The Indignities of a No (Fat) Fly Zone

United Joins Other airlines in telling "customers of size" to buy two seats.

April 22, 2009 — -- 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.

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?

If that's deemed inadequate for your needs and the plane is full, the airlines say you'll have to wait for another plane -- one that has an extra seat for you. The prevailing wisdom is, you know if you're "of size" or not. As Midwest Airlines carefully explains, by booking a second seat, the "customer can avoid any discussion at the gate with employees…" In other words, you don't have to risk being told you're too fat.

Ugly. But, neither is it pretty to expect airline reps and/or flight attendants to be arbiters of "size" or anything else. Remember when a young woman named Kyla Ebbert was nearly kicked off a Southwest flight for wearing -- gasp -- a mini-skirt? For those who enjoy those "Where are They Now?" features, Ms. Ebbert later parlayed her "fame" into a shoot for Playboy.

Moreover -- let's say you, a portly passenger, decides to purchase two seats -- but you discover you can't do this online -- so, you call to make your reservation. Wait a minute, do you then get hit with the phone call booking fee? The sites I've looked at do not address this very clearly.

Maybe buying two seats together online represents a technology issue. But maybe it's something else: maybe regular-sized folks will pose as members of the "big and tall" club in order to get two seats together. In other words, in order to get the comfort and room of a business or first class seat at a fraction of the price. I can hear the phone conversation with the customer service rep now: "Are you really fat, sir? You're not faking it, are you?"

You can see what a weighty can of worms this is.

By the way, I'm not saying I'm against these rules, but the airlines might want to be a little clearer about them so customers aren't blindsided. Yes, we now know all about United's regulations but who would guess that Midwest Airline's "Passenger Comfort Policy" or Air France's Web site section titled, "High Body Mass" both address obesity? A little transparency, please.

And, let's face it, passengers who shoehorn their way into seats can pose a safety problem. As Southwest spokesperson Brandy King reminds us, in an emergency, there's not a lot of time: "If the aircraft needs to be evacuated and a customer has forced the armrest down, it's going to take longer to make a quick exit."

You can't argue about saving lives. But you can argue about all the other little indignities we air travelers face these days from issues of "size" to a complete and utter lack of respect for personal space.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.