Supersized and Overloaded

By | April 19, 2009
United Airlines 777
Image by afagen via Flickr

United Airlines, as you may have heard, has instituted a policy for oversized passengers.  To quote United, courtesy of the Middle Seat Terminal:

For the comfort and well-being of all our guests, today United has matched eight other U.S. airlines and adopted a new seating policy that requires customers to purchase a second seat when they are unable to use an extended seatbelt, put their armrests down, and if they infringe on another guest’s seat … This will apply after all other solutions are exhausted, meaning the flight is full and we are unable to re-accommodate our guest next to an empty seat that is not occupied by someone else.

Should the flight be full, which is rare in today’s economy, and United is unable to re-accommodate the guest who is infringing on someone else’s seat, we will offer the second seat on another flight at the same fare that was originally paid …even when a second seat is purchased on the day of departure, which is when fares are often much higher.

Previous to this policy, when no empty seats were available, our guests would subsequently infringe on the seat next to them.

Now, we’ve had a few days to contemplate the matter. And we wish to be fair and balanced on the issue. We have long said that airlines should be aware of the average size of a human being, and be required to space their seats at minimum, accordingly. Now, we’re not statisticians, so let’s quote someone with more information than we have. Earlier today, posted on this exact subject. We suggest you check it out. Here are some relevant bits:

  • Based on their measurements, the average width of seats at a movie theater was between 18 and 20 inches. Office chairs averaged at 20. The seat pitch, the distance between seats, was 36 inches or more at the theaters they went to.
  • The airline industry standard has decreased from 34 inches to 31 inches, as the average person’s size has increased. Airlines maintain that leg room has not actually been cut, but a higher density seat back that, at 0.5 to 1″ thick, is three to four inches thinner than the older padded seat backs gave airlines extra room, which they filled with more seats but without taking away any actual leg room. Of course, find someone who believes that.
  • A standard airline seat is 17.2 inches wide. During the development of the 777 family of planes, Boeing took their findings and decided to add 5 inches to the width of the plane. It permitted them to put in wider, 18.5″ seats without diminishing the overall capacity.

When we ride on a roller coaster, we pass a sign that informs us we must be this tall to ride. At the airport, there are ‘sizewise’ bins you are supposed to test your carry-on luggage with. How long before an airline puts a sample seat in the terminal that passengers must try out? How realistic is that, with varying plane models of varying sizes?

When Southwest, the most well-known carrier in regards to a size policy, has a ‘customer of size’, they allow the customer to prove his ability to be served by sitting in the seat and demonstrating that he or she does indeed fit. A passenger can also appeal the ruling, and is hopefully allowed to do so with the respect mentioned. Mark Ashley of Upgrade Travel agrees on this point, the fairest determination is whether or not you actually fit in the seat. However, we doubt United, who like many airlines is cutting capacity and filling planes to capacities previously uncommon, is doing this simply because of passenger complaints. If so, they have a laundry list of other things they could be doing.

Rants are available on both sides, and get quite virulent. On the flip side of protecting the larger passenger, passengers seated next to such a passenger are often crowded out of their seat, and that is not right either. NAAFA, a civil rights organization seeking to protect people of size, issued a press release on the subject, stating:

Tall, short, thin or fat, broad shoulders, wide hips or longer legs…people come in all sizes and it is rare for any coach seat to provide a comfortable and pleasant travel experience. The responsibility of serving customers of all sizes is the cost of doing business in today’s modern world and that cost should not come at the expense of any one group of individuals.

We can’t say we disagree with the basic idea they advance either.The AAPR insists that:

United is now the latest airline to shelve customer service standards in search for higher profits, while claiming that the new policy is to ‘protect’ other passengers. At issue should not be the size of any passenger, but rather why the airlines continue to pack coach passengers like sardines into the cabin.

United has sort of proven that with another recent development Upgrade Travel alerted us to. United is testing ‘customer acceptance’ of a new configuration in economy for its Boeing 757 aircraft, which includes four additional economy seats(really cramming them in) and slimmer seats(which can mean less padding, although there is talk of enhanced materials). Even American Airlines took issue with United, a spokesman for American said that while the airline has the right to require a second ticket, it will do so only if it can find no other solution, such as re-seating the passenger next to an empty seat at no extra charge. We wouldn’t be surprised if United became much more aggressive on the issue than any other carrier.

On a related note, we caught this last notice: United has reintroduced onboard Economy Plus Upsell following the launch of its new handheld credit card scanners. “Up to three “upsells” enticing economy passengers to pay extra to sit in the roomier economy plus section are permitted on narrowbody aircraft and up to 10 on widebodies. The AFA told members that upselling should occur only after takeoff. “Not only would flight attendants be uncertain as to seat availability, potentially creating seat dupes, this would be a violation of our job scope and that of our customer service colleagues as well,” the union stated.”

Still so sure this new policy is for customer benefit? Either way, in the end we guess it boils down to this:

  • The airline is right in saying that if you can’t fit into a seat, your neighbors have the right not to be infringed. Conversely, you have the right to buy a ticket and fit comfortably.
  • The airline has made an average seat smaller than an average person, and seeks to maximize the number of seats on a plane and thus profits. Evidence proves that the majority of passengers will not pay more money for a larger seat.

We’re not even sure we want to open the can of worms this whole situation seems to every time it is brought up by saying anything other than what we have in the past. Make the seats consistent with the average American, and anyone who doesn’t fit in, subject to a field test, may be justified in being charged more for an extra seat. Making this about America’s obesity problem(and this seat issue extends to big and tall individuals who are not obese as well), is not the right way to approach it.

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