The Situationist

Archive for October 18th, 2011

Should Obese Airline Passengers Be Forced to Buy Two Seats?

Posted by Adam Benforado on October 18, 2011

Last week, I traveled to the University of Tulsa College of Law to give a talk on the psychology of retribution.  The faculty was extremely welcoming and I had a great time, but on the way back I found myself in a challenging situation.

Shortly after I settled into my seat, a woman asked me if I would mind switching rows with her so that she could sit with her partner.  I was happy to oblige, but when I made my way to seat 2B, I found that the arm rest was up and my seatmate in 2A was taking up half of my seat.

It wasn’t a matter of him being disrespectful.  He was just a very, very large man and he did not fit in a single seat on the small plane.  With no other seats available, I did my best to squeeze in, but it was an impossible situation and I ended up having half of my body in the aisle.

In a time when the number of obese individuals has reached a critical level, it made me wonder what Delta’s actual policy was with respect to obese passengers.

So, when I got home, I contacted the airline and was surprised to find that they actually do “not have a published policy to address this issue.”  Rather, they have a set of “guidelines” that are meant to help resolve such situations:

Based on availability, if a passenger has purchased accommodations in the main cabin, we will make every attempt to assign a large passenger a seat next to one that is vacant.  If there is not a vacant seat, we will ask a large passenger to purchase a second seat at the lowest fare class available, for their own comfort and safety.  Rule 35 (7) of our Contract of Carriage states “Delta reserves the right to refuse transport when the passenger is unable to sit in a seat with the seatbelt fastened.”

In my opinion, this is a terrible policy.  Among other things, it makes travel for the obese even more fraught with anxiety than it already is, given that obese individuals are always at risk of being refused transport if they cannot fit into a seat.   It leaves discretion in the hands of flight attendants who may or may not make optimal decisions.  And it dispositionalizes the problem of obesity by implicitly placing blame on the overweight for their condition (“You are solely responsible for making yourself fat and therefore you must literally pay the consequences in the form of buying two seats.”).  As chronicled in the situationist article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America, this last concern may be the most serious for society as a whole.

So what is to be done?

I think that any approach ought to (1) be clear, predictable, and not subject to discretion, (2) ensure that all passengers are comfortable and safe, (3) not further stigmatize or embarrass the obese, and (4) not force any individuals to bear an undue financial burden to fly.

To me, this means that our best bet may be to construct planes with bigger seats for economy travelers.  Flying may cost more for all of us as a result, but those of us who are slim can enjoy some extra space and those of us who are larger can move about the country without feeling like pariahs.  It’s not a perfect solution, by any means, but it gets us closer to where we want to be.

Think you have a better idea?  Let’s hear it!

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