Too Fat to Fly? United Airlines Thinks So

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In a recent press release, United Airlines claimed to have receive over 700 complaints last year from passengers who had uncomfortable flights solely because they were seated next to an obese person. In response, the airline carrier adopted a policy regarding the problem. Under the policy, if a passenger is deemed too fat to fit into his or her seat comfortably – the criteria for this is if the passenger is unable to put down the arm rest or buckle the seatbelt with an extender – then that passenger will be charged for an additional seat on the flight for the inconvenience. This development is the latest in a series of attempts to discriminate against obese people, which is arguably the only socially acceptable form of discrimination focused on an entire group of people.

It’s an undisputed fact that America has an obesity problem. Approximately 34 percent of Americans are obese, which equates to a little over one-third of the entire United States population, according to the Weight Control Information Network. To give you some context, the number of obese people in America is larger than African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans combined, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Shocked? You shouldn’t be. We’re here and you know it. We exist in every race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Given this information, why is it that airlines have failed to tailor their service to the trends?

Under United Airlines’ new policy, obese passengers would be subjected to humiliation, prejudice and additional judgment. The policy requires flight attendants to confront obese passengers on the aircraft – after that person has checked in their luggage, gone through customs and security, and found their seat on the plane – and give them the ultimatum of purchasing another ticket at the same price of the one they already have, or alternatively, having to leave the aircraft. What is absolutely heart-wrenching about this policy is that these conversations are not done discretely. They are conducted in front of other passengers, and to an obese person who may already have a fear of flying because of the obvious stigma against overweight people in this spectrum, it can be a mortifying experience.

I am considered one of the obese people who would be affected by this policy. I have flown United Airlines countless times and until now, they were my preferred airline. And admittedly, I am one of those people who have asked for a seatbelt extender when boarding the aircraft. It’s a nerve-wracking and humiliating experience for me and I dread it every time I find out that I need to fly somewhere. Having to stop a flight attendant and ask for a belt extender is horrible, and half the time they don’t have it available on hand. On my flight to London recently, it took them 25 minutes to find me one, complete with re-opening the door to the plane and re-attaching the staircase to go back into the terminal in order to grab one from the check-in desk. This experience ostracized me from the rest of the flight, as I was left feeling judged, mortified and quite frankly, ashamed. The fact that I could pay for a ticket in full and then be systematically forced to leave my flight simply because of my weight astounds me.

Several people that I’ve spoken to, including some that I count as friends, have told me that they agree with United Airlines’ new policy. They defend this by saying that they don’t like not having extra room or perhaps they simply don’t like sitting next to fat people.

However, it is important to note that anyone who has flown on a plane knows exactly how annoying flights can be in general. You know the culprits: the mom with a screaming 1-year-old who won’t shut up the entire time you’re in the air, or the guy who has such bad body odor that you feel sick just sitting next to him. It can be even simpler: what about the person in front of you who insists on keeping their seat reclined the entire flight, not allowing you to put down the tray in front of you and causing your legs to go numb. What about these people? Should they be forced to choose between leaving the flight or paying double for the flight they’re already on? Most would say no.

So the question remains: Why is it okay to do this to fat people? It is also important to think of what would happen to an obese passenger who maybe didn’t have the money to purchase another seat on the flight. What happens to them after they’ve gone through this whole process? Is that really fair?

There are ways to solve this issue with respect and dignity to both parties involved. Airlines thrive on the number of people they can cram into a flight. There are certain areas of a traditional plane (such as the exit rows) that are ideal for a taller person because of the additional leg room. Why not create seats like this for larger passengers? Since, after all, obese people make up such a significant amount of the population, this would be a smart marketing tactic.

I would definitely fly an airline that emphasized the fact that they have seats available for larger passengers, even if I had to pay a little higher of a price. Unfortunately, however, I’m not holding my breath. The airline industry hasn’t even tried to accommodate this particular set of passengers since its inception. It’s a sad thing to admit that airlines have single-handedly forced the obese to severely limit their activities and travels. I know they have done that to me.

Alisa Driscoll is a fourth-year classical civilization major. She can be reached at driscola@uci.edu.

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