Thursday, November 24, 2011

Airline Travel: If the person beside you is "A Passenger of Size," you have to stand?

Should a truly obese person be REQUIRED to buy two seats?
Should the fat person have to sit like the picture above? That's not safe, or comfortable.

This story raises a lot of questions. (I had a similar experience, but since I am a wide-bottom myself the situation spilled over onto the person on my left, also).

Some excerpts from the US Air story:

Liz Landau, a spokesperson for US Airways, confirmed that Berkowitz was inconvenienced by a passenger of size and told “it was his choice to stand.”

“His seatmate had the same right to his seat as Mr. Berkowitz did to his. So here’s where the diplomacy and cooperation of all passengers comes into play,” the airline said in a statement.

Berkowitz was unhappy with the $200 voucher the airline offered him for his experience, at which point he contacted (consumer advocate) Elliott. (NOTE: TICKET WAS $800)

"We have attempted to address this customer’s service concerns,” the airline statement said, “but offering increasing amounts of compensation based on a threat of a safety violation isn’t really fair — especially when the passenger himself said he didn’t follow crew members’ instructions and fasten his seatbelt.

“The way to ensure you have space available next to you — whether you are a person of size, or you would simply like to ensure you have more personal space to relax on a long flight — is to purchase that additional seat, or First Class, in advance.”

This is remarkable, even for the putzes who run US Airways. Each passenger has the same rights to his/her seat.... unless the person is fat, and then they get 1.5 seats or more. If you can't buckle your seatbelt, because El Gordo is flowing over onto your seat, then you are refusing to "follow crew members' instructions."

Finally, and most remarkably, the displaced man was at fault. US Airways suggests that HE should have purchased two seats, if he wanted "more personal space to relax."

Three parties here. Who is obliged to make accomodations? The jumbo? The displaced passenger? Or the airline?

And then what about tall people? If the guy behind me is very tall, does that mean that I can't put my seat back? Comments here, on same story and also tall issue, are interesting.

Can reputation solve this problem? For me it does. I would prefer either to drive, or just not go, if the only option is the pirates at US Airways. But US Airways is not bankrupt, so clearly this aggressive indifference to customer safety and comfort is not a threat. The airline can get away with imposing all the costs on the customers, because the customers are too sheeplike to fight back.

But clearly this was not a euvoluntary exchange, where the passenger agreed to give up his seat. His only choices were to stand up, or forfeit his $800 ticket completely.

The solution: one of those box things they use to check carry ons (only they don't, really).

But you could have a seat, with the armrests bolted down. If you don't fit in that seat, you have to buy two.

(nod to Mark Steckbeck)


  1. If the armrests were bolted down, how would they fit into two seats?

  2. The bolted Seat is at The airport, to see if a person fits. Airplane seats will have armrests that can go up

  3. Exactly, what Anon #2 said.

    Obviously, the overheads will also hold bags bigger than the little box at the gate.

    But the seat at the gate has bolted down arms. You don't fit, you buy two, and put up the arm on the actual seat on the plane.

    Just like if you bag doesn't fit you have to check the bag, rather than carrying it on.

  4. I find the opening quote of the story really bizarre. He "didn't fly" because he stood for the whole flight. Is flying only flying when you're sitting down? Did he not reach his destination because he had to stand on the way there?

    Granted it was inconvenient and the airline should've let him sit in one of the jump seats. But consider the alternative. You don't report your weight when you buy a ticket and with e-checkins the first time the airline probably saw the guy's weight was at boarding. At that point all the other seats are already sold, so you can't tell him to buy another seat. The ONLY other option is to tell the guy, "Sorry, we don't take fat people." Is that really "euvoluntary"?

    Under the airline's current policy, two people got to their destination and one of them was inconvenienced. Under your proposed policy, only one person gets to their destination, and the one who doesn't only finds out that they can't fly right before boarding. How is that better?

  5. You really think people are morons?

    Someone arrives at the airport and has no idea their backside is large? Exactly NO ONE is inconvenienced by the proposed policy. People anticipate, just like with baggage. Sure, they try to skirt the rules a little, but big bags get checked, because they wouldn't fit. Same thing with a person of size: have a seat, if you don't fit, you have to buy two seats. KNOWING that when you made your reservation, you bought two seats. If you think I was proposing this a stealth policy, with no advance notice, and everyone is always flying for the first time, and everyone is a moron....well, I wasn't. None of those things are true.

    Let's review. There are three parties here:
    1. fat person
    2. airline
    3. random person who happens to sit beside fat person.

    Under the current policy, 100% of costs fall on other passenger. Not ALL other passengers, just the one other passenger who happens to be beside the person of size.

    Under my policy, we could have the person of size pay 100%. OR we could have the "extra cheek seat" discounted by the airline. Let's say the person of size pays 50% of the extra seat and the airline pays 50%. As a person of size (I weigh 260), I have to sign up for the extra seat.

    There are baggage fees now, because carrying the extra weight costs more. Why not charge based on weight? We do that for packages and mail. And in this case weight is correlated with cost, so it's legit.

    The answer is that airlines sell SEATS. So if you take up more than one seat, you have to pay more. Suppose I offer to "fly," without a seat ("I'll just stand, I won't be a bother!"). Would the airline allow that? Nope. To fly, you have to have a seat. Since PoSs take up two seats, they have to pay for two seats. Or, again, the airline can offer accommodation, with notice.

    The airline could even move people around, to accommodate late requests for two seats together. In short, the airline could (1) pay part, most even, of the added cost, and (2) accommodate last minute requests to make sure PoS gets two seats. This is NOT, is ABSOLUTELY NOT, just for the benefit of the PoS. It also benefits the random passenger who otherwise would have to stand.

    And if you think that having the seat you paid for being taken away without your permission, and you being forced against your will to stand, is "inconvenience," then I assume that you think TSA body cavity searches are a "short delay at security."

  6. Why assign liability upfront? I think a strictly Coasian allocation has x rows of PoS (larger, two per row) seats clumped together somewhere on every plane, with uniform(ly higher) seat prices so all travelers bear the cost of societies largeness. Travelers may elect PoS seats at purchase, or be assigned them as needed. Less seats on the plane means higher prices, but the externality exists and we all bear the cost, don't we?

  7. You're implicitly assuming that there's an endless of supply of seats. On the flight where this happened, there was already a paid customer in every other seat (besides the jumpseats). If that wasn't the case, the skinny guy could just switch seats.

    Problems like this are only going to arise when there are NO other empty seats. At that point, the policy of having the large guy buy an extra seat is simply not within the set of possible outcomes. It doesn't matter who pays for how much of it, the open seat does not exist in the first place.

    We can say he should have bought two seats when he booked, but he didn't. Based on what the flight attendants told the skinny guy, that policy is already in place anyway. But like you say, people will try to skirt the rules. The issue is what to do when we find out that someone is skirting the rules, and we only find out at boarding or MAYBE at check-in. Considering that following their policy means one person doesn't reach their destination, is it any surprise that the airline doesn't follow it?

    All that aside, I think there had to be some way to resolve the problem in-flight other than standing. I'd like to know why he wasn't allowed to sit in the jumpseats. But even before that, I have trouble accepting that his ONLY option was to stand. The fat guy was in the middle seat-- what'd the person on the other side do? There are other solutions between the three of them other than one guy standing. He wasn't physically forced against his will to stand, or held at gunpoint or something. He chose to stand because for whatever reason he believed it was preferable to his other options (including, among others, sitting uncomfortably like in the picture at top). And yes, most of those options impose a cost on a guy who doesn't deserve it, but that's why the airline compensated him afterwards.

  8. I am really looking forward to the NextGen rollout! I think it will be a huge improvement!


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?