Saturday, July 16, 2011


I recently flew on US Air and on one of their outstanding, very reliable though aging 737 400 aircraft that looked to date from Piedmont Airlines days. They accommodate up to 144 passengers and one has to assume passengers of average height and weight. This flight seemed to have more obese passengers than usual (what’s that?) and I saw seat belt extenders handed out like party favors to overweight passengers that were at least severely obese. One obese traveler “sitting” in an aisle seat spilled out onto the aisle way requiring a careful negotiation by other passengers and most certainly by the flight attendants and their drink cart. I was seated immediately behind him and noted that the seat literally expanded outward an inch or two as he squeezed his frame in.

Now I know that those two CFM56 turbofan engines (part of GE’s stable) are capable of handling a substantially greater load (especially as presented by the great abundance and challenge of obese passengers) understanding that safety, comfort, fuel efficiency and other critical factors are closely managed by the airlines. However, there were so many fat folks on this plane (OK, OK I’m moderately overweight too) it seemed to be a tipping point for me wondering what accommodations and safety precautions are made by the airlines for these obese folks.

A Friend who worked for two major airlines (Braniff and Delta) answered this question by indicating that there is a weights and measures person with the airline who with the flight crew monitors the safety factors attributed to weight of the aircraft – literally for every flight. The underlying considerations include the maximum payload and the center of gravity (C.G.) of the aircraft which, as fuel is expended, shifts fore and aft, side to side. Their goal is to distribute passengers, cargo and baggage so that the aircraft doesn’t get tail or nose heavy so as to maintain the stability and maneuverability of the airplane. Bottom Line: You can’t sit all the obese folks in the back or front or either side of the aircraft…

Pursuant to my concerns, average weights for passengers (which increase every year in the US) are used though the weights can be corrected by weighing a selected sample of actual, loaded aircraft. The weight of the aircraft is known with baggage and cargo weighed separately. With weight of the fuel added in and then additional parameters such as takeoff power, rotation speed, best climb speed, needed takeoff distance, safe landing weight, fuel consumption, etc. factored in including the environment the plane will encounter (heat, cold, weather, etc.).

Simple? Not really… and this is our segue to the matter of obesity. By extension this discussion leads us to other significant issues that wash all over me as of this writing to include what is fair and what is not. When we first decided to address this issue, we fully intended to support the airlines right to charge an additional fee for obese people (and for all intents and purposes, still do). It certainly seemed a simple and straightforward issue. Now I know that this issue is far bigger than this post and will be difficult to fairly resolve.

The Association for Airline Passenger Rights (AAPR - not to be confused with the AARP) and other organizations like the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination (“working to end discrimination against people who are heavier than average”) claim that charging extra-large passengers (self-inflicted or not) higher rates or requiring them to purchase another seat is discrimination and just another way for the airline to make even more money. The AAPR has capriciously demanded that the airlines change/enlarge their seats across the board.

We don’t agree with this blanket demand and wonder if any thought was given to safety and the basic rights of other passengers, let alone the health and well-being of the airlines. We think if that request is accommodated it would give new meaning to the term, wide body. While some maintain that airline seats in coach are too small and need to be made larger, methinks that just adds fuel to the fire of the rising rate of obesity in our country. There would be few incentives to curb or even slow down our expanding waistlines and that’s the direction we need to be headed. Instead we would literally have to redesign all commercial aircraft and install larger, more powerful engines. Ahhh, fuel economy where art thou?

Let’s put this issue in perspective. Obesity in the United States is literally now at epidemic proportions and we appear to be getting worse, not better. cites a 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) report that identifies the world’s fattest nations that has the United States weighing in at No. 9, with 74.1% of those over 15 years old considered overweight. However, since most of Oceania which includes the very, very small south Pacific Island nations of Nauru, Micronesia, Tonga, American Samoa, Niue and Palau which constitute the top six – our ranking becomes more impressive. In many South Pacific nations being overweight has been a cultural paradigm where being fat was a sign of wealth, power and beauty. Forbes, however, aptly points out that obesity in these cultures now is, “not about being rich and well fed. Obesity is most often related to poverty, low economic status and exclusion from the health system.” Most of us in America don’t have the same excuse and year after year we remain ranked at or near the top of obese nations.

We at Might of Right are totally supportive of passenger rights to include correction of some of the recent abuses including keeping passengers in plane on the tarmac for hours and hours in stifling and uncomfortable environments. Complaints about no food on flights (their right?) or that the airlines should accommodate obese folks above and beyond the reality of safety may now be nothing more than flights of fancy where eager, agenda driven opportunists would have the tail wag the dog. Again, the issue seemed that straightforward…

All this may change in the courts as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as administered by the US Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) appear ultimately predisposed to label and legally classify obesity (whatever the cause) as a disability, opening Pandora’s Box forever and a day. Note that our northern neighbor Canada already considers being morbidly obese a disability entitling large passengers to an additional seat at no extra charge.

This issue may be ultimately determined via the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) which Congress passed in 1986. The statute prohibits discrimination in airline service on the basis of disability. Obesity advocates have maintained that Very Fat Folks are disabled (whatever the cause) and therefore entitled to the protections and accommodations defined by the ACAA. Of course, without a disability rating this dog won’t hunt. These obesity advocates appear to many as more concerned with the private right of Very Fat Folks to sue for monetary damages for alleged acts of discrimination (Ca-Ching!). I have even seen one fat advocacy thread where Very Fat Folks are advised to ask for an aisle seat and request that the adjacent seat be kept empty and if not accommodated communicate that they are not happy and surely any adjacent passenger is not going to be comfortable. Bottom Line: If Obesity is ultimately legally determined to be a disability, then all the rules may change.

All that may be to no avail as the airlines are responsible for the SAFETY of all flights and that includes passengers, flight crew, cargo and equipment. In the interests of safety airlines can currently exclude any passenger or cargo that compromises safety, period. The ADA and the ACAA are all fine and good, but they don’t trump the duty, responsibility and right of the airline to provide a safe flight. As witnessed in Canada, a court of law might someday mandate accommodations for obese passengers but in the near future the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) isn't going to tell an airline to do something they think compromises safety. Balancing an aircraft or limiting or delaying egress from an aircraft are two pretty big safety issues.

What complicates and continues to fuel this issue is that obesity is not a disease by itself, rather a symptom of an underlying condition that could be a legitimate medical / psychological disorder that predisposes some to even morbid obesity. However, not every obese person necessarily has an underlying disease and while most in the medical community concur, that’s the conundrum. I have great sympathy for and support those with a medically induced obesity.

Many believe and statistics appear to bear out that the great majority of fat folks engage what has been termed, “willful misconduct” eating more calories than they burn with the conclusion this is a voluntary condition, blaming it on weak character, poor lifestyle choices, gluttony and even sin (yikes!). Bottom Line: Most obesity is the result of voluntary free will, not a medical illness.

Most physicians including the American Medical Association (AMA) do not consider obesity a disability and are, “committed to obesity prevention through promoting healthier lifestyles.” While part of their motivation may be political/legal spin to limit potential legal liability, this stand resonates throughout much of the medical and business community.

We need to be compassionate and sensitive for those with legitimate medical / psychological disorders that prompt obesity. We don’t know anybody that really wants to be obese in a society that seemingly rewards skinny and that wondrous and elusive six pack. We know that obese folks (whatever the cause of their condition) have a diminished capacity and don’t live as long being subject to the likelihood of fat-related diseases including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, apnea and certain types of cancer and osteoarthritis, among others. They generally have limited mobility and cannot perform tasks that require a full range of motion. So, how do we accommodate these folks above and beyond extra seating and continue to maintain the safety and stability of the aircraft?

Our current recession has reinforced the realization that it always has and will come down to dollars and cents. Most of the airlines continue to lose money even with their attempts to generate further revenues by charging for luggage, snacks, meals and many of their other add-on fees that used to be incorporated into a basic ticket price. Accommodating obese passengers even at the current level has already cost the airlines hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The airlines are now literally in survival mode.

All airlines promise to properly accommodate disabled and special needs passengers under the ACAA and it would appear in the case of the severely obese, that’s by providing the opportunity to purchase seating that will accommodate their wide girths and then allowing them to board the aircraft. The bottom line (uh, huh) is if an airline passenger can’t fit into their seat [armrest(s) down], significantly encroaches on adjacent seat space or needs more than one seatbelt extender that’s a hint that the passenger will require more than one seat and, if no other space is available, needs to pay for it. If extra seats are available we don’t know of any airline that wouldn’t try and accommodate a severely obese passenger. However, if that obese passenger is a potential threat to the safety, health and well-being of any other passenger, they should not be allowed to board the aircraft.

What gets my goat is our politically correct world where the demands for “individual rights”, however nonsensical, are at the forefront. Many of this genre seem especially empowered demanding their rights here and there - many times at the expense of our neighbors and the good of the many. When possible, we need to belly up and accept the responsibilities for our behaviors and use this issue as yet another warning that we are nearing or at the outer limits of our capacity to accommodate this issue. In this case we can’t continue to upsize seats, construct larger aircraft, bigger autos, wider highways, mandate bigger houses – well, you get the idea.

What we might be able to do is determine the average number of obese passengers who travel via the airlines and dedicate several larger seats throughout Coach/Economy class for the severely/morbidly obese and others with special needs. If no obese passengers purchase these seats they can be sold to other passengers, even for a premium like first or business class. This would be like having so many accessible parking spaces at retail or business venues consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

I can confess that I had to sit next to an extremely obese fellow years ago and his fat spilled into my seating area and literally on me. I was uncomfortable the entire flight. He didn’t care and never said a word.

As a consumer I have choices too and faced with side by side sitting options that may include a severely obese traveler, an over-ripe, aromatic fellow passenger or even an incessantly crying baby with a full diaper I would as one seasoned air traveler and blogger recently opined, “Take the sweet-smelling “passenger of size” – and hopefully for both of us, it won’t be a long flight.”

If you care about this issue, please communicate with your Congressman/woman though this will all be ultimately decided by lawyers and judges. Maybe some benevolent entrepreneur will start an airline just for fat folks…. And those passengers in the airplane at the start of this post – they’re smiling and happy because – well, you know why


Ned Buxton

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