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. …

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?

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.

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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