SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Air surcharge for the obese faces scrutiny
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


March 10, 2008

Three years ago, Southwest Airlines got itself into a bit of a PR debacle over its decision to require that passengers "of size" pay extra if they need two seats.

Many passengers applauded the airline's move, while advocates for the obese and disabled protested -- to no avail. To this day, Southwest is still the strictest enforcer of the rule, while other airlines occasionally require it in response to complaints but, on the whole, take a somewhat less draconian approach.

Now, though, a new rule enacted in January by a Canadian government agency prohibits that country's airlines from charging the disabled or the obese for an extra seat, and it has caught the attention of airlines here, as well as disability-rights organizations in the United States, who see this as perhaps the beginning of a shift toward a "one person, one fare" rule in this country.

While nearly every frequent flier has a story about being crammed into a seat next to an overweight person encroaching on his or her space, advocates for the disabled say airlines need to be more sensitive to accommodating the obese.

"We're watching it carefully," said Dean Westwood, who works with airlines on disability issues and is co-director of the Center on Self-Determination at the Oregon Institute on Disability and Development. While U.S. airlines are not obligated to follow Canadian law -- even if they fly there -- "we think it could have an impact at some point in the U.S.," he added.

In its ruling, the Canadian Transportation Agency decreed that people with severe disabilities be allowed to fly with a personal attendant at no extra charge, but once the ruling goes into effect in January of next year, it also will cover the "clinically obese" who cannot fit into one seat.

While the rule applies only to three Canadian air carriers -- Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz and WestJet -- they nonetheless account for 90 percent of domestic flights, said Jadrino Huot, a spokesman for the agency, who added that the agency is simply complying with decisions in 2006 by the Supreme Court of Canada.

"It's an issue of equal access to transportation," Huot said.

Southwest, which does not fly into Canada, has no plans to change its policy, said Whitney Eichinger, a Southwest spokeswoman.

U.S. Department of Transportation rules don't prevent airlines from charging passengers for a second seat, and while the U.S. Americans With Disabilities Act requires businesses to make "reasonable accommodation" to the disabled, giving away a second seat isn't included under the definition of "reasonable," giving airlines a lot of leeway to set their own rules.

Delta Airlines tries hard to avoid making overweight passengers pay for an extra seat, said company spokeswoman Susan Elliott. Seat-belt extensions are provided, and if a passenger still can't fit into one seat but "finds themselves in a position where someone is sitting next to them, we'll go ahead and move them if there's room on the aircraft, or put them on standby for another flight," she said.

"We're aware of (Canada's rule) and we're watching this," added Morgan Durant, a spokesman for US Airways.

When faced with, as the airlines call it, a "customer of size," US Airways agents "make the call before boarding and if seats are available on the aircraft, we reseat, if necessary, the customer next to an empty seat," Durant said.

If seats are scarce, "we offer the customer the opportunity to purchase another seat at the lowest available fare for the flight minus any applicable fees. Or, we can change their itinerary to a later flight without penalty if feasible to one where there are open seats.

"The philosophy driving our policy for both special-needs customers and customers of size is to provide comfort and convenience for the customer and the fellow customers at the airport and on the plane," he said, noting that more information on US Airways' regulations regarding the disabled can be found at:

"I would be shocked if airlines started to offer free seats to overweight people without a government mandate," said David Underwood, of Underwood Travel in Carnegie, Pa., an associate of Carlson Wagonlit, the largest travel management company in the world.

"I think the tough part for Southwest is that they empowered people on the aircraft to make these kinds of decisions," he added, noting that on Southwest, there are no seat assignments. "And, to their credit, if the aircraft isn't sold out, they almost always reimburse the traveler and won't charge them for that additional seat."

While no government mandates are in sight soon, "Every time a flight sits on a tarmac for 10 hours and it gets a lot of press, you always start reading about the movement for a passenger bill of rights," Underwood said. "So you never know."


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter(at)
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