AC360° Associate Producer
Frequent fliers, you might just rejoice! Your flights may be delayed or canceled, you still have to pay a fee for extra bags, the snacks are lame, and drinks aren't on the house, BUT if you fly United Airlines, you'll never have to share a portion of your own seat with a fellow traveler again.
Recently, United announced a new policy for portly passengers. The airline's website says that if a person cannot buckle the seatbelt with a single extender and/or is unable to put the armrests down when seated, they will employ the “Passengers requiring extra space” policy. The first step is to relocate the customer to a seat next to an unused seat at no extra cost. No empty seats? That individual needs to upgrade the ticket to a more expensive, larger seat. No upgrade seats available? Apparently, that person would be kindly asked not to take that flight. He or she can then purchase another seat, for a total of two seats, for the next available flight.
United says this policy is not unique, and that other commercial airlines, including Southwest and Delta, have similar regulations. Still, in adopting the policy, United has renewed the controversy over what some call “Fat Fees.” My initial reaction was one of sympathy and embarrassment for large passengers. Coach seats are never comfortable, but if you're of a greater weight than the average person, it could be downright painful. In addition to the physical discomfort, there are the unwanted stares, muffled whispers, and now the fear of being asked to disembark. Yet a friend of mine expressed her enthusiastic support for the new policy. A self-proclaimed "Fattist," meaning she opposes fat people and fat culture, her candid response was that she prefers to travel without heavy people violating her personal space. Apparently, she isn't alone since United says this latest change stems from 700 hundred complaints they received last year.
Many believe discrimination against overweight people is acceptable because they believe weight is a choice. For some, that's true. However, there are medical conditions that can impact a person's size.
In fact, Canada last year passed a law called 'One Person, One Fare,' treating "severely" overweight people as disabled and therefore protected, but people who are "not disabled as a result of their obesity" are not protected. The doesn't make clear how to determine which category a person falls in, and nor does the Canadian Transportation Agency, so that leaves it up to the airlines.
And aren't there options other than booting overweight people off planes - or crowding people who are not overweight? Should airlines make the seats roomier, for example? Or provide some wider seats, or seat extenders?
And what about charging parents with screaming children? Sure, these parents are paying for each of the seats they occupy, but a wailing baby can be just as invasive as someone taking up space beyond their armrest. Should airlines be charging extra for those who fall asleep with their head dangling onto the seat of their neighbor (you know who you are), snoring and drooling throughout the flight?
What do you think? Are the airlines unfairly discriminating against overweight passengers or rightfully protecting the comfort of slimmer customers?
Editor's note: See Sean Callebs' report on airlines the challenges of carrying out this kind of policy.
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