Big fat controversy

Is it wrong for airlines to charge obese passengers more? Broadsheet writers debate United Airlines' new policy.

Published April 20, 2009 12:38PM (EDT)

Last week, news broke about a United Airlines policy to make some obese passengers buy two tickets, or upgrade to first class, on full flights where space is cramped. If those options aren't available, the passengers would be bumped to another flight. The policy applies to passengers "unable to lower the arm rest and buckle a seat belt with one extension belt" and, according to a story in Reuters UK, resulted after about 700 customer complaints. (You can read the entire policy here.)

The policy is not unique (Southwest Airlines, in particular, is known to be aggressive about charging obese passengers two tickets), but it has proved hugely controversial. Broadsheet contributor Kate Harding laid out her objections on the blog Shapely Prose in a post called "F.U.nited." "How are they supposed to determine [who can't fit in their seats] at the gate?" she wrote. "Is there going to be a mock seat set up for fat people to try out, the same way they've got those little metal cages to measure carry-on baggage?"

Harding went on to call the policy sexist ("Fat men are more likely to carry their weight out front, and even with a pretty substantial gut, you can get a seatbelt buckled underneath it. The armrest and seatbelt restrictions are mostly going to affect people with wide hips -- i.e., women, a hell of a lot more often than not") and explained what she finds so offensive about punishing fat people -- a term, by the way, that Harding openly embraces -- for the fact that airline seats are uncomfortably small for pretty much everyone. Or, as one of the (400+) commenters on that blog post said, "They are choosing to indulge a widespread prejudice, because it distracts from the fact that their system does not work."

Not everyone objects. A poll on Huffington Post came out on the side of the airlines, with 68 percent in favor of charging more. MSNBC reported that "making overweight passengers pay for extra space would please about 80 percent of the 18,000 people" who took their poll. And even on the Broadsheet email list, a debate unfolded about whether or not the policy was unfair. It began with a simple email from contributor Mary Elizabeth Williams: "It'd be really interesting for us to do a pro/con on this," she wrote, and the following is a condensed version of the debate that took place:

Mary Elizabeth Williams: I think the policy is pretty damn accommodating. It offers people the option of an extra seat free on flights that aren't full, or switching flights, or refunds.

It's not about shaming or punishing but the reality of space. If a person's taking up two seats, why shouldn't he pay for them? And I have to believe that a person who is going to need two seats knows it.

I've never called an airline to complain about my seat mates, but I HAVE sat next to people who flipped up the armrest and helped themselves to a portion of my space. If I don't like it, if I'm uncomfortable for six hours because someone who would be more comfortable in two seats chose instead to usurp a quarter of my seat space, why does that make me an asshole?

Kate Harding: Because they're only punishing one group of people who exceed the allotted space. Tall people, broad-shouldered people, guys who sit with their legs far apart, parents with children under two on their laps, squirmy thin people with pointy elbows... all of these people often take up more than their share of the space, but everyone accepts that's the chance you take when you fly. Why is sitting next to a fat person so much more unacceptable?

Nobody's an asshole for being uncomfortable when people encroach on their space.  We're ALL uncomfortable on planes, and trust me, nobody more so than fat people. I don't want to infringe on anyone else's space, and I don't know a single fat person who's blase about that -- most are, in fact, deeply embarrassed and ashamed. But the fact remains, the seats are the size they are, and our asses are the size they are, and flying first class or paying double for two coach seats are prohibitively expensive options for most fat people -- who need to get to business meetings and funerals and deserve to take vacations and see their families just like thin people.

As for the policy being accommodating, sure it is, if you're actually on a flight that's not already overbooked -- how often does that happen these days? In reality, it's a gamble. You MIGHT get a ride with enough space to accommodate your body for the same price everybody else pays (at no loss to the airline, since they would have flown with the seat unsold), or you might lose your booked passage and be expected to pay more money to fly at a different time, whenever they can get you in. And you have no way of knowing which will be the case before you get to the airport. Whether you're flying for a business trip, a funeral, your kid's graduation, whatever, you might not get there even after you've paid to reserve a ticket like everyone else. Meanwhile, now, instead of asking for volunteers to get off an overbooked flight, and compensating them for it, the airline can bump a fatty and sell another ticket.

Rebecca Traister: I think it is discriminatory, and just plain mean. There are many things about flying that we find uncomfortable, including having screaming kids next to us, or kicking the back of our seats, and yet I wouldn't support charging parents double the cost of a ticket to put their children in a special kid-friendly section of the plane. Nor would I suggest that the person who wants to talk endlessly to me or play their iPod at top volume or has incredibly long legs that bow to the side and take up my foot room be charged more because they detract from what is already destined to be an uncomfortable experience.

This reinforces -- makes official -- the attitude that being fat is some personal failing, something you have to pay for (literally). I find that attitude especially gross these days, when we face -- and are supposedly trying to talk intelligently about -- an obesity epidemic brought on by a national, not personal, obsession with crap food and broken school funding and a million other factors.

So many mind-bogglingly wrong scenarios come to mind: What about -- for instance -- a overweight woman who wouldn't be charged for an extra seat on a normal day, but who is pregnant and therefore bigger? She meets whatever criteria these wizards devise, but should she be charged extra because she's pregnant? And conversely, should she not be charged extra just because she's pregnant? Then there's the issue you bring up in your post, Kate, about how people who want the promise of more comfort -- no loud iPods and plenty of leg room -- already have recourse available to them: first class.

I think the idea of 'maybe you get a free seat if the plane is empty' is more than a little weird. What if someone has to be somewhere? What if they're traveling for business and need to be at a meeting in another city and their work isn't crazy about paying double for them to work for them, but they can't just wait around for an empty flight? What if they have family traveling with them or waiting for them? It's not as though because they're overweight, they don't have places they need to be.

MEW: It's not about size, it's about behavior. Obnoxious J. Seatkicker behind and Squirmy Q. Recliner in front, I can ask them to do something. But when a person gets on a plane with the expectation that because I am a certain size, I'm going to surrender my space, guess what? He's the asshole.

It's not about any perceived disdain for, as Kate put it, the "fatty," it's about the reality of the experience and the service. You pay -- a lot -- for a certain incredibly small amount of real estate for a certain amount of time.

And I say this as someone who has flown hugely pregnant and with crying babies and the bottom line is that modern flight sucks out the ass.

I'm sorry, America.

So it's not about considering fat a failing. But it is about just coming out in the open and acknowledging size. I've sat next to people who had to endure the humilation of getting the belt extender, who've looked utterly miserable the whole flight. I hate that and think it's awful and cruel too.

What if airlines had a disclaimer that said, if the widest part of your body exceeds the width of our seats (whatever that measure is) we may require you to take two seats? What if the airlines had a stated policy that if there are available seats on the flight, the second seat is free? What if airlines had a stated policy that if you buy two seats, they will guarantee they are adjacent? What if, essentially, they made a corporate committment to not be douchey about it?

But bottom line, from a purely economic standpoint -- If you take up two seats, why should one of them be mine? This isn't about thighs touching, it's about dude, you're in MY SEAT. Why should I be expected to give something that I paid just as much money for as the next guy, because of my size and shape?

KH: You shouldn't. But why should fat people be the ones to address that problem by paying as if they are two people, instead of the airlines addressing the fact that, as it stands, they are not providing adequate seating for their customers, fat and thin? Canada got it right with the One Person, One Fare policy, even if that's only a band-aid.

MBW: Damn you Canada -- you got the lion's share of North America's common sense. 

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The debate continued, but for space purposes, we'll end it here. We do want to mention, however, that Kate Harding will be on CNN Monday morning at 8:24 EST to discuss the policy. We'll try to get you an update following her appearance.


By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

MORE FROM Sarah Hepola

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Air Travel Broadsheet Obesity