How fat is too fat to fly?
Recently I read a really great blog post by Backpacking Dad that sparked some really interesting conversations via the comments section of the article. He said that asking the question: How fat is too fat to fly? is asking the wrong question. He says:
“The real question (the one that needs to be asked of the airlines) is ‘What is it about your profit-policy that makes it different enough from… other cases of unacceptable discrimination-for-profit… that you can consider dollars ahead of dignity and exclude the overweight segment of the population from your customer base by not equipping airliners with some bigger seats?'”
His basic point is that airlines are discriminating against obese people by not providing seats they can fit in. It’s a great article, well thought out, and humorous. Unfortunately, I completely disagree.
Airlines have a simple formula when they decide how much each seat costs: It costs x to fly from point a to point b. They divide x by the number of seats on the plane and that is the price per seat. If the all the seats are larger then less fit, therefore the price per seat is more. Airlines barely break even as it is because fares are so low. The problem is not whether or not airlines provide seats to accommodate larger travelers. Almost all major airlines do provide larger seats. It’s called first class. First class seats are expensive because they take up a lot of room. The problem is whether or not people are willing/able to pay for the bigger seats. The success of low cost carriers like Southwest have proven that people are not willing to pay more for their seats. While all airlines don’t offer first class, they all offer the option of purchasing a second seat if a person won’t fit in just one seat.
Backpacking Dad’s assertion is that making a profit is less important than doing the “right thing”. According to him the “right thing” is accommodating obese travelers by replacing current seats with bigger ones on all aircraft. He paints it as a human rights issue, akin to segregation. While I agree that human rights are always more important than any company’s bottom line, my question is, is it really a human rights issue? Is it discriminatory to not reconfigure a product to fit a specialized group?
Personally I don’t think airlines should have to reconfigure all their fleets to conform to America’s growing waistlines. They sell a product. Their product is a seat that gets from point a to b. Sometimes that includes a drink, sometimes a meal and sometimes a lot more depending on how much you paid. When airlines design the inside of the their aircraft they take safety, cost and comfort into consideration, in that order. Their goal is to transport people as safely as possible while making a profit so they can, ya know, stay in business.
If airlines did decide (out of some of some sense of ethical responsibility) that they were going to make all or even some of their economy class seats bigger somebody would have to pay for it. Who would that have to be? The obese person? If so then wouldn’t that still be discrimination? Should they divide it between all of the passengers? That wouldn’t really be fair to the average sized person if all fares were more expensive because of a select few. Should the government subsidize the airlines? That would require some sort of tax which is ultimately passed onto not only average sized fliers but all tax paying Americans, some of whom have never been on an airplane in their lives. That certainly wouldn’t be right either.
I believe all human rights should be fought for no matter what it costs. I just don’t agree that obese people are being discriminated against in general. Extreme cases, like that of Kevin Smith and others, are a different story. He met the guidelines laid out by the airline so there was no reason he should have been pulled off that flight. Of course, there are two sides to every story and it’s unclear why exactly he was singled out. No matter what, I believe the way he was treated was unacceptable. However, I’m not talking about those who fit in the seats.
Businesses should have to make reasonable accommodations. Handicapped ramps and stalls for example. These cost a minimal amount up front and don’t hurt their business. In my opinion, reasonable accommodations are already being made for obese people. Obese people who don’t fit in one seat have several options: lose weight, buy a first class seat, buy two economy class seats or find a different way to get where they’d like to go. I believe airlines could do more by providing clearer information about the maximum size that can fit in each seat in the same place they list luggage limitations. Until they make those changes though seat information can be found on Seat Guru.
What it comes down to is being obese isn’t something that is completely uncontrollable like the color of your skin or sexual preference. People make life decisions. In other countries this may not be the case but in America every person has the choice to purchase and consume healthy or unhealthy food every day. They choose whether or not they consume liters of soda pop or pounds of sweets. Every person has the choice to exercise daily or to sit on their butt and do nothing. Yes, being healthy is hard work. Yes, choosing to put down that doughnut or bag of chips takes self control. Yes, it sucks to have to go to the gym or for a walk after a long day at work. There are all kinds of things that get in the way. But ultimately it comes down to what is important to each individual person.
I hope that all I’m saying does not paint me as a hateful person. I don’t expect everyone to look the same and I don’t have a problem with big people. I have a problem with people blaming the airline for the fact that they can’t fit in a seat. People come in all shapes and sizes and curvy people are as beautiful as thin people. However, those that choose to be extremely overweight are hurting themselves. It doesn’t mean they’re not wonderful people, it means they’ve made bad choices about their health. To say it’s not a choice demeans all the hard work that people like FaintStarLite, JewliaGoulia, ExHotGirl, LosingWaist and countless others have put in. I’ve followed their journeys and watched them have awesome victories and frustrating defeats. But they keep going. Day after day they put in the hard work that is necessary to achieve their goals. I’m betting every one of them would tell you it’s totally worth it. And I’ll be here cheering them on.
The choices that got someone to the point of being obese may or may not have been theirs. They may have been fed fattening, processed foods growing up. They may not have had all the information or been taught how to make healthy choices. But today is a new day. Every single day each individual gets up and make a choice whether they are going to live in a way that is good for them and brings them closer to their goals or if they’re going to make choices that keep them where they are or push them further away from their goals. I make choices every day, I know that everyone else can too.
In a perfect world everyone would be able to travel the world in their own emission free private jet whenever they wanted. We would all have whatever our idea was of a perfect body. We wouldn’t have to worry about money, everyone would get along and things would be all sunshine and rainbows. Unfortunately the world is not perfect. Those that cannot afford their own private jets have to find other ways to travel and for some that means buying more than one seat.