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Poll: Airlines should charge obese passengers more

A change in Air France's policy reignites the debate.

By Karen Datko Jan 29, 2010 4:14PM

About 76% of respondents to a poll by a travel Web site said airlines should charge obese people a “fat tax” when they fly.


“Only 22% of the 550 people questioned disapproved of introducing extra payments for overweight passengers,” Reuters reported about the Skyscanner survey.

Thus this can of worms gets opened again, and this time the debate has gone global.

The debate reignited when it was incorrectly reported that Air France planned to require obese passengers to buy a second seat. In reality, Air France since 2005 has allowed passengers to buy a second seat at a 25% discount if they can’t fit comfortably into one. The real news is that Air France has decided to grant a refund for that second seat if the plane is not full.


Media reports around the world also observed that European discount airline Ryanair announced last year it’s coming up with a plan to charge fat passengers for excess weight -- after 30,000 people voiced support in an online poll.

In Canada, Reuters said, the Supreme Court ruled that the airlines cannot compel obese people to buy a second seat.


Here in the U.S., Southwest Airlines (known for no baggage fees) and United Airlines require wide-bodied passengers to buy an extra seat if one won't do, but give a refund if all seats aren't sold. Other airlines handle individual situations as they come up.


The issue is a reccurring sore spot among airline passengers, both the slender ones and their plus-sized seatmates. Last month a Flightglobal blog published a photo of a very large man taking up an aisle seat and half the aisle on an American Airlines flight. An airline spokesman said the authenticity of the photo could not be verified and pointed out that the plane was still on the ground. Look closely and you can still see passengers boarding. No one knows how he was eventually accommodated.


ABC News reported: “If the flight is not full, American tries to seat the passenger in two adjacent seats. Otherwise, the airline tries to book the person on another flight. If there is no other available flight or the passenger needs to be on that flight for scheduling reasons, the airline will sometimes book and charge the person for two seats.”


What’s the right thing to do? Should the airlines charge obese passengers for an extra seat if they don’t fit into one? Should all passengers and their baggage be charged according to total weight? Should those tiny airlines seats be bigger?


“Should this debate even be allowed to take place?” wrote ICM blogger Nicki Pickford, who had to give up a preselected window seat to make room for an overweight seatmate.  “Are we not being prejudiced towards people just because of their weight? After all, some people have medical problems which mean they are unable to lose weight.”


Skyscanner co-founder Barry Smith conceded it’s a touchy subject.


“On one hand, it’s not unreasonable for airlines to charge extra if they occupy more than one seat. On the other, many would argue it should be the responsibility of airlines to adjust their standard seat size, enabling them to comfortably accommodate all passengers,” he said in a statement.


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