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Apr 24, 2004
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Excuse Me, Is This Seat Taken?

Published: February 28, 2010
FLYING in coach is never comfortable, but it’s getting downright awkward for bigger passengers as airlines increasingly single out customers they deem too fat to fly.

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Leif Parsons


Kevin Smith Oversized? Ejected From Flight

Overweight on Air France
Debating Extra Charges for Large Airline Passengers

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The issue made headlines in early February when the director Kevin Smith, best known for “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy,” was thrown off a Southwest Airlines flight from Oakland to Burbank, Calif., because the crew determined he was too big. Mr. Smith turned to his Twitter account to vent: “I broke no regulation, offered no ‘safety risk’ (what, was I gonna roll on a fellow passenger?). I was wrongly ejected from the flight.”
Southwest, like most of the major United States carriers, has had a formal policy in place for years requiring that passengers who can’t physically fit into a single airline seat must buy two. Though such rules have long been denounced as discriminatory by advocates for the obese, they have gained the support of fliers who believe charging passengers who take up more room than the average person is only fair. Regardless of which side of the debate you are on, shrinking airline capacity has aggravated the issue with passengers of all sizes facing more tightly packed flights and cramped seating.
“I fly coast to coast several times a year, and I cannot tell you how many times I have been pinned in by a morbidly obese human,” said Mark Sweeting, a frequent flier from Portland, Ore., who says he used to request an exit row seat for the extra legroom, but that he now avoids that row having noticed that large passengers often request those seats for the same reason. “I don’t know what the correct solution is,” he said, “But it is a real problem.”
Some airlines have responded by tweaking their policies to encourage large passengers to buy more space. On Feb. 1 Air France, which for the last five years has offered “passengers with a high body mass” the option of buying a second seat in economy at a 25 percent discount, said it would reimburse the cost of the second seat if the plane wasn’t full. Last year, United set a formal policy to get large passengers to buy an upgrade or extra seat after it received 700 complaints in 2008 from customers whose seatmates did not fit into a single seat. Since then, said Robin Urbanski, a United spokeswoman, that number has dropped to about 100.
Airlines are generally clear about how they determine when a customer must purchase an additional seat or upgrade. Southwest uses the armrest test, requiring customers who cannot lower both armrests to buy an extra seat. Continental says customers must be able to wear the seatbelt, with one extension if necessary, remain seated with the armrests down for the entire flight and “not significantly encroach upon the adjacent seating space.”
But the enforcement of such rules can result in humiliation when large customers are singled out in front of a plane full of passengers. Mr. Smith, who was put on a subsequent Southwest flight and offered a $100 voucher, summed it up in one sarcastic tweet: “The @SouthwestAir Diet. How it works: you’re publicly shamed into a slimmer figure. Crying the weight right off has never been easier!”
Mr. Smith had initially paid for two seats, but tried to fly standby for an earlier flight that had only one open seat left. After he had taken that seat, Mr. Smith was told he was deemed a safety risk. Southwest stated in a blog post on its Web site soon after the incident that “a timely exit from the aircraft in the event of an emergency might be compromised if we allow a cramped, restricted seating arrangement.”
Advocates for the obese say charging bigger passengers for an extra seat is simply not a solution. Such policies “add yet another way to discriminate against already marginalized fat people,” said Peggy Howell, public relations director at the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a nonprofit civil rights organization. She added, “We see this as more of an attempt at getting more money out of the consumer’s pocket than any concern for our well-being as some have claimed.”
But fliers who have been encroached on by a large passenger say not addressing the issue is not fair, either. When I wrote about the photo of an obese airline passenger making its way around the Internet in December, 200 readers posted comments to the blog post at nytimes.com/intransit. Many said charging customers who take up two seats for both of them is reasonable. They recounted flights where an obese passenger infringed on their space. “While I understand it’s not easy for anyone involved, including the obese passenger, I once was unable to move for about three hours during a flight because I was literally sandwiched between the obese passenger next to me and the window,” posted Bridget Jesionowski, of Claremont, Calif. “I was uncomfortable and I know she was as well, as she kept apologizing to me."
Because the rules aren’t consistently enforced, passengers crowded by a seatmate often find themselves making the difficult choice between confronting that seatmate about his or her size or enduring the discomfort for the entire flight.
On a cross-country flight from Philadelphia to San Diego in October, Matt G. Sampson, a doctor from Bala Cynwyd, Pa., who was traveling to a conference, said he was forced to give up his window seat when a “morbidly obese woman” took the seat next to him. “Upon sitting down, there were large portions of her right side physically touching my body,” said Mr. Sampson, 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds.
Southwest didn’t get involved in any way, he said. And since Mr. Sampson said he didn’t want to complain about his neighbor’s mass, he forfeited his window seat and switched to a middle one three rows up between two smaller passengers. Mr. Sampson stressed that he didn’t think his seatmate was doing anything wrong. “She was within the rules at hand,” he said. But he said he felt he’d lost out nonetheless. “She ended up having a more comfortable seat than I ended up with.”
In response to Mr. Sampson’s predicament, Chris Mainz, a spokesman for Southwest, said: “We strive to be consistent enforcing our policy to avoid this very situation, and all indications tell us its working. That said, we apologize for Mr. Sampson’s inconvenience.”
Airlines need to acknowledge that the current policies aren’t solving a problem but are rather turning one passenger’s comfort into another passenger’s embarrassment. Another solution must be found. (How about some wider seats in coach?)
Southwest, for one, seems to be considering a different approach after the public relations fiasco following the incident with Mr. Smith. Forty-eight hours after the news of his removal from a Southwest plane blasted through the blogosphere and celebrity news channels, the airline refunded his airfare, admitted it was “a mistake in trying to board him as a standby passenger and then remove him,” and said it would be reviewing “how and when this delicate policy is implemented.”

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