Are airline seats comfortable? Even slim travelers answer this question with a resounding no. But the situation is worse for overweight or obese travelers. Squeezing into a tiny seat with not enough legroom to even cross the legs can be agonizing. But for slimmer travelers, the worst thing about being in a cramped airplane can be sitting next to an obese neighbor. Irene Lucia says, “Plane seats are confining enough without having another passenger take up half of what you’ve paid for” (Two Cents).

Are airline passengers entitled to transportation or space? Marilyn Wann, author of the book FAT!SO?, argues that purchasers of airline tickets are entitled to get from, “point A to point B, they are not buying real estate (BBC News).” Chicago Tribune columnist and contributor Mike Lynch argues with her. He says that, “Passengers are paying for real estate, a well-defined space bordered by two armrests that is barely sufficient to provide a tolerably comfortable flight.”

Apparently, the majority of Southwest’s disgruntled customers agree with Lynch. Southwest Airlines says that ninety percent of the complaints that it receives are from travelers who are angry that they were “sat upon” by overweight individuals who overflowed their seats (BBC News). To alleviate this problem, Southwest Airlines will begin enforcing its 22-year-old policy requiring overweight or obese passengers who take up all of part of two airplane seats to purchase two tickets (Barrett). Plus-sized passengers everywhere are furious; Southwest Airlines has been inundated with angry mail. But Southwest’s policy is not a malicious attack from a society that wants to punish the overweight; Southwest is simply practicing good business principles by trying to make the majority of its customers happy while still earning a profit on its deeply discounted tickets.

The policy, dating to 1980, is very simple. The Southwest Airlines web site says that if a passenger thinks that he or she will need two seats, he or she should purchase two tickets. If a traveler requiring two seats has not purchased two tickets, he or she will be discreetly taken aside at check-in and Southwest personnel will explain the policy to him or her. If any segment or his of her one-way or round-trip flight is fully booked, he or she must purchase two tickets to complete his or her travels (Barrett).

If the larger traveler purchased his or her first ticket at full price (around $300 on Southwest), the second ticket can be purchased at the deeply discounted child’s fare rate. If the larger traveler purchased his or her first ticket at a discounted rate (around $100 on Southwest), the second ticket will cost the same amount as the first. If the fully booked leg of the flight turns out to not be full, larger passengers will receive a refund on their second tickets (Barrett). If a larger traveler fits into one seat but his or her seatbelt doesn’t fit, an extension will be provided at no extra charge. He or she will not have to buy two tickets (Barrett).

Southwest Airlinesdiscreet policy regarding larger travelers is designed to ensure maximum comfort for everyone traveling on the plane; also, it prevents the need to leave a passenger behind because his or her seat is filled with someone else’s bulk. Southwest Airlines claims that it has lost profits through denied boarding compensation due to this problem (Barrett). Travelers denied boarding are recompensed with free airline tickets, hotel stays, and sometimes even free car rentals (Barrett).

These things are very expensive, and these losses hit Southwest particularly hard because Southwest does not charge the high fares that other airlines do. On average, Southwest Airlines’ non-discount competitors charge $1,100 for a one-way seat in the coach section and $1,650 for a one-way first-class seat (Barrett). Southwest claims that, on average, it earned a profit from only six seats per flight in 2001 (Barrett). Southwest’s wise precaution against losses due to overbooked flights makes financial sense. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that larger passengers who buy two tickets from Southwest are still paying only half the amount that they would pay if they bought their tickets from Southwest’s more expensive competitors.

Southwest Airlines’ main objective is not luxury; its main objective is quality discount air travel. Mercury News columnist and frequent flyer L.A Chung calls them “the hero of budget travelers.” To provide these deep discounts, Southwest only flies Boeing 737 aircraft (Adkins). The typical Boeing 737 is a no-frills affair with simple seats, one aisle, three-seat rows, and no first class section (Adkins).

On average, the Boeing 737’s seats are 17 inches wide (Parker). The average airline seat in coach class is 19 inches wide (Grand Style). The pitch, or front-to-rear spacing of rows that determines the amount of legroom and workspace, is never more than 34 inches, and typically it is around 32 inches (Grand Style). On the Boeing 737, the pitch is only 31 inches (Grand Style).

Though it is true that seats of this size are uncomfortably small, should a discount airline be expected to provide luxurious seating accommodations? If luxurious travel is a traveler’s paramount concern, he or she should not consider Southwest Airlines. If saving money is the traveler’s leading concern, he or she should be willing to endure a less roomy ride in exchange for savings of up to $1,000. Purchasing two 17 inch wide seats on seats on Southwest Airlines ensures spacious seating, while still being much cheaper than one 19 inch seat purchased from a more luxurious airline.

Activists for overweight people complain that selling such small seats and charging larger passengers for two seats is a form of discrimination against people who have a disabling addiction to food. “It’s just discriminatory and it’s mean-spirited,” says Megan Downey, the executive director of the American Obesity Association (Lynch). But the Boeing 737 has been in use for many years, and only recently have there been widespread problems associated with passengers’ size. As stated before, even people of average size experience discomfort during long flights.

This is not the only situation in which overweight people are charged more than slimmer people are for the same product. Health insurance companies use height and weight tables to help determine the premium that their customers must pay. People who are extremely trim and physically fit are given “preferred” status and are charged the lowest premiums. People of average size and physical fitness are given “standard” status, and they pay mid-range rates. If a potential customer is overweight and does not fit the suggested weight for his or her height, he or she will be charged a very high premium (Wooters).

Former AFLAC regional manager David Wooters estimates that a 5’4 tall non-smoking woman who is 100 pounds overweight could easily pay up to triple the premium that a 5’4 tall non-smoking woman of average weight would pay. The reason that severely overweight persons are charged more is that they are much more likely to suffer from weight-related health problems such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. These diseases are expensive to treat. Thus, overweight customers would drain money from the insurance company if they were charged the same lower rates that customers of average weight are charged. If, in order to appease the activists for the overweight, Southwest Airlines discontinued its policy that requires those who consume double the space to purchase two tickets, it would lose money also.

People of larger size must also pay more for clothing than people of average size do. The autumn 2002 Eddie Bauer and Land’s End catalogs both advertise products designed for men and women in average, tall, and plus sizes. Tall and plus size products cost more than average sizes do, presumably to cover the cost of the extra materials used. Charging more for extra material makes sense, because this way Eddie Bauer and Land’s End don’t lose money when they sell tall or plus-sized products.

Some might ask if larger-sized consumers should pay for the extra fabric that is used to make their shirts. After all, their shirts are indistinguishable from the average-sized shirts in every way except for size. Shouldn’t one price fit all? The answer is this: Would it be fair to average-sized consumers if Eddie Bauer and Land’s End charged one price for all sizes, but considerably raised their prices to make up for the cost of fabric used in tall and plus-sized clothing? Southwest Airlines’ policy is similar to the policies wisely used by Eddie Bauer and Land’s End. Southwest Airlines is being considerate to its passengers of average size by not raising its prices in order to make up for its losses from denied boarding compensation.

Kathleen Parker, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, makes an interesting suggestion. She implies that she suffers from mild claustrophobia, and she believes that airlines should enlarge their seats for the sake of every traveler’s sanity. Parker’s idea would ensure that every traveler would enjoy maximum comfort, but it does not make good business sense. If Southwest Airlines removed every seat in every one of their aircraft, hired designers to plan the new seat configurations, and installed all-new seating, the costs would be huge. Even if the plan was carried out slowly, a portion of Southwest’s planes could be out of commission for months while the plan was being carried out. The plan would ultimately result in a reduced number of seats. Unless prices were raised, this would bring in less revenue. Parker’s plan might work for a luxury jet line that wanted to take its aircraft out of use to beef up its amenities, but it would not be economical for a discount airline to execute her plan.

Jeff Adkins, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, proposes a variation on Parker’s idea. Adkins believes that Southwest Airlines should remove nine seats on each of their aircraft and replace them with six enlarged seats. This plan is better for Southwest, because it would leave more seats remaining at the end of the renovation. However, the problems of downtime and labor costs still exist. Adkins’ plan also brings up new problems.

Southwest Airlines does not assign seat numbers on its tickets. Its passengers are served on a first-come, first-served basis, and they seat themselves. Most air travelers will probably desire the enlarged, more comfortable seats. If only six enlarged seats are available on each plane, who is allowed to sit in them? If no obese passengers are on board, will people fight each other for the more comfortable seats? Will larger passengers resent being directed to the “fat section” of the plane? Will larger passengers resent not being able to sit with their families or friends? What if there are more than six people on board who require larger seats? Are tall passengers and pregnant women eligible for the enlarged seats? Whose needs take precedence? Will the seats cost more? If Adkins’ plan is carried out, it is possible that Southwest will be accused of intolerance and segregation. Kathleen Parker says that “Civil liberties lawyers are drooling,” over this issue, and Marina Michaels says that “Fat people are one of the last 'acceptable' targets for prejudice” (Two Cents). Is Southwest Airlines ready for a lawsuit?

The most logical and business-savvy conclusion is that Southwest’s policy should stay as it is. Discount travelers should expect discount-quality seating. Renovations should be avoided in order to keep ticket prices down and to prevent accusations of segregation. Southwest’s employees should continue to handle the matter as sensitively and as discreetly as possible. And finally, travelers who consume two seats should pay for two seats, regardless of whether or not they require the extra seat because of a health problem. As Kathleen Parker says, “If you order two meals, you pay for two meals, no matter how hungry you are.”

Works Cited
Adkins, Jeff. “Weighed down.” San Francisco Gate 15 Jul. 2002. 25 Jul. 2002
Barrett, Colleen. “A message from Southwest Airlines.” 25 Jul. 2002
Chung, L.A. “Southwest’s policy poses big questions.” The Mercury News 25 Jun. 2002. 25 Jul. 2002
“Fat flyers face higher travel costs.” BBC News 20 Jun. 2002. 25 Jul. 2002
“How to find roomy coach seats.” Grand Style Women’s Club 25 Jul. 2002
Lynch, Mike. “Flying fat.” reasononline 21 Jun. 2002. 25 Jul. 2002
Parker, Kathleen. “Increase airline size, not prices.” Orlando Sentinel 25 Jun. 2002. 25 Jul. 2002
“Two Cents.” SF Gate 12 Jul. 2002. 25 Jul. 2002
Wooters, David. Personal interview. 1 Aug. 2002.

Southwest Airlines really is in a bit of a quandry. In many cases an airline passenger is dissatisfied with their service when faced with the unpleasant situation of having "another passenger take up half of what you've paid for." It is understandable that they choose to complain about the situation. After all, they are paying customers and they should be comfortable on their flights.

I find it interesting that Southwest claims to its plus-sized passengers that the airline is met with the task of "transportation," not "real estate," where the "main objective is not luxury; its main objective is quality discount air travel." Yet this same airline is more than eager to address issues of "comfort" with its so-called "average-sized" customers.

On more than one occasion, usually during a lengthy overnight flight, I have had to deal with the traveller behind me pushing her feet against my seat, while the passenger in front of me reclines his seat into my chest. I have had passengers next to me with extremely long, sharp elbows that jut into my sides because they're too long and lanky to fit within their allotted 17 inches. Now, I could choose to complain about the long-legged people behind me, the lazy person in front of me, or the gangly fellow next to me, who clearly should be doing something about that elbow problem of his.

But I do none of these things, because I understand that it is not the passengers' fault; rather it is the airline who has designed its planes to fit the maximum number of sardines. The fact of the matter is, few people fit comfortably in an airline seat. Few people fit into any standardized box we present to them. There will always be the person in front of you who likes to leave the light on, the baby two aisles down crying over the in-flight movie, the person beside you with horrendous body odor.

Despite all these scenarios, and more, I have no doubt that the majority of complaints of Southwest customers have to do with the weight of the person next to them. For it is true, as Marina Michaels said, that "Fat people are one of the last 'acceptable' targets for prejudice" (Two Cents). On school playgrounds, in malls and restaurants, at the job and in movies the message is perfectly clear: the only people who are responsible for their lot in life are the fatties; let's get 'em.

This is not to suggest that an obese person is helpless, or that they have nothing to do with their weight. However, the 6 ft tall body-builder with 26-inch biceps (whose arms also happen to take up two seats) will undoubtedly go unnoticed. The modifications made to his body are regarded as acceptable, if not aesthetically pleasing.

With regard to clothing manufacturers, there is never a difference in price between small and medium, medium and large, large and x-large articles of clothing. Why, then, the sudden jump at the plus-sized level? It's the difference in fabric costs, of course! Yet petite-sized businesswomen don't get discount suits because they use less fabric. In some cases, retailers will charge more for a suit of less fabric, if they have to design it to fit a non-average size.

Will the airlines give discounts to petite customers, as they do for children? Of course not; paying attention to matters of size, in this case, would cost them money, rather than create a profit. The fact of the matter is, they don't charge more for the extra seat, just like a clothing manufacturer isn't really charging more for the material. They charge more because they can.

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