Are airplane seats too small?

A recent incident highlights the friction between airlines and larger passengers.

By Kim Peterson Feb 24, 2010 2:24PM

Air travel deals  © Brand X / Jupiter ImagesAmericans are getting bigger, but airplane seats are not -- and that can lead to awkward moments between airlines and passengers.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight recently when director Kevin Smith was booted from a Southwest Airlines (LUV) flight when the crew decided he was too large for one seat. (Smith had booked two seats on another flight, but wanted to fly standby on a flight with just one seat available.)

The incident has ignited a new discussion about what some newspapers are calling a "collision course" for obese passengers and airlines.

About 34% of Americans are considered obese, according to The Chicago Tribune. Now, what would be the logical thing for a company to do if its product was getting too small for customers? Make the product bigger.

But airlines aren't thrilled about doing that. Bigger seats mean fewer passengers per flight, which brings down revenue and profits.

In fact, airlines are retrofitting planes to get more seats on board. They're removing food galleys to make room, and they're also using seats with slimmer frames and cushions, The Wall Street Journal reports.

"A few extra passengers on each trip can spell the difference for tight-margin airlines between losing money and making money," writes Scott McCartney.

So where does that leave bigger passengers? Given that airlines now charge for blankets, pillows, food, checked luggage and paper tickets, it's pretty safe to assume that they will expect customers to buy two seats if more room is needed.

United Air, a subsidiary of UAL (UAUA), now has a formal policy requiring passengers who don't fit into a seat to upgrade or buy another seat. Southwest and other major airlines have similar rules. Air France offers passengers a second seat for a 25% discount.

“We see this as more of an attempt at getting more money out of the consumer’s pocket than any concern for our well-being, as some have claimed," a spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance told The New York Times.

Unfortunately, it's up to flight attendants to determine who fits and who doesn't, which can lead to uncomfortable confrontations with customers.

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