Readers solve the problem of oversize air travelers.

Science, technology, and life.
March 2 2010 8:24 AM

Fat vs. Tall: Plane Common Sense

Readers solve the problem of oversize air travelers.

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In the last two weeks, Slate readers have posted more than 600 comments on the problem of oversize air travelers. Some passengers are too fat to fit in a standard plane seat; others are too tall. The original question presented for discussion was: "Would you give the fat guy next to you the same deference as the tall guy behind you? Why or why not?" But your answers went far beyond that. Yesterday I posted your 10 best insights on how to think about the problem. Today we'll honor your 10 best ideas for solving it. The envelopes, please:

William Saletan William Saletan

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

1. Research seat sizes before you buy. If you're long or wide, go online and find out how big each seat is before you reserve it. Several commenters recommended seatguru.com, which lists seat and leg-room dimensions for each row, section, and plane model.

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2. Advertise seats by cost per inch. Grocery stores show you the cost of each item per unit. Cereal B may cost 50 cents more than Cereal A, but if the box has 20 percent more volume, it might be a better deal. Why don't sites such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz show fares the same way? Many Slate readers said they'd gladly pay an extra $20 to $50 or more for bigger seats. Why not quantify the value of the extra space so airlines have an incentive to offer it?

3. Demo seats. Why did Southwest flight attendants let Kevin Smith board his plane before they checked to make sure he could fit between the arm rests? This is a recipe for needless humiliation, notes Bea. Airlines have plenty of used-up seats lying around. Put them in an enclosed area in each terminal and invite passengers to try out the arm rests and seat belt before they board. We do this for suitcases. Don't we owe people the same courtesy?

4. If you have extra space, switch seats with somebody who needs it. Several commenters said they've yielded their seats to give tall passengers more room. E Shay says she traded seats with a 6-foot-4 man who "was stuck in the last row that could not recline." Another flier, Ashley, gave her exit-row seat to a long-legged guy. One common complaint in the forum was about short people in exit rows. "There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a short person in the exit row bragging about how much room [they] have to stretch out while I cram my legs into a regular seat with my knees going numb," writes Jennifer. Another reader, lma, proposes that airlines "arrange seating so that larger passengers sit next to smaller passengers. … I'm a small person and I would be more than willing to move and sit with a larger passenger if that maximizes utility for everyone on the plane." That kind of generosity would help fat people as well as tall ones.

5. Pay people to switch. If generosity doesn't inspire enough seat-switching volunteers, why not try money? When airlines overbook a flight, they offer travel vouchers to find "volunteers" who will switch to the next flight. Why not do the same with encroached seats? "Allow passengers under a certain height and weight to volunteer themselves for open placement in any seat on the airplane, to defuse otherwise uncomfortable and awkward seating arrangements, in exchange for a discounted airfare," proposes a 5-foot-4 flier who calls himself This is me. Another reader, Monica French, suggests that a discount or voucher for each encroached passenger could be funded by a surcharge on the oversize passenger.

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