The Indignities of a No (Fat) Fly Zone

Hold on a sec while I don my old football helmet. You see, I am about to dive into a real air travel hornet's nest: the issue of "customers of size."

In case you're wondering, that's airline-speak for obese people -- loosely defined as folks who can't lower the armrests on their seats -- or can't buckle up without a belt extender.

United Airlines' announcement last week that customers who essentially "spill over" into their neighbor's seat must buy two tickets caused a media sensation -- or, maybe the sensation was caused because the airline was so open about it. At least eight other airlines have similar policies, but they're hidden away in dark corners of their Web sites.

Video: United airlines plans to charge overweight passengers.

Let me be open, too: nobody is ever going to mistake this airfare expert for a dainty piece of porcelain.

But then, I don't really think this an issue about weight, exactly -- I think it's about something much more important, and much more rare in today's airline travel.

I'm talking about personal space. And I've got news for you: obese people may not be the worst offenders.

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You wouldn't know it to hear the snide remarks: one Southwest passenger complained about his neighbor's excessive adiposity by exclaiming,"His love handles, to put it mildly, were overflowing into my lap. Eeeeekkkkk!!!!!"

Yes, I too hate it when someone's flesh infringes on my personal "no fly zone," but what about crying babies and talkative toddlers? What about the snorers and droolers who mistake your shoulder for a pillow?

What about Laptop Lover or Text Monster whose flying elbows smack you throughout the flight? And don't get me started on the pet-toters who are certain you want to meet snarling little Fifi. Then there's the Bathroom Bore, who has to get up (and climb over you) again and again, to hit the head. Worst of all? No contest: the seatmate with the unbearable body odor.

So why isn't anyone raising a stink about these folks? Shouldn't they be isolated -- or required to get an extra seat -- preferably in the back?

Speaking of seats, I saw a sidebar on the United controversy -- a well-meaning guide to helping "customers of size" shop for the biggest available seats on the always useful SeatGuru site -- though it seems to me the extra inch or so offered by one airline or another is not going to prevent much "spillage." But the best part of the article was this amusing juxtaposition: a "how-to" for the obese -- flanked by ads for KFC meal deals (part of the ad copy exclaimed "includes cake!") Talk about insult to injury.

OK, so say you are a "customer of size" and you want to fly -- what to do? Well, the airlines want you to be pro-active: book and pay for that second seat before showing up at the airport. And if it turns out the plane isn't full, no problem: you get your money back for that second seat (well, maybe after waiting two or three months). The empty plane free re-accommodation policy will no doubt have many taking a shot with a single seat ticket.

So what does happen if you do chance squeezing into a single seat?

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