Wide-Body Aircraft

Science, technology, and life.
June 9 2009 8:36 AM

Wide-Body Aircraft

Good news for fat fliers and the passengers who sit next to them: We may be heading toward a compromise involving wider seats.

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William Saletan William Saletan

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

Two months ago, when United joined other carriers in requiring oversize fliers to buy two seats, I argued that this binary policy was unnecessary. A better model is the extra leg room United sells to tall passengers:

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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. ... 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.

In today's Wall Street Journal , one flier says he's open to the sale idea: "If people are so large or overweight that they can't get the armrest down, then these people should be required to sit elsewhere, pay for an additional seat or pay me for the part of my seat they are spilling into." But the wider-seats option is less embarrassing and should be easier to implement. And the Journal 's Scott McCartney reports interest from both sides:

Frequent travelers and advocates for the obese would like to see airlines offer a few rows of wider coach seats and charge extra—just as they do with rows of expanded legroom. Instead of six seats across a typical single-aisle plane, why not have four or five seats and charge 50% extra on a coach fare? ... "We're willing to pay for what we are rightfully using," says Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the National Association To Advance Fat Acceptance. ...  "What we really need are seats half-again as wide," she says. ... United, which offers extra legroom in "Economy Plus" rows to frequent fliers and customers who pay extra, says it will review the wide-seat idea.

Substituting a two-seat row for a three-seat row, at a 50 percent premium per seat, is a no-brainer. If the airline wants to require that such rows be purchased whole and with plenty of advance notice, those are reasonable conditions. It shouldn't be too hard to make each extra-wide seat purchase conditional on a second purchase to fill out the row. On flights with four seats across the middle, a three-seat row could be substituted. On smaller planes with only two-seat rows, wide fliers would have to buy an extra seat. And if extra leg room is necessary, sell it the same way it's already sold to thin people.

This plan shouldn't take long to resolve or implement. Airlines and obesity interest groups just need to sit down and work out the deal. Preferably in comfortable seats.

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