No Room for Insensitivity

As airlines seek to economize with less seating space, and as Americans are taking up more room than ever (more than a third are officially classified as obese), the issue of the overweight flier has become increasingly acute.

There is no denying the concern is legitimate. Overcrowding for any reason makes for discomfort; and when that discomfort lasts for several hours with nowhere to go, people are justified in demanding a solution.

Some airlines have responded with special policies. Southwest Airlines, for example, has long had a “customer of size policy,” requiring passengers to buy a second seat if their body crosses the armrest boundary. If there’s an extra seat, their money is refunded.

Courts have upheld the right of airlines to charge for a second seat, but advocates for the obese argue it’s unfair. How can you penalize a person for an illness, something that often isn’t their fault? In fact, in 2013, the American Medical Association voted overwhelmingly to define obesity as an illness.

Most airline passengers are unsympathetic to the plight of the obese flier. When Ryanair conducted a survey of 100,000 passengers, fully one-third said they favored a tax requiring people who don’t fit in one seat to pay higher fares.

Most individuals who don’t grapple with this problem, as well as many who do, believe that being overweight, whether an illness or not, is not something that is outside the control of a person. A recent study showed that 94 percent of Americans believe that people are responsible for their own weight condition.

This attitude spills over into overt forms of resentment. A study published a few days ago by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) said that obese passengers are more troubled by the way others stare at them than the physical discomforts associated with their weight.

“Most participants [in the study] agreed that the way people stare at them during boarding and deplaning is humiliating, and at times even shameful,” said Prof. Yaniv Poria, chairman of the Department of Hotel and Tourism Management at BGU.

They are also far from oblivious to the discomfort they cause other passengers, albeit unintentionally. Besides having to squeeze themselves down narrow aisles and into undersized seats (too small even for many non-obese), it pains them that they are unable to avoid touching other passengers. Many said they make a special attempt to be first in line to board so they can find their seats quickly “and disappear.”

“We were surprised to find that the way other people reacted to them was so ‘unpleasant’ and ‘embarrassing,’ causing them to feel universally ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘uneasy,’ Prof. Poria says.

Since, from the point of view of the airlines, every inch of cabin space given to passengers is an economic concession narrowing their profit margins, we understand why they are not giving second seats free to obese passengers. Nor are they likely to increase the average seat size.

However, Airbus has come up with an ingenious solution: a bench designed to accommodate overweight passengers. In fact, the bench isn’t only for the overweight; it can be adjusted to seat people with mobility problems or families with small children, as well. The seat belts can be attached at different points to fit either larger or smaller passengers.

The Airbus invention’s patent is pending, and it has not been incorporated in the production of any planes on the market. Airbus itself has no specific plans yet to use it. But it is encouraging that an innovation exists that could eventually ameliorate the situation. (Though for those who wish to just “disappear,” such a seating arrangement, if conspicuous, could be the last thing they would want.)

In the meantime, the BGU researchers suggest that airlines show greater sensitivity toward the obese: by allowing them to board first and deplane last, and making design changes to rest rooms and seat trays that would make everyone more comfortable.

But sensitivity toward airline passengers is not only the responsibility of the airlines. The passengers have a role to play in this, too. However legitimate the grievance, however much discomfort one may suffer, it does not justify humiliating another individual.

Everyone has, at one time or another, been the unintentional cause of discomfort or inconvenience to others — whether due to the crying of one’s small child, or delaying others by arriving late, or any of countless other situations where circumstances beyond one’s control incurred the hostile stares of others. But this is a penalty the obese flier should not have to pay.