The Big Seat Squeeze Debate Continues

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Last week, my column focused on how the main U.S. airlines deal – or fail to deal – with oversized travelers. That story evoked quite a few comments and questions, with diametrically opposing slants:

"It's not my fault that someone else might be obese, so why should I have to give up any of my minimal seat space to an oversize seatmate?"

"Many travelers are overweight for medical or genetic reasons – why should they be penalized?"

Unfortunately, I see no win-win solution to this problem. Both sides of this dispute have validity, but no single approach can accommodate both views. And, as a consumer, you can't do much to avoid difficulty, one way or another.

Size – the Big Problem

The crux of the problem is easy to state: People are getting bigger, while airline economy seats are getting smaller. The only really comprehensive anthropometric study of airline seats and passengers I've seen, published in 2001 and no longer available online, showed that, even then, regular economy seats were already at least two inches too narrow at shoulder level to accommodate American men comfortably in a full plane. Since then, the men have grown larger while the seats have stayed the same or gotten narrower. Similarly, seats were already too narrow at seat cushion level to accommodate American women.

Americans, as measured, were at least an inch wider than any other national or ethnic group studied. Certainly, some of that above-average girth is due to true obesity and caused by some combination of bad diet and inadequate exercise. But some of the size is based on genetics and nutrition, and medical problems cause others to gain weight regardless of dietary discipline.

The "Right" to Travel

Several of the responses to the first column stated or implied that everyone had a "right" to travel. Moreover, they claimed, airlines were guilty of discrimination if they demanded that oversize travelers pay extra.

I'm not a lawyer, but my reading of the literature leads me to conclude that people do not have an inherent "right" to travel on domestic airlines. In excusing what many view as a violation of personal privacy, the security folks say that because travel is not a right they have a legal authority to exceed what would normally breach constitutional search limitations.

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