Lisa Tealer can't use seat-back trays when she's flying because she's "fat," she says. So the diversity executive of a biotech company in the San Francisco Bay Area uses her laptop as her tray. She uses candor about her weight to defuse awkward situations during boarding. "If I have to sit in the middle, I tell people, 'Hopefully, it won't be too uncomfortable for you.' "
Mark Diamond, a 6-foot-4 CEO of a technology firm in California, is an avid student of aircraft types so he can avoid the seat he most dreads — a bulkhead seat that keeps him from slipping his legs under the seat in front of him. "It's a lot of work. I hear guys who are 5-6 complain about how difficult flying is, and I'm like, 'You have no idea,' " he says.
Flying — an act that entails sitting still, often for hours, in a cramped space — has never been easy for those who carry more of themselves on board than others. But travelers who are heavy or tall are feeling the effects of airlines' penny-pinching moves more acutely than others.
The average legroom in coach is getting smaller. The seat width remains unchanged in decades even as Americans get bigger. Airlines are increasingly using small regional planes to serve less-popular destinations. To combat slow demand, they've eliminated capacity, resulting in fuller planes and stiffer competition for upgrades. And airlines' rules requiring obese passengers to pay for an extra seat are being enforced more strictly.
The controversy over paying for a second seat resurfaced earlier this year when United Airlines said it would follow other carriers in requiring overweight passengers in coach to buy a second ticket if two open seats aren't available. Passengers who can't lower their armrest and require more than one seat-belt extender must buy a second ticket at the price of the original ticket. United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski says it adopted the policy after receiving more than 700 complaints in 2008 from passengers who complained of an overweight seatmate encroaching on their space.
Other U.S. carriers have a similar policy. Southwest is aggressive about enforcing it, says Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights.
Southwest requires passengers who are deemed "customers of size" to buy a second seat at a discounted or child's fare at boarding. If the flight has unsold seats, customers will be issued a refund. The policy is "about safety," Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King says.
Macsata says airlines' "fat tax" overlooks the fact that seat size hasn't kept up with increasing girth. From 1960 to 2002, Americans have become on average of about 25 pounds heavier. The typical seat width — at 17 inches to 18.5 inches — hasn't changed since 1958, he says.
Tealer says she has never been asked to buy another ticket but says coach seats can be painful. "Your hips are pressing against the armrest. I've had bruises, muscle pain."
The armrest test to determine who should buy a second ticket also is discriminatory against women, says Tealer, who's a board member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, which is battling the second-ticket rule. "Women carry weight more in the hip area. People of color tend to be bigger."
The federal Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel but doesn't cover size. But obesity can result from debilitating or chronic medical conditions, Macsata says.