United Airlines Sets New Policy On Obese Passengers

Much is being made of United Airlines new policy on obese passengers, but it’s pretty much what most domestic airlines have been doing for quite a while. It’s also, under the circumstances, reasonable.

United will require obese passengers to buy a second seat, but only if they can’t fit in a single seat, put on a seat belt with an extender and lower the armrest. And if there’s an empty seat, United will seat the obese passenger next to it, at no extra cost.

Fair enough. Airlines should do what they can to accommodate every passenger up to the point where it infringes unreasonably on others.

But there’s another issue here. The seats are too narrow for too many people, not just the clinically obese.

The standard coach seat is 17.2 inches wide at the seat cushion, yielding a few more inches at the shoulder. Anybody who has flown in coach can tell you that there are many men, not necessarily fat, whose shoulders are wider than that. As a tall woman with fairly wide shoulders of my own, I’ve given up an armrest more than once to a seatmate whose shoulders barely fit in the seat.

The average male, according to various studies, has shoulders that are between 16 and 17 inches wide. Even with 19 or 20 inches of shoulder space, the natural variation in the species means there will be a significant number of people whose shoulders are wider than that.

And how about the obese? They’re fat and it’s their fault, right? But consider that a shorter person with a small frame can be significantly obese and still fit in an airline seat. A person who happens to be taller, with a bigger frame, is going to have trouble at a much smaller percentage of excess body weight.

So, are airline seats intended only for the average-sized and smaller person — say 50 percent of the population? Eighty percent? Ninety-five? Is it OK if 5 percent can’t fit? Can we figure out what percentage of Americans can fit comfortably in a standard coach seat? Do we care? 

I’d love to see those questions answered. And I’d like to know at what point the airlines have to serve the population we have instead of the one they want.


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