Flying fat in America

Last weekend, film director Kevin Smith was ejected from a Southwest Airlines plane from Oakland to Burbank, Calif., because he was allegedly too large to get his armrest down.

Last weekend, film director Kevin Smith was ejected from a Southwest Airlines plane from Oakland to Burbank, Calif., because he was allegedly too large to get his armrest down.

According to the Southwest Airlines policy, “The armrest is the definitive gauge for a customer of size…customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who compromise any portion of adjacent seating should proactively book the number of seats needed prior to travel.”

An overweight population and obesity in America has been an ongoing epidemic that is getting worse. According to the Weight-control Information Network, two-thirds of the 20-plus population in the U.S. is overweight. Of those, 65 million are women and 68.3 million are men. Wouldn’t you think that airline policies would accommodate this? And it isn’t only related to America either.

The New York Times reported in May 2005 that “France is suffering something of an obesity crisis, with rates here rising ‘at an alarming rate,’ particularly among young people…true, absolute rates are still lower here than in the United States and most other European countries: 11.3 percent of the French are obese and nearly 40 percent overweight, compared with more than 50 percent overweight in Britain and the United States.”

Air France also has policies regarding larger fliers, one being that such patrons can purchase a second seat for a 25 percent discount.

United Airlines also has this policy. As The New York Times further reported, “both airlines have a policy that overweight passengers can claim a refund on the second seat if the plane is not full. These policies were introduced after complaints from neighboring passengers.”

This problem does not only relate to the policies that Smith violated regarding the armrest. It also relates to the subject of the problem of how do you tell a person that they are too fat to be on the plane. Some people don’t choose to be fat and some are comfortable being as such, while some could be struggling with self-esteem and body issues in secret. There is no polite way to announce this on a plane full of passengers.

Many previous passengers that may have been removed from a flight due to the same issue of their weight might have asked whether or not the Southwest Airlines policy violates the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Air Carrier Access Act. However, interstate airline travel is specifically excluded from Title II of the ADA by Section 12141(2). Airline travel is instead covered by the Air Carrier Access Act, 49 U.S.C. 1374(c) and the regulations implementing the act issued by the Department of Transportation as 14 CFR Part 382.

The ACAA precedes the ADA, and Congress excluded air carriers and other air transportation services from the scope of ADA. As regulated under 14 CFR §382.38, Seating accommodations (i), “Carriers are not required to furnish more than one seat per ticket or to provide a seat in a class of service other than the one the passenger has purchased.”

This is why policies should change. If Congress can put a sentence in specifically regarding airline travels, they can also add one about airline policies for overweight and obese people. Everyone likes their room on an airplane, especially if it is a long flight, but sometimes you don’t get what you want. Yes, overweight people should buy two seats if they don’t fit in one, but the way airlines handle asking a passenger to leave because they are fat should not even be a problem.

Right now, the information about passengers purchasing two tickets if they are unable to move the armrest in a safe position before the flight is not on the tickets, referenced on the booking and reservations pages of their Web site, or questioned by the reservation employees. Basically, it is like the tiny print on TV commercials.

If Southwest Airlines really wanted to decrease the problem, I would think they would mention it at least on the tickets. According to Southwest Airlines policy: “We estimate that the Customer of size policy affects far less than half a percent of our customers, and ultimately, it is the responsibility of a customer with a unique and unusual need to communicate with us…”

Maybe Southwest Airlines has less than half a percent of overweight or obese customers, but more than two-thirds of the U.S. population is affected by their policy.