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Airline Policies

Airlines correct to vet passengers for excessive weight

Steve Dorfman  Mar 02, 2010

Taking a commercial airline flight is, statistically speaking, the safest way to travel.

However, it can still be hazardous to your health.

If it isn't not some underwear bomber trying to make his terrorist bones with Al-Qaeda, it's the fear of contracting or spreading the H1N1 virus.

And then there are the camera-phone-recorded scenes of captive passengers being held for untold hours inside the cabins of delayed flights — sans air conditioning, water, food or working bathrooms.

It almost makes one long for the days when air travel was an upper-crust affair for which people dressed to the nines.

Well, air travel — and specifically, Southwest Airlines — took another health-linked public-relations hit a couple of weeks ago when acclaimed indie-film director Kevin Smith was forced off a flight after boarding because the pilot deemed Smith's excessive girth a safety risk.

Even though Smith, 39, admitted to the Los Angeles Times in 2008 that his "weight had gotten out of control" to the point that he actually had broken a toilet, he still expressed outrage on his Twitter account about Southwest's decision.

Like most airlines, Southwest has a "customer of size" policy — i.e., if the airline deems that you don't fit within the boundaries of the armrests, you're required to buy a second seat (the price of which will be refunded if unoccupied seats are available).

Ideally, customers requiring two seats are identified before boarding. But prior to takeoff, flight attendants survey the entire plane to make sure that all passengers fit safely into their seats.

So, yes, Smith was no doubt both embarrassed and inconvenienced by being escorted off the flight. And his legions of Twitter followers further stoked his outrage.

Nonetheless, even though Southwest reportedly later apologized to the rotund filmmaker, I believe its policies are wholly justified.

First, coach seats are typically 17 inches wide — sufficient for 95 percent of the population, according to Boeing. However, if a person is so big that he or she encroaches upon another passenger's seat boundary, how is that equitable to the second passenger, who is not getting all of what he or she paid for?

With U.S. obesity rates perpetually on the rise, maybe it's time for airline-ticket agents to ask larger passengers to sit in a "sample seat" before boarding (like they do with your baggage). This would avoid repeats of Smith-like disembarkation scenes.

An advocacy group, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, has called on the airlines to make its seats bigger. But if that were to happen, the airlines would likely raise all ticket prices to make up for there being fewer available seats per flight.

The issues associated with seat encroachment are not merely ones of comfort. More significantly, the obesity epidemic has the potential to put all airline passengers at dire risk. That was the case in 2003, when a commuter jet in North Carolina crashed during takeoff — in part because of miscalculations regarding passenger weight.

According to, the Federal Aviation Administration's current weight-per-passenger estimate (including carry-on luggage) is 190 pounds.

If that's off by a few pounds per person, no big deal. If, however, as America's collective waistline grows ever wider, the inaccuracy climbs to 20, 30, 40 pounds per person … times 200 or 300 passengers …

You know what? Next trip, I think I'll drive.

Airlines correct to vet passengers for excessive weight
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