Second Opinion: Weight Regulation on Planes: What We Need

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Editor’s Note: This article is a part of an Op-Ed series, “Second Opinion,” where patient experts share their take on current research, news, and trends in health and medicine. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions or views of HealthCentral.com.

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or occasionally fly for business or pleasure, you book your flight knowing certain “givens.” You are allowed a small bag and additional carry on that must conform to certain size regulations depending on the size of the plane and specific airline policy. You will board in a certain order, after those passengers who require special attention due to disabilities, based on the price you paid – first class, then business class, then coach. You will be required to wear a seatbelt and follow certain rules on board the plane. What is not a given, is how your needs will be met when your “seat space” is encroached upon, because of the girth of another passenger. Despite having direct protocols for “weighty luggage,” most airlines still do not have specific guidelines to handle “passenger heft.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, domestic and foreign airlines carried an all-time high of 895.5 million passengers in 2015. Obviously if you fly business or first class, your seats are roomy and comfortable. Airlines like JetBlue have a section called “extra room” which provides extra leg room, but not a larger seat size. I choose to fly that airline monthly in order to take advantage of that extra space, without paying full first class prices. Currently if you fly short haul (under six hours) flights, coach seats range, on average, from a seat width of 16 to 18.25 inches. On long haul economy flights seat width range, on average, is 17 to 18.5 inches. The average weight assigned to each passenger by the FAA is 200 pounds for a male and 179 pounds for a female. Kids are assigned 76 pounds if under age 13. The length of both the original seat belt and the extender vary widely by airline. For example, AeroMexico's seat belts are 51 inches and the extenders are 22 inches, while United's belts are 31 inches with 24-inch extenders.

More policies currently exist in the airline industry to handle a host of situations including overweight or oversized luggage, but not human size issues. Currently 35.7 percent of adults are obese in the U.S., and more than one in twenty have extreme obesity. About 74 percent of men are overweight or obese. With rates of obesity continuing to trend higher, you are likely to be confronted with a situation in which you can’t sit comfortably in your seat, because the person sitting next to you is “using” part of your (paid for) seat space. Your choices include suffering in silence for hours, asking to be moved if there is another seat available given the current trend of packing flights to capacity (the seat may not be equivalent to the one purchased), or confronting the situation, likely to be unpleasant for you and the over-sized passenger. To be clear, it should not be your problem if your ticket purchase is a contract to get the use of the full breadth of your seat. It’s a full on airline carrier and frankly, FAA problem, and it needs to be dealt with on an industry-wide basis.

The World Obesity Federation (WOF) is hoping that by now classifying obesity as a disease (a chronic, relapsing disease), doctors will take a more whole body view of the disease and increase focus on treatment and prevention.) Shouldn’t business sectors that handle consumers recognize and address weight needs?

Currently the FAA does not mandate that uniform policy be followed when a passenger, who will not fit in their seat, purchases a single ticket. Southwest Airlines made the news several years ago, when they required individuals assessed at the gate as “not able to fit in the seat assigned,” to purchase a second seat when the seat next to them was not open. American Airlines made the news in 2009 when a flight attendant posted a photo of a morbidly obese passenger spilling over into the aisle and the seat on the other side of him. Finally, before takeoff he was given an additional seat. “Two other passengers were relocated,” in order to accommodate this man’s needs. Hawaiian Airlines made the news in 2016 when they won the right to institute a weight policy and to only assign seats on certain routes (to Pago Pago which typically books Samoans) to handle weight distribution concerns and crash concerns. The Samoan population has been singled out as a population with very high rates of obesity. The latest lawsuit filed by an Australian passenger claims he was injured when forced to sit next to “a grossly obese” passenger.

Airline seats were originally designed to fit a leaner populace. They’ve evolved from a design similar to scaled down porch furniture to more sophisticated design. Seats are getting smaller rather than larger, despite obesity trends. Hospitals now purchase larger beds, have replaced traditional toilets with larger seats, and have larger wheelchairs and radiology tables. Amusement park have added “plus-size” seats to many rides and even rebuild ride systems to accommodate the growing size of the average consumer. Air Canada established clear policy on weight, long before the health community established obesity as a clinical disease. Air Canada acknowledged obesity as a medical condition back in 2012, and assigns an extra free seat to passengers who present a doctor’s note confirming their clinical weight condition. That means that there is no humiliating moment for the passenger with the diagnosis, or for the passenger who would literally be forced to give up a portion of their seat or complain in a cringe-worthy moment.

Part two: Weight Regulation on Planes: What We Need

If you look at some travel review sites, many recommend that if you do have a BMI or weight that would classify you with a diagnosis of obesity, that you discuss the issue with a ticket agent by phone. Determine if you can block the seat next to you or if their policy is to purchase a second seat. It’s clear that this may be financially challenging, but to be fair, the passengers around you have paid for use of a full seat. Be as kind to them as you would want them to be to you. If you don’t make this choice ahead of time, you are opening the door to a very unpleasant interaction for yourself and the passenger who feels that their seat space is being unfairly taken.

According to many airline websites, if the armrests cannot remain in the down position and contain your size reasonably so you don’t enter the seat space of fellow passengers, you need to pay for a second seat. I can however tell you, that in many cases, this protocol is not regularly enforced and your fellow passengers unfairly pay the price in comfort or by being moved in an effort to “only displace or discomfort one “regular” sized passenger. Current Mandatory Requirements for Airworthiness, commissioned by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) mandates certain seat pitch requirements but not minimum dimension for seat size. Standards of comfort are left up to each airline. Let’s also remember that seat comfort is also linked to seat safety and passenger safety. If large person is wedged into a too small middle seat and there’s an emergency, precious seconds will be lost as they try to get out of an average coach seat. And if you are in the window seat, as they struggle, your life will be at risk too.

A bigger and more widespread action is overdue in the industry. The FAA needs to mandate weight space management. There must be a tipping point when it comes to maximal weight for a plane to carry, when factoring luggage and passenger/flight crew weights. We are nearing a day when many more passengers on board will surpass healthy weights. There should also be a standardized protocol to passenger weight, similar to how carry-on bags are handled. Since it would be humiliating to be taken to a room and measured to see if you can fit in a sample coach seat, and since gate interception for weight issues are also unpleasant, it’s time to do what other consumer service sectors have done. Create updated accommodations for these passengers or charge them for two seats as a standard procedure. Make seats with movable armrests so that two individuals with obesity can occupy one row. Charge a nominal fee for the extra space or absorb it- but have the option in certain rows. Create some rows with extra seat room and leg room and charge passengers for them or absorb the price as the Canadian airline does. Obesity is a medical condition, and as some have suggested, should be viewed as a handicap or disability. It should be handled during the ticket purchase process.

Recent headlines have showcased bad behavior on the part of passengers and airline employees. Small spaces encourage tempers to flare easily. It’s obvious that some situations like weather delays or mechanical issues cannot be avoided. Managing ALL passengers’ comfort issues can be handled, pre-flight with set rules.  As a frequent flyer I can tell you that I am being asked more frequently to accommodate others. I’m willing to do that to a point. I’ve sat next to crying babies, passengers who are sick, pets of all kinds, and dealt with a variety of difficult situations, always feeling empathy. I’ve been asked more than once to deal with a “suddenly smaller seat” or give up my seat because it’s “no longer a full seat due to the size of my fellow passenger,” and my position is that it’s not my job to accommodate the situation – it’s time for the airline industry to step up to the plate and deal with this weighted issue fairly, for all involved.

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