Feature

Obesity: Can you be too fat to fly?

United Airlines has unveiled a new policy that requires obese passengers either to buy two seats—or an upgrade to business class—or not fly.

The friendly skies just got even more friendly, said Gary Stein in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel—at least for those of us with a modicum of self-discipline at the feeding trough. United Airlines, the nation’s third largest carrier, this week struck a blow for justice with the unveiling of a new policy requiring obese passengers either to buy two seats—or an upgrade to business class—or not fly. Advocates for the overweight are denouncing the policy (which only applies to sold-out flights) as discriminatory and unfair, but United says the new policy was instituted as the result of some 700 complaints from customers who’d experienced the far greater unfairness of paying good money for a plane seat only to find themselves robbed of part of it because the passenger in the next seat “couldn’t stop eating cheeseburgers.”

Obesity isn’t a choice, said cardiologist Arthur Agatston in TheHuffingtonpost.com. It’s a disease that leaves people unable to control their appetites or keep excess weight off. With two-thirds (and climbing) of Americans now clinically overweight, “we need to support, not discriminate against, the obese in this country.” Besides, is it really that big a deal sitting next to a fat person? said Helen Anders in The Austin-American Statesman. I’ve had my armrest hogged by the person next to me—usually a thin person, now that I think of it—more times than I care to remember, and while it’s certainly annoying, “it’s no big deal.” Perhaps those 700 complainants to United were first-time fliers still under the illusion that flying is comfortable for anyone. It isn’t.

Penalizing fat people isn’t the answer, said William Saletan in Slate.com. But capitalism is. As a taller individual, I suffered for years in cramped economy-class seats, dreading the moment that the passenger in front of me chose to recline. But not any longer. These days most airlines offer “premium economy” seating where, for a few dollars more, taller passengers can enjoy a few extra inches of legroom. If it works for length, why not for width? Rather than charging obese passengers for the full cost of a second seat, United should install a few extra-wide seats and “charge the large” a premium for sitting in them. Better still, “let other passengers sell part of their seat width to those who need it.” I, for one, would be delighted to get a 20 percent discount on my next ticket in return for the unused 20 percent of my seat-width, and the satisfaction of knowing I’d done my part to help us all fit in.

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