Should Flying Fat Cost More?

In a somewhat controversial move, some US airlines have implemented a policy of charging large passengers extra. The gist of the policy is that if someone cannot fit comfortably in a normal seat, they will be required to purchase a second seat or upgrade to business class.

While some have accused the airlines of simply trying a new scheme to make money, the airlines have defended this policy by asserting that large passengers “infringe” on the comfort of other passengers and point to various complaints made by passengers about this problem.

As of now, this practice is legal in the United States. Her neighbor to the north has a different policy: Canada considers being morbidly obese to be a disability and hence large passengers are entitled to an extra seat at no extra charge.

One relevant point to consider here is what the airline is selling when it sells a ticket. If the airline is selling a single seat, then it is selling (or rather renting out) a specifically sized area. If someone exceeds that area, then they would need to buy more space. To use an analogy with time, if I rent a car for a day, but use it for two days, then I would obviously owe more for that extra day. If the analogy with time holds, then the airlines are in the right to charge more.

This point is also supported by the fact that the airlines sell their business or first class seats at a higher price than the economy class seats. Obviously, the first class passengers are getting transported to the same destination as everyone else on the flight. What they are paying extra for is more space. So, if more space costs more, then large people should have to pay more if they need the extra space.

However, if the airlines are selling passage to a destination, then charging extra for a large person would be unfair. After all, they are receiving no more than anyone else on the plane, namely a trip to the specified destination. The fact that they take up more space would not be relevant. To use an analogy, consider an all you can eat buffet. If I go to the buffet with a friend and I eat twice as much as she does, I would not be charged extra. After all, I am purchasing the right to eat all I can and not purchasing a set amount of food. Obviously, if I was paying by the item, then the more I ate, the more I should pay.

Another point to consider is the fact that being obese is considered by some to be a disability. From a moral standpoint, it is generally expected that people with disabilities should receive the same services and access without being compelled to pay more. For example, if a business imposed a fee to use the handicap ramps that allowed access to the store, then that would be regarded as outrageous. Likewise, to charge obese people more because they have the need for more space could also be seen as outrageous.

Of course, one important distinction is that being obese is generally seen as the result of decisions on part of the obese person rather than a true disability. While some people are genetically predisposed to being obese, how much a person eats and how much they exercise is a matter of choice. Since they could reduce their weight, the rest of us are under no obligation to provide special accommodations for them. This is because they could take reasonable steps to remove the need for such accommodations.

Naturally, there are those who contend that being obese is no more a matter of choice than is being unable to walk due to a congenital defect. If this is the case, then if we make accommodations for other disabilities, then we would also need to make accommodations for those who are obese. Obviously, settling this question would require extensive research in biology, physiology, psychology and philosophy. After all, it includes both scientific questions about the physiology of obesity and philosophical questions about agency and free will.

Leave a comment ?

43 Comments.

  1. I’m curious. If a person has a disability that forces them to recline, and they must have 3 airplane seats, do they pay for 3 seats or for one? Do people actually buy seats on airplanes, or do they buy passage to their destination? Without knowing the answer, I can’t begin to think about the large-people issue.

  2. An excellent question. Interestingly, I am wondering about a similar point myself. Since my left leg is now locked into a brace, I cannot fit into a normal airline seat. So, do I have to buy a first class ticket or does the airline need to accommodate me? My guess is that since I am not permanently disabled (yet anyway), they do not have to make such a accommodation and I’d have to buy a first class ticket (or upgrade if I already bought one).

    Fortunately, I should be able to bend my knee again by the next time I have to fly. But, if not, then I’ll find out.

  3. Mike, Very sorry about the leg. I’ve been enjoying your leg-related posts.

  4. Ok lets say the airline forcefully proclaims you are buying a seat not passage to a destination (a reasonalbe position as they are private companies and make up whatever policy they like). The only problem left is the status of obesity as a disability. Problem with that is that some obesity probably is a disability and some isn’t, so now you need an entire regulatory framework for that determination, and I’m not sure we have the knowledge to do that as your post acknowledges.

  5. Evidently the airline lawyers have decided that it’s about bum on seats.

  6. Having had the dubious pleasure of having sat next to very obese fellow passengers in economy class seats, I say: “let them pay for two seats”. I don’t care if obesity is a disability, an ability or a sign of God’s grace: they overflow their seats taking up the limited space of their fellow passengers and wow, just wait until they step over you and on you on their way to the bathroom.

  7. I believe the percentage persons who are obese is less than 2% of everyone who is obese. I would suggest, then, that the vast majority of obese people are in that condition as a result of decisions they’ve made.

    One might also argue that someone in a wheelchair who was injured as a result of foolish behaviour should receive no special accommodation due to his own decisions as well. How would morality apply in this case?

    Further, one who is obese due to the decision to eat more possesses a relationship with food that is outside the norm. I think it could reasonably said that obesity is more of a mental disability than a physical one. Should airlines charge a person with Tourette Syndrome an additional fee for disrupting other passengers?

    I think we tend to see obesity as a failing in the obese person and as a choice simply because obesity is unsighlty, and I’m certainly guilty of this disposition myself. In fact, when I began to post, I intended to support charging the additional fee for obese people. It initially seemed like a simple enough position to take.

    I’m left with more questions than answers. Given that I don’t actually know the airlines’ motives for charging the additional fee, and the fact that they are private organizations, I can’t very well state whether their decision is moral.

  8. I can relate to this article as I know from first hand experience just how hard it is to lose weight, and to maintain it. I wrote a book called `Alone in the Storm,’ which has recently been published, and it is about an overweight woman who subconsciously put on the weight to protect herself from being hurt by love. She struggles with her weight problems, and in the end she manages to overcome them, but not before she learns some important lessons in life, and realizes that in order to find love, you have to first love yourself.
    Carla Cunningham, Published Book Author of Alone in the Storm
    The website for my book is – http://www.eloquentbooks.com/AloneInTheStorm.html

  9. Brian, do you really not know the motive for the airlines? These are US airlines that have been loosing money, and are on the verge of collapse or bailout. They may dress it up with one justification or another, or they may go straight to the “responsibility to shareholders” line.

    The defense offered by the airlines of infringing on other passengers seems weak. A loud, or even smelly, passenger would infringe on more passengers than their immediate neighbors. And don’t even get me started on crying babies with soiled diapers. If passenger complaints are going to justify raising fairs for the passengers causing offence this could get messy.

  10. I think it is grossly unfair to burden people who already have too much on their shoulders and elsewhere with a big fat increase in airline fare. I think their extra body baggage should be included in the ticket price. However, I can easily fit in 2/3 of a seat and I don’t mind a little reward for skimpiness, a discount based on the less fuel required to transport me wherever.

  11. Grendels Dad, you make a good point about motives, in my opinion. Of course, I agree with you that the motive is, in all reasonable likelihood, financial, but I can’t claim to know that as absolute fact.

    Putting aside absolutes and assuming the motive for charging for an extra seat is financial, what is it that we’re suggesting? Should airlines be forced by law to accommodate overweight passengers as disabled persons? Regardless of motive, where does the hand of the law reasonably stop and private freedom begin?

    I wouldn’t think that the law can encourage morality in the sense that morality suggests the “best possible” behaviour, whereas the law tends toward the “least harmful”. I think of morality as the resposiblity of the individual, whereas preventing harm is the place of legislators. But, of course, there is a lot of grey area between these two.

    My stance on the issue would be that I think the airlines should accommodate an overweight person, but they should not be forced to do so. I think this whole topic brings up some really interesting ideas, and from what I would not have thought to have been a likely subject of discussion.

  12. Do any of the arguments apply to large people who aren’t even all that fat, much less obese? I’m 6’6″, 250 lbs., and still pretty slim and athletic, and I know my elbows and knees have spilled over into my neighbors space on the plane. I’ve also known some guys quite a bit larger than myself who I wouldn’t even call fat who could make their plane neighbor might uncomfortable. Should there be a sliding scale for the price of a ticket all dependent upon size?

  13. Michael F: I wondered about that myself. If the airlines’ argument for charging for the extra seat is based on infringement, then anyone who is large enough to “spill over” (be it a soft spill or a lean, muscular spill) would presumably be required to buy the second seat.

    Perhaps the airlines will start charging more based on size and weight; just like some do now with check in luggage. Just imagine buying your ticket by the kilogram and centimeter. :)

  14. I would think that the ‘passage’ rather than ‘area’ argument would hold the day. Look at it with an analogy to trains: if one buys a train ticket, at least in the UK, you are not guaranteed a seat if the train is busy. And certainly with trains in Britain, area is not a concern either. Who *really* takes up more space per capita? An obese person who can still get around of their own volition or a family with small children, replete with prams and all the other stuff carted around for the convenience of child maintenance.

    If it’s a matter of the inconvenience of other customers then, well, there are plenty of other things which are just as annoying when flying in economy class: armrest tyrants who nudge you all the way across the Atlantic, people with a noxious smoke smell on their breath, loud and obnoxious people and, on trains and buses, the endless parade of people treating public conveyances as if they were phone booths. If I could have a small payment everytime someone on public transport annoyed me, I’d probably be spending less time on buses and more time in taxis!

    It all reminds me of a social experiment done a while back by a woman in New York City called Kimberley Brittingham. She printed up a fake cover for a book called “Fat is Contagious: How Sitting Next to a Fat Person Can Make YOU Fat” and wrapped it around whatever book she was reading to gauge people’s reactions. The result? A hell of a lot of hostility, stupidity and loathing dressed up as “tough love”. See http://www.freshyarn.com/42/essays/brittingham_fat1.htm

    Completely irrational “fat hate” is being rationalized away. Do people honestly think that fat people WANT to be the size they are? That this is some kind of choice?

    A friend of mine actually said this morning that “obesity causes climate change”. I pointed out back to him that the hyperventilating body fascists getting cranked up about other people’s bodies release quite a lot of warm carbon dioxide too – more than enough to balance it out. Why can’t we just put up with the fact that human beings come in many shapes and sizes?

  15. Lets reverse this problem. I’m a rather skinny girlish man (I weigh 140 pounds, 5’6). Since I take up LESS room than most people, can I pay less, if Obese people pay more? Can I simply volunteer to sit next to an obese person for a discount, since I’d probably be equally comfortable?

    I think its unfair pricing, plain and simple.

  16. Does the luggage weight count? Say I weigh a few extra pounds, but I pack light to offset it? Or, say my traveling companion is smaller, can we trade fat credits the way proposed carbon credits would work? Messy indeed.

  17. Wayne: My experience has been that companies always have policies for charging more and never have policies for charging less.

    But, if they can justify charging more because a person exceeds some sort of base level of size/weight, then it would seem to follow that if you are under this base level, then you should pay less. Then again, perhaps they would contend that your smaller size would not provide more room to other passengers, because they would have to infringe into your seat in order to use that extra space.

    However, as you suggested, perhaps they could offer a deal to smaller folks who are willing to allow larger folks to infringe into their space. This could start a whole new online service that matches passengers. Millions could be made here-perhaps we should secure legal rights to this and get some cash for a startup?

  18. I think it can be made very simple. Payment is made to the airline for carrying a certain number of pounds of a specific dimension in a particular area of the airplane (seat, storage, etc) over a set number of miles. 1st class pays for wider seats + a few frivolous amenities. Those wider seats could also better accomodate wide butts for the extra fee. I’ve known people who have paid a full fare for a seat for their musical instrument. I see no reason not to pay for extra space to be used however one wants.

  19. Grendel’s Dad: Well, an airline could sell each passenger a basic weight allocation (like is done in shipping) and you could use it however you please. For example, if a standard ticket gets you 250 pounds and you weigh 150, then you’d get 100 pounds of carry on and checked baggage.

    Of course, they would then need to weigh passengers and their stuff at the airports, thus slowing things down even more. I imagine there would be some incidents when people insist that they cannot possibly weigh as much as the scales say.

  20. Hmmm. So I can have the extra danish at breakfast, but then I have to leave my socks at the airport.

    lol I think we might be on(sic) something here.

  21. I don’t think there is really a way of deciding what is being sold.

    If I buy a packet of crisps, ordinarily I am just buying the crisps, and the bag is just a convenient way to getting them to me. However, suppose I decide that I no longer like crisps and i will buy packets of crisps – throw away the crisps – and use the bags as socks. Am I now buying the bag? Is the crisp company no longer selling crisps in this case?

    Or what if I but a packet of cereal for the “free” prize? If a n insurance salesman tells you he is selling peace of mind, does that make it true?

    In the case of the aeroplane some passengers will be buying passage, others will be buying comfort. Some airlines are selling seat rental, others, the experience of a life time.

    The question is not about what is being sold since there is no answer to that (unless we stipulate it). The question is do we think that it is acceptable to discriminate between people on the basis of their size in these cases?

  22. Airline seats are so narrow these days that I, 1.76 meters tall and weighing 65 or 66 kilos, hardly fit in one.

  23. Does the airline’s costs and profits vary according to the dimensions and weights of its cargoes? If it does, it seems sensible to adjust the price of the ticket so that every package, including bodies, is charged its fair share.

  24. we’ve come up with a way to make flying even more unpleasant.

  25. Please remove your shoes. Step over here, thank you. Height 62 inches, circumference 64 inches. And here, please. 260 pounds. Your luggage is 52 pounds, 30 x 32 inches. Please pay the cashier $500 Fair Added Tax.

  26. Maybe my view is simplistic but I have always thought it unfair that I as a person significantly shorter than average and weighing a lot less than average have been forced to subsidise the bus and air fares of people much bigger bodied than me. I have never noticed anybody else complaining about THIS particular injustice!

    I think that every kilo of mass taken up in an aircraft must require a corresponding amount of fuel energy be burned to accelerate in down the runway, take it up to cruising height, then keep it aloft in defiance of gravity. So my question is: Why don’t smaller people get an extra baggage allowance?

    This issue can be related to the much wider issue of “carbon footprint” of course. People who insist on nurturing bigger bodies, insist on having bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger possessions in general, are basically using more resources than others. To the extent that all these possessions are put together using fossil hydrocarbons for energy, then the more a person has, the more he/she is imposing on the global commons.

  27. The Ryanair article linked by Jeremy mentions that the company has been considering charging passengers to use the toilet. That certainly raises some concerns. After all, if you have to go when flying, you don’t have any other viable options aside from the toilet on the plane. Charging people a “wee fee” seems a bit like extortion. I wonder if they plan to charge a flat fee or to charge based on volume and weight?

  28. Fat is not sinful,,,Leave the price alone. I always think of flying as a destination service. I choose among auto, train, and flying. I choose service that is most convenient and time appropriate and fairly priced. For that I expect to have a seat (space) adequate for me. That is a reasonable request for the service fee.

  29. RAL: Fat is not sinful…Leave the price alone.

    The added cost is not to be assessed for sinfulness. Liars and cheaters are not being considered for the additional fees. It is merely cost of transportation. Extra space and more fuel are required for larger cargo.

  30. On another note. If I am taller and bigger (not obese or fat) and have to buy larger clothes that cost more than “normal” sized clothes, shouldn’t that be considered a disability since I have no choice on how tall I am?? The world is not made for tall people…

  31. I’ll be flying today and I’ve been so upset for weeks over the seat size issue. I have to go for work and don’t have the extra money to cover an additional seat since the fare is so high. I dread the airport, I dread the drama I may face. My “problem” is size. Visible and tangible. What about the “ass” who mistreats the attendant? What about the drunk who mistreats everyone? What about the guy who stinks to high heaven from body odor? They all infringe on the rights and comforts of other passengers. Too much drama for a plane ride to someplace I have to no, not want to go. Give me a break people.

  32. The added fee really isn’t a punishment for misbehavior. I’ve seen seats reserved for a musical instrument that doesn’t fit in the same one as its owner. Space costs. It’s that simple and non-judgmental.

  33. The clothes prices can probably be justified by the fact that more material has to be used (hence a higher cost). I’ve seen that some races (running races, like 5Ks and marathons) charge more for the XXL t-shirts than the S,M, or L shirts. Interestingly, there is no discount for getting a small shirt.

    I once jokingly asked a friend of mine if she paid less for her running shoes because she was so small (a bit over 4 feet tall). After throwing a shoe at me, she said “no.” To be fair, if they charge more for large clothing, they should charge less for the small sizes on the same principle (adjusting price based on material).

  34. Diane,
    I also hate flying. I’m “normal” sized, but the seats are torture.

    You do raise a good point. If people have to pay more for size on the basis of intruding on the comfort of others, then people who are intruders in other ways should also be charged more. Of course, it is easier for the airlines to target large people.

  35. Rtk,

    True. But the airlines did justify it in terms of intruding on the comfort of others. That does cast being large in a somewhat negative way. It would be a bit “nicer” to put it the way you did-in terms of space costing.

  36. Then I want a double reward. I’m very narrow, quiet, unobtrusive, and I produce minimal garbage for the attendant to collect. I am altogether worthy and never stretch my wings, nor turn again and again. And yes, I get it, time is always time and place is actual only for one time and only for one place. So give me my refund and I’ll rejoice. (thanks, tse)

  37. RTK,

    I agree with you. I think that, across the board, if we can be fined or billed extra for things, then we should also get rewards and discounts. I also think that fines and penalties should go both ways. For example, banks hit us with all sorts of charges so they should give us money when they screw up something. Also, I’ve noticed that my doctor and dentist will charge me if I miss an appointment without canceling. So, I figure I should get a discount on my bill for waiting past the time of my appointment and for waiting and waiting for the doctor or dentist to actually see me.

  38. We say these things because we are tired of the double standards or discrimination of it all. We are supposed to be beyond that but many are faced with it everyday. I’m sure, just as it is everywhere.

  39. All the people saying that fat is sinful. You are kidding right? Or, are you just bigots? Never sinned? Please. Get over yourself.

  40. If the airlines had not shrunk the size of the seats in the first place this would not be an issue. It is all about profit. Passengers who are tall and slim find it uncomfortable just as much as a short round person. The basic weight of each passenger is based on an average build man. Seems no one really know just how average this male is. I used to build airplanes and was amazed at how the seats went from comfortable to horribly uncomfortable. I usually wind up with an elbow from the neighbor passenger in my ribs. Only one person gets to use the arm rest. Maybe everyone should raise their voice and demand comfort.

  41. im a little overweight and never have been on a plane before if im traveling with a smaller person would i have to buy two seats?

Leave a Comment


NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: