Girth Surcharge: Should Overweight People Pay More to Fly?

While boarding a Southwest flight on Sunday, I found myself in the back of the airplane looking at the two remaining seats–both of which were middle seats. One, however, was next to a particularly overweight woman whose girth spilled over into the free seat. Can you guess which seat I ended up choosing? That’s a no-brainer.

Fellow passengers who infringe on another person’s sitting area tend to be particularly despised. And yet, there is only one American carrier who has done anything about it; Southwest.

A fascinating article in Sunday’s New York Times tackles the issue of overweight passengers taking up too much space on planes. Southwest, Charles Passy writes, solves the problem by simply forcing obese passengers to buy a second seat onto which their fat may spill.

And what constitutes obese? A person who cannot lower the armrest while sitting down.

Naturally, the airline was sued for discrimination. Southwest, however, surprisingly won. Perhaps this was due to another lawsuit in which a passenger on Delta successfully sued the airline after sitting next to a 450 pound man who encroached well into the plaintiff’s seat. The plaintiff sued under the pretext that he had paid for a full seat and did not receive one.

So, what to do? From a purely selfish standpoint, I agree with Southwest; an overweight person should purchase a second seat so as not to squish their fellow passengers. On the other hand, I understand the discrimination at play here.

I suppose things could be worse for the grossly obese: they could be charged for their weight. On most airlines they pay the same cost as I do, but are allowed to board with a few hundred pounds of excess baggage. And yet, if my personal luggage weighs more than 50 pounds, I have to pay $50 in excess fees. Does this mean that I’m subsidizing someone else’s chocolate milk shake that went straight to their hips?