Facing the issue of wide-bodied passengers
Film director Kevin Smith has made a meal of Southwest Airlines after he was asked to leave a flight because he didn't fit in a single seat, but Southwest has required "passengers of size" to buy two seats for years.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northwest Travel Guides
Among all of those who have been chattering recently about airlines and their policies for dealing with overweight passengers, I'm qualified to have an opinion.
If I'm not careful, I could someday be too fat to fly on some airlines.
Yet I still have limited sympathy for Kevin Smith, the Hollywood actor and director who has made a meal of Southwest Airlines for enforcing its rules requiring some wide-bodied customers to pay for two seats.
At the same time, the Smith diatribe has raised an issue that frontline airline personnel have to deal with daily and, for the most part, seem to handle with sensitivity.
For those who don't read tabloid newspapers or watch celebrity-focused TV shows, where the story has lived for two weeks, here's the background.
Smith, who acknowledges he's a "person of size," booked two tickets on a Southwest flight from Oakland to Burbank, Calif., which he said he often does so he can be comfortable. Then he decided to fly standby on an earlier flight on which there was only one available seat.
Southwest crew members allowed Smith to board the plane and sit in a middle seat, but then asked him to get off because they decided he might infringe on the personal space of his seatmates.
Smith says he fit fine in the 17-inch-wide seat, with armrests down and seat belt fastened without an extender. Southwest gave him two seats on the next flight and a $100 voucher for a future flight.
But Smith believed the airline had discriminated against him because of his size and then lied about the incident in its public statements.
He went on a Twitter rampage and also posted his allegations and opinions on his own Web site, www.silentbobspeaks.com (Warning: the site allows liberal use of "adult language.")
Southwest apologized to Smith, and posted its side of the story on its own blog, Nuts About Southwest, on its www.southwest.com Web site.
Organizations that advocate for overweight people have also been critical of Southwest.
Last week, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that focused mostly on his new movie "Cop Out," Smith had another complaint: "The media" treated the incident as one long fat joke while failing to examine the airlines' oversized-passenger policies.
That last charge may be true of TV coverage. But thanks to Smith, I've seen at least a half-dozen articles on newspaper or travel-specific Web sites or other services detailing policies of different airlines for obese customers.
Rick Seaney, chief executive of Farecompare.com, rounded up all the major carriers' policies in one of the daily e-mails he sends.
Most airlines, in fact, do have policies but they're not all easy to find on their Web sites. Some bury them in their "contract of carriage," the formal legal document they must have covering all policies.
As Southwest has pointed out, it has required "passengers of size" to buy two seats for 25 years. Other carriers have similar rules. US Airways' policy is not on its Web site but in its customer-service manual.
Most airlines urge employees to not embarrass the oversize passenger and treat them with sensitivity.
The larger issue here, you might say, is passenger comfort. Just how much of it should passengers expect if they're paying only $79 for a coach ticket?
Other articles detailed what the most comfortable seats, measured in various ways, are on different airlines' planes.
The size of coach seats hasn't changed much in years, although millions of us have grown broader.
Seats in most coach airline cabins average 17 inches wide and provide just over 2 1/2 feet of legroom, or seat pitch, measured from the back of one row to the back of the next. If you happen to get on a plane with even an inch or two more width or depth to its seats, you will know it the moment you sit down.
Women usually are wider in the hips than men, so a 17-inch-wide seat may be more uncomfortable for females than males. But men usually need more shoulder room than women do, so it's determined for us at birth only which way we'll be cramped, not whether we will be.
For many of us, we can be comfortable in an ordinary coach seat only if the flight isn't more than a couple of hours and the middle seat is empty.
Of course, the chances of that seat being empty are slim these days, ever since fuel costs, followed by the recession, prompted airlines to reduce their available seats by as much as 20 percent since early 2008.
The airlines' business models, based on the fares we're willing to pay, don't allow them to take a few rows out of each aircraft or move to four- or five-across seating to give everyone more room.
Sorry folks, but that's the way it is now in the back of the bus.
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