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.

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Consider Robert Mann. He's an aviation consultant quoted in the Tribune story. He's not extra-wide, but he's extra-long. "From a knees-to-seatback perspective, I don't fit," he tells the paper. "I'm 6'4". It's reached the point where it's essentially impossible to sit in coach and have the person in front of you recline."

I feel for you, Mr. Mann. I'm a shade over 6 feet, with legs more proportionate to a guy your size. Two days ago, I spent seven hours on a United flight to London. The passenger in front of me was reclining the whole way. To stretch my legs, I had to angle them diagonally.

But if your legs don't fit, United doesn't ask you to buy an extra seat. It offers you a deal. On Monday, I'm going to fly back to Washington. I'm sitting here looking at my return flight online, and United is inviting me to buy "Economy Plus" ("the comfort of extra legroom near the front of the Economy cabin") for "as low as $69.00." That's about one-fifth the price of the ticket.

How much leg room would I get? "Up to five extra inches," says the company. From there, the math is easy. If 15 passengers, sitting in rows of three, each pay an extra one-fifth of the ticket price to get an extra 5 inches of leg room, that's three tickets' worth of income to United in exchange for 25 inches of plane length. Standard seat-to-seat length in coach is 30 to 32 inches. By selling extra leg room, United comes out ahead.

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Why shouldn't fat people have a similar option? Most of them don't need two seats side-by-side any more than we long-legged guys need two seats front-to-back. Like us, they just need a few extra inches.

On a plane, adding width is trickier than adding length. If United can swap out a row of three normal coach seats for two wide ones, two fat people should be able to buy those seats for an extra 50 percent instead of an extra 100 percent. That's the simplest nonbinary solution. But if the flight is full, or if swapping out a seat row is too difficult, here's an alternative: Let other passengers sell part of their seat width to those who need it.

Those angry letters to United and Southwest are from customers who paid full fare for less than full width. But what if they were compensated for the encroachment? Airlines already offer financial rewards to passengers who agree to give up seats on overbooked flights. Why not offer similar rewards to passengers who give up part of their seat space? If two thin people will each give up 2 inches of width for a 20 percent discount, a fat guy can sit between them for a 40 percent premium at no cost to the airline.

Would this transaction be too embarrassing? Maybe. I'd like to think there's a graceful way to do it. And is it really more embarrassing than making you buy a second seat? More embarrassing than pulling you off the plane?

I'll start. I hereby offer to give up 2 inches of seat width on the way back to Washington. In fact, I'll trade them for some of that leg room.

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