Weighty Matters In The Air

There was a bit of piling on after the scantily-clad women dustup with Southwest. A passenger came out of the woodwork to complain that Southwest humiliated him by forcing him to buy two seats because he couldn’t fit into one. At the time of that event, the man weighed 435 pounds.

Sorry, guy, but no sale. This isn’t news, and it isn’t unfair, either.

Southwest has had this policy for a long time, and it’s taken some lumps for it, too. Passengers who can’t fit into one seat with the armrests down must buy a second seat. If bought in advance, the second seat is offered at a discount. If bought at the gate, it’s available at the same price as the original seat, which is generally lower than the premium walk-up fare. If the plane doesn’t fill up, the second fare will be refunded.

Southwest’s rationale for what it calls its "customers of size" policy is that when a large passenger takes up part of a second seat, it’s not fair to the passenger who paid for that seat.

And I have to agree. It’s not.

Many other airlines have this policy, but Southwest seems to enforce it more often and take heat for it more often. That may be because it has no first-class cabins, where passengers can buy wider seats. Or it may be that its open seating makes it impossible for gate agents to block out empty seats next to large passengers or because, historically, Southwest has had a higher passenger load, with fewer empty seats.

But I don’t think it’s because Southwest is bigoted or unkind, though much of our society treats obese people badly. It’s unfortunately far too common to assume that a person is fat because of some character flaw, and that this character flaw must be worse than any defect a skinnier person could possess. But we simply can’t know that. I’m sure that there are plenty of obese people who are better human beings than I am, and that none of them deserve my contempt or ridicule.

They don’t deserve half my seat, either. And that’s what this all comes down to.

People of unusual weight and height have always had to suffer in public transport. I once saw an unusually tall Costa Rican man, standing on a crowded mini-bus for an hour, his neck bent at an angle against the ceiling. He didn’t try to take the seat of a shorter person, who could have stood with less discomfort. (In fact, he refused to take a seat from me.)

Another true story: I have an ancestor who was too heavy to ride in a carriage and so "when he made a trip to Boston, he was accustomed to ride in a chair placed in an ox cart drawn by a pair of steers." (This according to the Encyclopedia of Biography.)

His name was James Emery. He was born around 1630 in England, came to Boston with his family around 1635 and lived most of his life around what is now Kittery, Maine.   According to the encyclopedia, he "was a man of large frame, weighing more than three hundred and fifty pounds …"

It’s a pretty fair bet that he would not have fit in the 17-inch-wide seats on a Southwest 737. Yet I don’t think he would have blamed the airline.


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