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Friday, 25 October, 2002, 11:48 GMT 12:48 UK
Should obese passengers pay extra?
Virgin Atlantic has paid £13,000 to a passenger who was permanently injured when she was squashed by an obese woman sitting next to her on a long haul flight.
Barbara Hewson, from Swansea, south Wales, suffered a blood clot in her chest, torn leg muscles and acute sciatica and remains in pain two years on.
As the number of overweight people continues to grow, it has re-opened the debate on how airlines treat their passengers.
Some charge oversized flyers for two seats while there are mounting complaints that planes simply do not allow enough room.
This Talking point discussion has now closed. Thank you for your comments.
No man is an island and smokers are no longer allowed on planes. They have accepted this as it interferes with the comfort of other passengers. Obesity isn't normal and neither is smoking, therefore the concessions must be made by these people
I can't believe some of the things that I've read here. I am dismayed at the attitudes towards obesity that the general public has. Airline seats are too small period! Too small for a football player, tall person, overweight or whatever. The seats are just too small on some planes. The airlines should make them a little more generous and special accomodations should be made by anyone that needs special seating or whatever.
I am thin. Very very thin. I am just below the medically recommended range for body mass index. I hate plane seats, they are tiny. When I fly long haul from New Zealand, I feel trapped for the 10-24 hours I am up in the air. I think obese people should not pay for extra seats, rather the seats themselves should be larger. Airlines will still make a profit, just not as much, I'm sure.
I recently booked a flight for me, my wife and my 18 month old son. Even though he's going to sit on our laps and not use a seat we still have to pay a surcharge. If I have to pay a surcharge without using an extra seat, why not overweight people who do 'use' an extra seat.
Steve Cifarelli, USA
Just how small are these planes? I am obese, I need a belt extender but I fit comfortably in a RyanAir 737 seat. Anyone who cannot fit without the seat arm up shouldn't be able to fly. It is a requirement that seat arms are in position for take off and landing.
On a short flight from Sydney to Cairns some years ago, the last passenger to board the plane was seated directly in front of me. He was an exceedingly overweight and large gentleman. As he was arranging himself in the economy class seat, the entire back of his chair snapped off and crashed onto me. I was able to support it, however, and prevent injury. The passenger was upgraded to Business class, where he should have been in the first place, the plane was delayed as the broken seat was removed, and I had more leg room. "Excess baggage" charges should relate not just to luggage but to excess bodyweight as well.
Here we go again with the blame culture. What is wrong with people today? Why with every problem issue do we have to find something to blame it on? Jill, USA (below) blames fast food and magazines for obesity. Fair enough they don't help, but nobody is forced to eat or read those products.
Prasad Metta, Hyderabad, India
I have recently returned from a trip to the US and on my flight home I was sandwiched between two Collage American Footballers both about 30 stone and 6 foot 3 tall. I got chatting to them and both Mike and Jules say they are forced to book Business class seats because they physically can't fit in economy. Due to this they very rarely go abroad as they can afford the fares. Airlines should allocate an area of economy for the larger person to enable the larger person to get away more often.
This is a matter of being fair, not of discrimination. Every passenger pays for his or her own seat, and overweight people should pay for two seats if they occupy two. That is to say, they are not paying extra, but paying for the space they use. If they feel reluctant to pay that money, they will inflict their uncomfortable situation on others. If they cannot afford or refuse to shell out the money, stay home, perhaps.
Why not charge for two seats only when the plane is full?
I don't think the amount of extra fuel it takes to transport an extra few stone is the issue here, it's simply a question of ensuring that everyone has enough space.
I am 6' 2" and 240lbs and in perfect health. Airline seats are way too small for me, and I am not fat or abnormal for the country I come from. Yet every airline I fly with has seats designed for infants. One airline's seats were so close together I could not fit even my legs in. Most headrests do not extend high enough to reach my head so I end up with severe neck cramps if I dare to fall asleep. I would never pay the extra money for larger seats simply because there is medically nothing wrong with me. I believe that airlines should increase all their 'cattle class' seats and then re-examine whether or not obese passengers should pay more.
If obese people are forced to pay for two seats, does this mean they are entitled to two meals? Won't that just make the problem worse?
Stefano, Canadian in Japan
I think that the seats on airplanes should be bigger full stop. I also think that airlines should think about introducing a policy similar to when they had asthmatic people flying with smoking sections. If you can prove that you have a medical condition then you should not have to pay for the second seat. If, however, you are too big to sit in one seat and have no medical reason for it, you should pay.
I am 6ft 3 tall, and have in the last 2 years slimed down from over 18 stone (255lb) to just under 15 stone (200lb). Even at my heaviest, I found the seats in British European and EasyJet's aircraft to be fairly comfortable with enough arm and leg-room for me. If somebody is too large to fit into one of these seats, they should be made to pay extra money for an additional or a larger seat.
Roger F, UK
What about making armrests permanently fixed in the economy section? That would clearly define the space purchased by the ticket holder, and protect passengers from hurting each other. If a person needs more space, then he or she will have to purchase a ticket in a section of the airplane with larger seats.
As usual we read and hear the varied opinions of the public but we hear nothing from the companies directly responsible for the problems. These companies are not doing us a favour by running airlines they are providing us with a service which we pay greatly for. They should take responsibility for managing seating accordingly, mothers with children, very tall and obese passengers all catered for with everyone else to make for pleasant comfortable flying.
Everyone wants business class seating at economy class prices. It's not going to happen. I don't resent the business class travellers their extra comfort as after all it's they who are subsidising my economy class ticket, allowing me to make journeys that otherwise I wouldn't be able to afford. Various people made comments about airlines reducing their profit margins - what profits - aren't these people aware that most airlines are losing money hand over fist? As for space concerns for obese people flying - these people should be obliged to make specific plans with the airline to avoid causing discomfort to other passengers.
If I have paid for a seat then I should be able to use the entire seat. I have compassion for someone who is obese, but it is not my fault and I should not have to suffer for their misfortune. Requiring airlines to make the seats larger and farther apart, will only force up the cost of flying, which will hurt everyone.
If you make people pay extra for being overweight, are you going to fine people with children that cry or makes disruptions on a flight? What about passengers with body odour, will you deny them a seat on the plane? There are so many inconveniences one can experience on any type of transportation. You can't just single out one, without penalizing others who will make for a less comfortable flight.
The airline industry already receives far too many special privileges from my government and from others, while they continue to cram passengers ever tighter into coach sections resembling oversized sardine cans.
Tear out some of those seats to give passengers the pleasant flight they're already paying an exorbitant price for, and the size of passengers will no longer be an issue.
I'm a travel agent and I have to deal with this every day. I do believe that very obese passengers should have to purchase an extra seat. But, how do you judge who needs the extra seat? I've had to sit next to a person who needed an extra seat, but didn't purchase it. It was the most uncomfortable flight I've ever been on. However, I think, that if an extra seat is needed, the passenger should get a discount, or the frequent flyer miles from the extra seat. Either that or go first/business class.
There are an extraordinary number of obese people in America and it is just revolting. There is no epidemic causing obesity - just a culture of laziness and over-indulgence. The only way to get these people in shape is to make them pay more, nothing else seems to work.
The seats are tiny, unless you are 12 or weigh 100 pounds. Unfortunately, retrofitting seats on planes is a bit difficult, but hopefully aircraft designers will take this into account.
Obesity is a medical disability. They are just as uncomfortable in airline seats as you are sitting next to them. Would you openly make fun of a mentally-disabled person? Or a deaf person? Or a blind person? They don't need derision.
Sharyn Baldry, USA
In response to Sharyn Baldry, it is quite reasonable to charge based on weight. The amount of fuel needed by any aircraft is in direct proportion to the gross weight. It takes twice as much fuel to carry a 200lb person than a 100lb person, so why shouldn't they pay more? I also agree with Tom (below) that this is a serious safety issue. I have seen people on aircraft who would have been physically incapable of getting through the emergency exits due to their size, who insisted on being seated in the emergency exit row because "they needed the extra room". FAA safety regulations state that only persons "physically capable" of opening the emergency exits should be seated in the exit row, yet many flight attendants are either unaware of this or blatantly ignore it to accomodate overweight passengers.
I for one would not allow my safety, and that of other passengers, to be compromised in this way.
This is a very simple issue for airlines. Your ticket entitles you to one seat on a plane. Therefore, if you require more space on a plane, it is your responsibility to contact the airline and make special arrangements prior to purchasing a ticket. It is not fair for another passenger to share his/her seat with anyone.
I'm a smoker and I freely admit that my habit should not be tolerated on public transport, because it causes a health hazard to others. I also pay a tax justified to compensate the NHS for any problems I may cause myself. It may be harsh to compare an obese person to a smoker, but their condition is 9 times out of ten a self inflicted ailment, which now has been proven to be hazardous other people. Most fat people are fat because they eat too much and don't treat themselves well, as I found out when over the last two years I lost six stone in weight.
William, Chicago, USA
Bigger seats for everyone and less profits should be the way forward, not the demonising of a whole section of the community.
The notion that obese people should pay extra is a bit cruel. Anyone can get overweight by eating too much and exercising too little, but there's generally something a bit more serious behind obesity. These people are already vilified by society. I'd rather sit next to an obese person than re-live the experience of sitting next to the person with the worst BO problem on this planet on a flight to Jamaica.
On one flight I was on a woman next to me was so big that she needed a seat-belt extension and to have the seat arm raised. My little boy could not comfortably fit between us, so for the whole flight he had to sit on my knee while she enjoyed the benefit of two seats.
Not only that but she pushed her seat back to get extra room and complained loudly that the person in front had pushed their seat back and said that they should see that she needed the extra space more than they did!
If you use one seat, pay for one. If you use two seats, pay for two!
When I raised this issue with a British Airways cabin crew member at Aberdeen earlier this year, I, who had been allotted a seat between one large and one very large man, was invited to get off the plane by the BA staffer who told me: "If you are not happy with your seat you can get off the plane and I'll arrange to have your luggage removed."
If we take extra baggage onto a plane, we have to pay for it, due to the extra fuel needed. So why shouldn't people carrying personal extra baggage do the same!
It's a sad reflection on airline seat allocation that these problems cannot be sorted out. I had exactly this problem on an Australian flight. When we stopped over in Bangkok we, the passengers, re-organised the seating so the large gentleman next to me was sitting next to a child. I just wonder why this can¿t be sorted out at reservations, after all if your hand luggage is too big, or over 7 kgs, they are very quick to allocate it to the hold.
There is an important fact that's being forgotten here. We're talking about safety here. A person with a dangerous disease such as TB, which is a medical condition also, would not be allowed onto the airplane because it endangers other people. Why are requirements not made for this condition? Someone was permanently injured here! I would like to know the safety requirements for airline seats that size, and whether people that large who have to raise the armrest and spread over multiple seats can be adequately restrained by that chair and seatbelt in a crash situation.
Given this case and the increasingly litigious nature of modern life, it surprises me that airlines haven't already changed procedures and pricing structures to cover increased public liability exposure. If a passenger is regarded as clinically obese then they should advise their insurer and airline in advance of their trip. The insurer will usually require an additional payment for pre-existing medical conditions, and the airline will also assess the passenger's fitness to fly. To try and avoid these obligations is financially and socially irresponsible.
Nick T, USA
Obese passengers should not pay extra, they just should not be allowed to fly. In a situation where a rapid exit is required from the aircraft they would prove a hindrance to those blocked into the window seats, and those behind them at the emergency exit. Harsh maybe, but we all know how difficult it is to slide out of seats on economy flights as it is.
It's only litigation like this that will force the airlines to provide larger seats for obese passengers. For years flyers have been suffering ever shrinking leg room: it's about time they gave some of it back! Obese people needn't pay that much more. You might lose one or two seats for the benefit of four or five wide-seats and the comfort of a lot more passengers.
It all depends on where you draw the line. I find economy class airline seats acutely uncomfortable due to restricted legroom and shoulder width. I am just over 6' tall, which is hardly unusual, and absolutely not overweight.
Phillip Holley, UK
It's completely unfair and discriminatory to expect obese passengers to pay extra to travel by aircraft. What next? Will we charge extra to parents that bring children that make noise?
It's a great idea, but as long as it is done in the spirit of the fact that obese people are simply too large for ordinary plane seats. What must not be entertained is the tendency for people to single out the obese as a target for abuse and derision, justified by infantile, vicious self-righteousness.
It's perfectly reasonable to expect obese people to pay for two seats if it means ensuring comfort and safety for other passengers. I once read about a rock star who bought two tickets. One for him and one for his treasured guitar, which he insisted travelled with him in the cabin. The airline insisted that he pay for the extra seat rather than holding it on his lap for the journey. It was on the grounds of safety more than anything else. A similar principle should apply to obese travellers.
Obesity for whatever reason seems to have become a problem that is spreading throughout the Western world. Some remarks here are just plain bigoted. Maybe mine are too. Maybe people who have a genuine medical condition should submit a certificate from a doctor when booking their ticket and those without medical reasons for obesity should have to pay extra for extra space.
Airlines should charge more for overweight people, however, they should make "X" amount of extra-large seats available for overweight people and charge not double but definitely MORE than the rest of us pay. Not all overweight are FAT because of health problems - most just plain eat too much. And I for one am tired of having to "work" my way around such people.
I'm a seriously overweight frequent flyer - but I sympathise completely with Mrs Hewson. The airlines should be responsible for the comfort of all passengers; Mrs Hewson, her obese co-passenger, disabled people and the very tall alike.
We had a similar experience a few years ago on a flight to Toronto. I had the window seat, my husband was next to me and a rather large lady on the end. She could only fit into her seat if she raised the arm rest. It ruined the holiday as it was only a short break and we both spent the time in pain following the cramped conditions on the plane. I also suffered burns to my left side as I was squashed against the window throughout the flight and it was a very sunny day.
Each person should pay for the amount of seats they require. It's as simple as that. Would I be allowed to put my feet up on the seat in front, if I wanted to? I think not. Besides, if someone's obese, surely it's their responsibility to enquire as to the nature of the aircraft's facilities.
Passengers have to pay 'excess baggage' if they take a suitcase that is above the weight restriction. Likewise, they should have to pay extra if they are going to take up more room than a standard seat. Why should normal people suffer for others' greed? This situation happens all the time on trains as well. Often, passengers have to cram themselves onto half a seat. I am all for overweight people being treated equally - and that includes only allowing them the same space as everyone else on public transport.
At the end of the day, airlines have the power to refuse someone and, if they perceive that an individual may be unfit to travel and may in fact endanger others in the event of an emergency evacuation, then they should exercise that right.
This Talking point discussion has now closed. Thank you for your comments.
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