Too fat for your plane seat? I'll sell you part of mine.

Science, technology, and life.
April 16 2009 7:40 AM

Charge the Large

Too fat for your plane seat? I'll sell you part of mine.

Overweight passenger. Click image to expand.
Passengers wait to board a flight

United Airlines has just implemented a tough policy for fat people: If you're too big to fit in a coach seat on a full plane, you'll have to pay for a first-class seat or two adjacent coach seats. And if those options are sold out, you'll be bumped from the flight.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

I have a better idea: I'll sell you part of my seat.

United's policy is hardly unique. Lots of airlines are cracking down on fat people. Why? Because the airlines have made a business calculation: The wrath of passengers on whom these people encroach now exceeds the expected wrath of the fat people themselves. The cost of being nice to oversize fliers has become too high. A United spokeswoman tells the Chicago Tribune that the carrier was moved by hundreds of complaints from fliers "who did not have a comfortable flight because the person next to them infringed on their seat." A Southwest Airlines rep tells a similar story: The company, which has already cracked down on oversize passengers, still gets more angry mail from encroached customers than from fat ones.

Fair enough: The old policy of letting some passengers invade others' space can't continue. But what's the solution? Here's United's policy, as spelled out in the contract of carriage  it adopted last month:

UA will refuse to transport or will remove at any point, any passenger … in the following categories where refusal to board or removal from the aircraft may be necessary for the safety or comfort of themselves and other passengers: … persons who are unable to sit in the seat with the seat belt fastened and the armrest down. Note: A passenger will not be removed upon the purchase of an extra seat. If an extra seat is not available for sale on the same flight, UA will transport the passenger, without penalty, on the next flight having adjacent available seats and the passenger will be required to purchase the extra seat as a condition of carriage. …

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That's a binary policy. If you can't fit in one seat, you have to buy two. And if you can't find two on the flight you showed up for, you'll have to buy two on a later flight.

Continental's contract of carriage has a similar policy, enacted five years ago:

CO shall have the right to refuse to transport or shall have the right to remove from the aircraft at any point, any Passenger for the following reasons: … 6) Persons who are unable to sit in a single seat with the seat belt properly secured, unless they comply with Rule 6 I). …

Rule 6 I) says:

Passengers Occupying Two Seats—Upon request, or if determined necessary by CO, and given availability, a Passenger will be permitted to the exclusive use of two seats subject to the payment of two applicable fares for the points between which the two seats will be used.

Again, the rule is binary: Fit one seat or buy two.

Same deal at Southwest. Here's the policy, as revised two years ago:

Additional Seat Purchase—The purchase of more than one seat for use by a single passenger is required in the following circumstances: (1) To accommodate a Customer of size who encroaches on an adjacent seat area and/or is unable to sit in a single seat with the armrests lowered. …

You get the picture: Pretty soon, no matter which airline you fly, fat people will have to pay double.

Is that really necessary?

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