Airline weight policies not fair to all passengers
Published: Saturday, December 3, 2011
Updated: Sunday, December 4, 2011 16:12
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 34 percent of American adults are obese. No region is spared; every state in the union has an obesity rate of at least 20 percent. This is truly astounding because in the year 1990, not a single state had a rate above 15 percent.
This rapid increase in obesity is causing some major health concerns for the United States, but there is another hidden problem. Namely, that our transportation systems were not built to accommodate such large people. Transportation companies have been faced with this challenge for some time and are running into obstacles. For example, a man named Arthur Berkowitz booked a seat on a US Airways flight, and right before takeoff, a 400-pound man filled the only remaining seat. This seat was located between Berkowitz and another passenger. Berkowitz said that this man was so large that "his size required both armrests to be raised up and allowed for his body to cover half of my seat." As a result, Berkowitz was forced to stand for most of the flight, violating the Federal Aviation Administration's regulation requiring individuals to wear seat belts during takeoff and landing.
Regardless, Berkowitz's decision to stand was the correct choice. Had he sat, he could have been badly injured. Such was the situation in 2002 with a nearly identical case involving a woman named Barbara Hewson. Hewson boarded a Virgin Atlantic flight and like Berkowitz, she was seated next to an obese passenger who filled the last empty seat and needed to lift both arm rests. In Hewson's case, she did not move and instead bore the weight of the obese passenger pressing on her body. As a result, she suffered a blood clot in her chest, torn leg muscles and acute sciatica. The damage was so severe that even the stereotypically greedy airline agreed to compensate her for damages via a settlement worth approximately $20,000.
This type of danger is addressed by US Airways policy. Valerie Wunder, a spokeswoman for US Airways, said that the airline's policy consists of offering obese individuals extra space provided open seats are available. If not, obese individuals will be offered a seat on the next plane at no additional cost. Only if the passenger refuses to change flights or none are available will there be an additional fare. This is a reasonable idea and roughly equates to the policies of Delta, American and Southwest Airlines.
Despite the sensibility of this policy, there are still those who complain. For example, Carrie Padian, the president of the Fat Rights Coalition, said that "the problem is not that fat people are too big to fit into airline seats, it is that airline seats are too small." Padian certainly has a point; airlines are greedy, and people are overweight. However, in Berkowitz's case, his neighbor weighed 400 pounds, not 250. It is unreasonable to demand that airlines accommodate passengers who are that morbidly obese.
At the end of the day, increasing obesity rates are going to conflict with transportation services. Berkowitz and Hewson are only two examples. In the long run, all airlines need to adopt more sensible policies and enforce the ones they already have. In the short term, Berkowitz should be given a full refund and be issued an apology. As for the obese, they need to take personal responsibility and either live healthier lifestyles or pay for two seats when there is no alternative.