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On Some Airlines, Size Does Matter

Planned enforcement of policy charging extra for obese travelers sparks debate

June 21, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One for the price of two. Not a very catchy business slogan, especially from the consumer end. But when it comes to "people of size," that's the news from Southwest Airlines.

The Dallas-based airline said earlier this week that it will begin a stricter enforcement of its 22-year-old policy of charging extra-large customers--those who require seat belt extensions or those who when seated can't lower the arm rests--to buy two tickets. The second ticket will cost the same as the first; if the flight is not full, a refund can be requested.

The airline's crackdown on customers of girth, aimed, the airline says, at ensuring passenger safety and comfort, coincides with the carrier's recent shift to an automated boarding system. The action is also designed to reduce customer complaints related to travelers unhappy over flying next to an obese person.

"If you consume more than one seat," Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin told wire service reporters, "you will be charged for more than one seat."

There were certainly no belly laughs over the remark emanating from the Sacramento-based offices of the National Assn. to Advance Fat Acceptance. Fat, which is not a dirty word to the 5,000-strong group that bills itself as a "human rights organization to empower fat people," is simply a descriptive word to them, according to spokeswoman Maryanne Bodolay.

Southwest is not alone in drawing a line on the issue: Continental and American Airlines are among those with similar policies (United and Delta are among those without one). The policy comes at a time when Americans are getting larger--and passengers of all sizes say they feel squeezed by the space allotted them.

"Southwest is penalizing and punishing me," said Bodolay, who notes her 5-foot-10, 350-pound frame does take up 1 1/4 airline seats. "Does this mean a thin person pays half-fare? These are the kind of questions that have to be answered now."

Bodolay has made accommodations to deal with the second-seat issue. She usually flies with a friend or relative and sits next to them. If alone, she usually buys an extra seat on her own. "Flying is stressful enough for fat people," she said. "That just makes one less thing to worry about. Hey, I want to make my flight and others' as pleasant as possible."

At Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport, folks at the Southwest Airlines terminal this week seemed to be about evenly split about the weighty debate.

Some thought the policy cruel and that it would further stigmatize an already ridiculed group, while others thought such a move was overdue.

"One passenger, one ticket," said Wendy Carroll, 50, who works for the Arizona Film Commission in Phoenix. "What about a person with broken leg or a disabled person? Why should they charge heavy people for extra space? They should accommodate each passenger."

Unlike most passengers who were informally surveyed, Carroll, who easily fits within Southwest's 18 3/4-inch-wide seats, has shared space with a very large passenger. On a flight from Los Angeles to Miami, she said, she sat next to a woman who Carroll estimated weighed 500 pounds and had to be helped in and out of her seat.

"It was an uncomfortable flight," Carroll said. "But she is a special-needs person."

Meredith Marsh, 24, waiting for an arrival at the terminal, expressed a common ambivalence: It's discriminatory and that's unfair, but if you have to surrender room you paid for, that's also unfair.

Marsh, as with most others interviewed, said she couldn't recall a flight on which she was crowded by an extra-large person. "Maybe the airlines should reserve a few seats just for fat people," said the college student, who is 5 feet 4 and weights 120 pounds.

Others were sympathetic to the plight of the obese air traveler, but felt the matter should be determined by the simple economics.

"I always have to sit in the emergency exit because of my long legs," said Paul Redmond, 42, who stands 6 feet 2 and weighs 200 pounds. "It doesn't sound unreasonable to me, but the market will determine if it works or not."

But many passengers welcomed the policy, which will largely be enforced by ticket agents and flight attendants. Some supporters wanted to remain anonymous for fear of appearing unfair.

"It's discriminatory, I know," said one slender, middle-aged traveler, "but I think it's a good idea. They are taking up my space on the plane."

It is discrimination, agreed Richard Hopp, who is 6 feet 3 and 320 pounds, but it's completely justified. He argues there is a premium on space aboard airplanes. For instance, extra luggage means an extra fee.

"If large people aren't paying extra they are essentially getting a discount," said the 32-year-old bail bondsman from the San Fernando Valley. "Obesity is not a handicap; it's not a disability. It's a choice."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

One Airline's Official Word on Size

Here is the second-seat policy posted on the Southwest Airlines Web site:

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