules are strict, standards aren't uniformly enforced.
In Canada, forcing one passenger to buy two seats is now illegal on domestic flights. Canada's Supreme Court ruled last fall that charging extra to someone who is "functionally disabled by obesity" was discriminatory.
Airlines' response to the ruling has sparked controversy. Canada's largest carriers, Air Canada and Westjet, decided in January to require a doctor's note, complete with derriere dimensions, to prove disability before a passenger is given a free second seat. The Canadian Medical Association has complained that the required form "shows a disregard for the use of scarce medical resources."
A spokesman for Air Canada says government regulations require doctor's certification of disability. The court ruling and ensuing transport policy don't force airlines to give obese customers free second seats just for comfort.
Several passengers in the U.S. have sued airlines over the size issue from both sides -- some claim airlines were negligent because they let an obese passenger spill over a seat and cause discomfort, and some claim airlines discriminated against obese passengers by causing humiliation or forcing them to buy an extra seat on some flights but not others.
Neither approach has ever succeeded. "I do not know of a successful passenger-of-size suit today," says Katherine Staton, an aviation attorney at Jackson & Walker in Dallas.
The Air Carrier Access Act, which requires airlines to accommodate disabled and physically impaired passengers, doesn't cover obesity, Ms. Staton notes. And even if rules aren't consistently applied, they remain legally in force, she says.
"Most carriers try to handle these situations with discretion," Ms. Staton says.
Rebecca Puhl, director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, criticized United for its new policy, however, saying on the Rudd Center's Web site that the policy "stigmatizes a significant number of passengers because of their weight" and doesn't consider the "well-being" of those customers.
Some 34% of Americans now meet the criteria for obesity, Ms. Puhl says, and weight discrimination is prevalent. Obese workers face wage discrimination, for example, research has shown.
But frequent fliers say the issue is real estate, not discrimination. If they buy a seat, they want the whole seat.
"That is the absolute worst part of travel. The worst," says Cam Marston, a consultant based in Mobile, Ala. who says he's often on flights, especially on small regional jets, where he gets only about three-quarters of his seat because of large neighbors.
"If people are so large or overweight that they can't get the armrest down," Mr. Marston said, "then these people should be required to sit elsewhere, pay for an additional seat or pay me for the part of my seat they are spilling into."
Write to Scott McCartney at firstname.lastname@example.org
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D1
GOODave wrote:Not quite sure why the WSJ is finally getting around to writing about this. It's been going on for a couple years, now.
Yesterday's news, as it were.
If that is really the case, then that "1%" must all be on the same travel schedule as me.Fewer than 1% of customers require a second seat,
Most CONUS and OCONUS flights I have been on in the last 15 years, I've been left wondering why I had to pay for my whole seat when my neighbor was using an uncomfortable percentage of it.
The issue burns me even more now that airlines are even charging a fee for checked bags, but refuse to charge the large person for the seat (or seats) next to them that they unavoidable overflow into.
I'll take the seat next to the fat guy if I only have to pay for the 85% of the seat that I actually get to occupy.