blog-header
Click here to subscribe

Should Heavy People Pay More to Fly?

Connect with me on

The recent decision by Samoa Air to begin charging passengers according to their weight has me thinking.

From the airline’s point of view I can see the pure commercial argument behind the decision. Fuel is linked to aircraft weight and fuel costs are skyrocketing. Paying for what you consume is free market capitalism at its purest so if you’re forcing the airline to consume more fuel you should bear the burden – right?

Take me for instance. I’m not as slim as I once was (middle age does that). When I sit in a modern economy class seat, my hips sometimes touch the sides. Let’s not forget that these days, 16-inch wide seats are entirely possible. And that’s a snug fit even for an average person.

So should I be paying more? I mean – where exactly do you start?

Old-fashioned aircraft with much more legroom

Airplane seats aren’t quite like this anymore. Photo Flickr via CC

Do you charge passengers who are a little overweight? A lot? What is the cutoff weight? What about a clinically obese person who qualifies as disabled?

And what about the cause of the weight? You might be pregnant with triplets and that could put you over the limit. And if you’re not fat but an athlete with major body mass, are you penalized? Will 120kg on a fat person be treated differently than 120kg that’s mostly muscle? Men are heavier than women on average – should they pay more? And if you’re tall you’re probably heavier. It’s bad enough to have to fold your legs magically in your tiny seat but hey, now you get to pay for the privilege.

Proponents of these extra airline charges use the freedom card to back up their arguments – their freedom to have an entire seat to themselves without a large person overflowing into their space, for example.

But what about freedom from screaming children, then? Or my right not to be bisected by a food tray when the person in front of me violently slams the seat back without even looking?

Forget common sense for a moment and think ethics. There’s an elephant in the room and it’s called weight discrimination. We know it’s there, whether in the world of fashion or work or in social settings. But we rarely dare speak its name and that’s why the Samoa Air policy has tongues wagging.

From discrimination flows stigma. Imagine the looks some unfortunate traveler might be getting at check-in when the passenger agent eyes them up and down, mentally calculating how much extra they’re costing the airline before herding them towards the public scale.

“Two seats here,” he yells. “Got a 200-pounder coming in!”

You can see the PR disaster, can’t you? Not to mention the human one.

The issue of oversize passengers isn’t new. Airlines have tried to deal with it before. Some force larger travelers to buy two seats, others warn they’ll have to take another flight if the plane is full. Lawsuits have been filed and won by passengers so most airlines keep their size and weight policies discreet at best and at worst, they ignore the question altogether. Until someone like Samoa Air breaks ranks and airs this laundry out in the open.

Certainly airlines could add a couple of large-size seats on their aircraft to accommodate the less slim, but that costs money. Instead of trying to acknowledge that average human size is increasing, both vertically and diametrically, they’ve – shrunk available space! Never have airline seats been so small and tight and legroom so limited and rarely have passengers been so grumpy.

Flying is already one of the most uncivilized group activities on the planet; it can only be made worse by discriminating against or embarrassing selected passengers.

Samoa Air’s policy – if it lasts – may be a financial winner for the airline. Samoa, after all, is one of the world’s heaviest countries, with an 85.2% prevalence of obesity, according to the World Health Organization.

Or it could be an unmitigated public relations fiasco, branding it ‘the airline that hates fat people.’ In Samoa, that may not be a winner.

What do you think? Should people lose the weight to fly more cheaply or should airlines bite the bullet and lose the money? Please comment below.

10 Comments

  1. sush on April 10, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Well, to be simplistic, I think that if anyone can’t fit into the airline seat without overhanging and causing discomfort and or distress to the passengers sitting beside them, they should have to pay some sport of surcharge or pay for a second seat or if this is not agreeable take a less busy (yes, this can be tricky!) flight/schedule.

    There is such a thing as personal space. So when an overweight person overhangs their seat they are really in some one else’s space. On one of my travels, I caught a greyhound in the US. A large African woman wanted me to move over to the window seat. A quick calculation and I decided I was better off on the aisle. So I got up and let her in. Well, of course she took more than her rightful space, brushing my arms. Her arms were in my chest.

    The bus was full, there was no other available seat. I really and truly cringed. I thoroughly dislike someone else touching me at the best of time. I moved as far away as I could literally shrinking myself into the smallest component that I possibly could. Moving on, she fell asleep, her legs just flayed apart and were now resting on me. I sat on my side like a wafer thin cracker. I got cramps. No choice now. I gently pushed her leg back off me. She woke up and said “If you touch me I’ll hit you”. I explained to her that her legs were on me and that was not reasonable. She said ” I don’t care. Touch me and I’ll hit you”. Yes, you can stop laughing. Not only was I assaulted with her body now I was being threatened with physical assault. One look at her size and you would have shut up too. Suffer the rest of the journey till she got off.

    I have no sympathy for fat people. Watch what goes in you mouth and measure the size of your bottom. I have nothing against fat people. I work in an operating theatre and we have to transfer people from the theatre bed to their own bed, hold up limbs etc. Yes, its not easy and we risk injury to ourselves even following all the OH&S rules. Last week we had a patient that weighed what the maximum capacity that the manufacturers recommend for their bed.

    I think government’s should consider a surcharge for people that are unhealthy from their choices (smokers too!) and are going to cost tax payers $$$$$$$$$$ because of the flow on health issues. Start in school, increase the exercise component. Make school a junk free zone either in the tuck shop or brought from home. Counselling counselling counselling showing them pictorials of what they are doing to themselves. And parents stop overfeeding your kids. Chubby Johnny is cute when he is 2 but at 8 when he weighs 85kgs and has to waddle, and becomes breathless when he runs and no one wants to play with him its your fault!
    Suzy

  2. Carolyn on April 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Absolutely! Charge according to weight.

    • PJ on April 11, 2013 at 4:43 am

      To Carolyn’s comment: If airlines charge by weight…it should be with all your luggage included on the scale.

  3. PJ on April 10, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    I read your post and decided to comment …but not about airlines making more money as I don’t think this is the issue here. I totally agree with Suzy…my thoughts exactly. I have been seated beside huge people whose body parts migrate into my space making me uncomfortable.

    Perhaps airlines could have rows of seats with larger sets – for a higher cost, these people could fly in business/first class where the seats are larger and they have more space or they could be required to purchase 2 seats.

    It’s not aobut airlines making more money..it is about my seat or the space I have paid for on the plane, comfort , personal space and thougthfulness.

  4. Gail on April 16, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    Just when I thought I’d got round excess charges with my scottevest. Ah well. Chance for another savvy airline to jump in with non weight-related charges?

  5. Just One Boomer (Suzanne) on April 17, 2013 at 6:08 am

    Ouch, Sush. I find your comments a tad over the top harsh.

    Addiction is a medical condition—be it to food, cigarettes, drugs or alcohol. Food is the hardest addiction to treat because a person cannot completely abstain from eating. It’s far more complicated than exercising willpower.

    Having said that, I also hate to have someone sloshing over into my space, particularly on a long flight or bus ride. I also dislike having a screaming baby seated behind me—especially if the child’s sibling is relentlessly kicking the back of my seat. I don’t know whether it’s fair, but the way it works is that the not too heavy person ends up paying more to be assured of a seat that is self contained in a higher class and at least some airlines were considering banning children from certain sections of first and business class.

    I don’t know your policy on commenters including links, but apropos of the subject of flying issues, here is one of my takes on the issue:
    http://www.boomeresque.com/children-on-airplanes/
    (Obviously, feel free to delete it).

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 17, 2013 at 6:31 am

      Thanks for your take, Suzanne. You reflect the ambivalence many people feel about this issue, including myself. About comments – if they’re relevant and non-commercial, they’re fine.

  6. Sofia on April 29, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    On a flight to Europe, I sat on an aisle seat next to two heavy women. As the one in the middle seat could not spill over to the other side, she spilled over on my side and I had less of my seat with no armrest. They both told me that they paid extra for premium economy seats which have more room. I wanted to tell them more legroom not waist room, ladies, but I didn’t.
    Agreed with Sush. If one is heavy, one should watch what one eats. My two seat mates, total strangers to each other, as far as I could tell, both ordered vegetarian dinner. The meals were full of carbs, and they ate all their desert cakes!

  7. Martina Mc Auley on May 20, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    I think Suzy is right too. I’ve never had the experience of having to share my space with someone who’s body parts migrate into my space, as PJ said. I don’t think I’d like it though, especially on long haul flights, so I think it’s fair for airlines to charge a little extra for these sort of passengers.

  8. Michelle on September 5, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    What would really annoy me, would be the fact that as someone who looks after myself. If I were to be even 1kg over baggage allowance, I’d get charged. Yet someone cold weigh twice what I do and have the maximum limit for baggage and not get charged.
    Now they would have a combined weight which exceeded mine – totally wrong

Leave a Comment