Airline Madness: Baggage fees vs. Obese people who take up two seats

Airline Madness is Gadling’s tournament of airline annoyances. You can catch up on all of the previous tournament action here.

This Airline Madness first round match-up is sure to spark plenty of debate. The #4 seed, Baggage fees, ticks off just about everyone. On the other hand, #13 seed Obese people who take up two seats is too big to be ignored. If we’re traveling, we need luggage. However, airlines seem to punish us for packing even a normal amount of clothing by charging us exorbitant fees just to check a bag. Meanwhile, the limited space we do have for ourselves on the plane is being infringed upon by overweight passengers overflowing into our seats. If you’re too heavy to fit in one seat, shouldn’t you have to purchase a second?

Only one of these airline annoyances can advance to the second round. Learn more about them and then vote for the one that you simply can’t stand.

#4 Baggage fees
We understand that some people overpack and attempt to bring way too much crap onto the plane. But, what about the people who just want to pack properly for their two week business trip or family vacation? How can the price of a single bag not be included in your airline ticket? Are we all supposed to fly with one change of clothes in our carry-on bags? Let us pack like normal human beings and travel with some personal belongings without shelling out an additional $50!

#13 Obese people who take up two seats
Not all obese people are created equally. Some overeat, others have genetic disorders, while many suffer from crippling medical issues. Regardless of the reason, however, there is no excuse for taking up someone else’s space. I paid for my seat and only I get to use it. If you can’t fit in one seat, shouldn’t you have to pay for the space that you do need? It’s not a punishment; it’s just common sense. Once a child becomes too large to sit on his parent’s lap, he needs his own seat. Shouldn’t the same hold true once your waistline is too large to fit in a single seat?

Only one pet peeve can advance. Will it be Baggage fees or Obese people who take up two seats. Vote for the one that pisses you off the most and then share your feelings in the comments!
First round voting ends at 11:59PM EDT on Friday, March 16.

More Airline Madness:
#1 Annoying passengers vs. #16 Disgusting bathrooms
#2 Legroom vs. #15 Inefficient boarding procedures
#3 Lack of free food/prices for food vs. #14 Cold cabin/no blankets
#5 Lack of overhead space vs. Inattentive parents of crying babies
#6 Change fees/no free standby vs. #11 Lack of personal entertainment/charging for entertainment
#7 Rude airline staff vs. #10 Having to turn off electronic devices during takeoff & landing
#8 People who recline their seats vs. #9 People who get mad at people who recline their seats
Hotel Madness: Gadling’s tournament of airline annoyances

Catch up on all the Airline Madness here.

Babies and first class: why is this an issue?

Earlier this week, I saw a story about babies and first class air travel posted on Facebook. The Facebook poster asked our own Heather Poole (flight attendant, mother, and new book author!) for her thoughts on the story, and she replied, “I’m fine with babies in first class. Usually they just sleep.” Columnist Brett Snyder is a frequent flier and new dad wondering if he should use miles to upgrade his first flight with the baby. Reading the article and the many comments, I wonder: why is this (or really any story about babies and airplanes) a contentious issue?

Long before I even thought about having children, I thought the same about babies in first class that I thought about anyone in the front of the plane: must be nice for them. Sure, it might be a waste of money to give a premium seat to someone whose legs don’t touch the ground and who can’t enjoy the free Champagne, but it’s the parents’ choice to splurge on the ticket. If the parents are more comfortable, the kid might be happier and thus quiet — a win-win for everyone on the plane. Does the child “deserve” to sit up front? Perhaps not, but airplane seating has never been based on merit. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a passenger is a passenger, no matter how small.As the veteran of nearly 20 flights with an infant in Europe, the US and trans-Atlantic, I’ve been fortunate to fly a few times with my daughter in business class. While the roomy seats and meals make a 10 hour flight easier with a baby, more valuable is the ability to skip check-in and security lines, board the plane early, and spend layovers in a spacious lounge with a place to heat baby food or change a diaper. Some of those perks used to be standard for all passengers with small children, but have now gone the way of the hot meal in coach. Some airlines still make travel easier for parents: JetBlue is one of the only US-based airlines to allow you to gate-check a stroller of any size and check your first bag free (checking a bag becomes inevitable with a baby). Gulf Air offers free “Sky Nannies” on long-haul flights for young children, and Lufthansa offers a guide service (for a fee) to escort families traveling through their German hubs. Turkish Airlines (my most frequently-used airline while I live in Istanbul) always offers a “baby meal” and blocks off empty seats when possible to give us more room.

I’m also fortunate to have an easy baby who so far (knock on wood) has been very well behaved on every flight. This is in part very good luck, but also due to the fact that I watch her constantly and head off any signs of crying before they start. I’ll hold and feed her as often as it takes, even if it means I rarely rest anymore on a plane. Many of the same people who’ve given me “the look” when boarding with an infant have complimented me after on her behavior. Brett also notes in his article: “Don’t just sit there while your baby screams. Do everything you can to calm him and people will be more understanding.” This is good advice, but does it really need to be said?! I’d never dream of sitting by idly while my child disturbed other people and I’m embarrassed by any other parents who would consider such behavior acceptable. Still, I recognize that even with the most watchful parents, sometimes a cranky baby is unavoidable but I hope that when/if that day comes, my fellow passengers will see how hard I’m trying to make the flight easier for all of us. Better still, if I anticipate a difficult age for my baby to fly, I’ll look into alternative methods of travel (or postpone until an easier time).

If we are going to ban babies from first class, or even segregate them from adults on all flights, why stop there? Why not a separate flight for the armrest-hogs, the obese, the incessant talkers, or the drunk and belligerent? I’d like a plane full of only frequent flyers, who know not to use their cell phone after the door closes, who don’t rush the aisles the minute the wheels touch down, who don’t recline their seats during drink service or bring smelly food (or nail polish) onto the plane. Start flights for only considerate, experienced travelers and you will find me in the front of the plane, with my baby on my lap.

For more about (considerate) travel with a baby, read my past “Knocked Up Abroad” stories here.

Vote in Gadling’s Airline Madness Competition!

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A travel agent who helps ‘people of size’ see the world

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 68% of Americans are either overweight or obese. But the width of an average coach-class seat on an airplane is just 17 inches, and with the economy picking up and airlines cutting back on flight schedules to stay competitive, empty seats are becoming a rare commodity.

The Canadian government passed a one person, one ticket law in 2008 that classified obesity as a disability and required major Canadian airlines to provide obese passengers with as many additional seats as needed at no extra charge. In the U.S., airline staff occasionally ask larger travelers to buy a second seat but the issue can be contentious. Two years ago, a flight attendant on a Southwest flight removed filmmaker Kevin Smith from an Oakland-Burbank flight because he couldn’t fit into one seat and the flight was full. Smith had booked two seats but decided to go standby on an earlier flight. They allowed him to board but then asked him to leave once it was clear he couldn’t fit into the one seat.

Smith was outraged and tweeted, “You [messed] with the wrong sedentary processed-foods eater!” among other things to his 1.6 million followers. But anecdotal evidence suggests that many airlines allow obese travelers to travel on one ticket, even if it’s obvious they can’t fit into one seat. In November, a traveler from Pennsylvania claimed that he had to stand for the duration of a seven-hour flight because his seatmate was too large for him to sit comfortably. The incident garnered widespread media attention, with many readers noting that they’d had similar experiences.

Spirit Airlines offers “big front” seats for an additional fee and other airlines also have new classes of service somewhere between business and coach, but most offer only additional legroom and not wider seats. According to the New York Times, at least three airlines do not allow obese passengers to sit in the emergency exit row. When it comes to airline travel, size clearly matters and the issue of weight and passenger comfort is likely to remain contentious.

Tony Harrell is a board member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), and founder of Abundant Travel, a travel agency for “people of size” based in Alexandria, Virginia. In the interview below, I spoke to Harrell about a variety of issues pertaining to obesity and the travel industry.

How did you decide to start a travel agency specializing in overweight and obese travelers?

I started Abundant Travel two years ago, and my main inspiration was my then-girlfriend and now fiancée, who is a larger person. We were trying to find properties and destinations that would accommodate us and it got me to thinking there have to be other travelers who have similar concerns.What type of concerns are you referring to specifically?

Whether the property itself is accommodating as far as infrastructure goes; if the staff is likely to be friendly or ambivalent or even hostile to larger travelers; whether the destination is more known for the glamorously thin, so to speak, rather than everyday people.

What type of infrastructure issues do you look at in planning a trip for a larger traveler?

Where the rooms are situated in the hotel. They don’t have to necessarily be more spacious rooms, but in cases where we have travelers with limited mobility, an abundance of accessible rooms is helpful. But also getting from the lobby to the room, the number of steps someone has to take to get there. Things like that. And I would try to avoid hotels without elevators.

Or hotels that have long corridors that require a significant walk to get to the room?


So when someone wants to book a trip with you, do you try to ascertain how large they are?

I definitely don’t ask for their dress size or weight. If they haven’t flown in a while, I will let them know that most coach seats are, on average, 16-18 inches, which is equivalent to a person with a 38-inch waist being able to be comfortable.

If you have a waist size above 38, you probably won’t be comfortable in a coach seat?

Correct. Even at 38, it’s not exactly the lap of luxury. I’m in that range and flying isn’t fun, even for me. So I advise them that there are other options to consider, including buying a second seat, or sharing a third seat with another larger person.

But it’s awfully expensive to buy extra seats or book in business class isn’t it?

It is another expense. You may be aware that the Canadian government has a one passenger- one seat law, which requires airlines there to only charge passengers for one ticket, no matter how many seats they require.

I imagine the airlines probably aren’t very happy about that law.

As a travelers’ advocate, it emphasizes the point that it would be more beneficial to provide more ample seating to accommodate larger travelers and even people who just have broad shoulders.

So do you think the U.S. should adopt the Canadian law?

I certainly would support that. I think another fair solution would be to create a section with more ample seating in the coach class and charge about one and one-half times a normal coach seat.

Like an economy plus section?

Right but most economy plus seats aren’t actually wider; they just have a bit more legroom.

How should airline staff deal with larger travelers who purchase only one ticket but can’t fit in just one seat?

Overall, agents could use more sensitivity training. Perhaps discretely talking to the passenger and letting them know the situation and tell them what their options are without embarrassing them in front of their fellow passengers.

But on a full flight, you have situations where people end up standing because the person they’re next to is spilling over into their seat. In November, a traveler, Arthur Berkowitz, claimed he had to stand for 7 hours on a flight due to being placed next to an obese man. Some have suggested that there should be a strict standard applied to larger travelers who try to board a plane with only one ticket. Do you agree?

I can see where they’re going but it reminds me of being at an amusement park where they won’t let you ride something if you’re not tall enough. I don’t think it would be effective.

Do you think larger travelers are being discriminated against or is this just a practical matter of airlines trying to accommodate everyone and maximize profit?

Frankly, I think airlines have been trying to fit more seats in for a long time and if they are discriminating against larger travelers, it’s because they’re looking at their bottom line and don’t want to give away free seats. Some airline staff members have been insensitive in dealing with unprepared larger travelers. On the other hand, some larger travelers need to be more realistic and proactive about air travel and be prepared to make a larger investment in their airfare than they may have anticipated. That’s something we can help with at Abundant Travel.

But some larger travelers probably don’t want to admit they need two seats, right?

I’m sure that is the case with some. At NAAFA, we deal with people who are at different stages of self-acceptance. For people on the beginning stages of that spectrum, they might be in denial about needing a second seat. But when I travel with my fiancée, I take about one and one-fourth coach seats and I’m only on the high side of average. So I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting you need another seat.

So when you travel with your fiancée do you book more than 2 seats?

We always book three seats.

Airlines aren’t the only place where the seating issue with larger travelers comes up. For example, on crowded buses or trains, some travelers complain if larger passengers occupy more than one seat, forcing others to stand. What is the proper etiquette for trains and buses, should larger travelers give up their seat if the bus or train is full?

On public transportation, you’re paying for the right to use the system, not necessarily just for one seat. Perhaps some travelers could stand, but some could not. If there are parents holding small children or elderly people, perhaps larger persons could try to accommodate them, but otherwise, I think they should be able to stay in their seats.

Nearly 70% of Americans are obese or overweight; presumably some of them don’t travel because they don’t think they’ll be comfortable. Is this an untapped market for the travel industry?

Absolutely. This was the main driver for me to open this agency. It’s an underserved market, helping people of size.

Some might say that helping larger travelers enables them to continue living an unhealthy lifestyle. If a larger traveler can’t fit into one seat, it might also serve as a wake-up call that they might need to think about revising their diet or lifestyle, correct?

I see it more as a wake-up call for the airlines to realize they have a variety of travelers and need to accommodate them with more options. If they don’t create new alternatives for travelers they’re going to keep having these sorts of unfortunate situations.

Have you heard horror stories of larger travelers being treated poorly at hotels?

People who patronize trendy destinations tend to be slim and those guests may not be as welcoming to larger travelers.

So are there certain destinations you’d recommend more than others for larger travelers?

I would say Texas is one good option because a lot of the major cities there have a high percentage of larger people. They are places where larger travelers can go to and blend in, especially in a place like San Antonio. I would also recommend Disney World and other family friendly resorts where people are more relaxed and less uptight.

What about places like Aspen or South Beach, would you advise against places like those for large travelers?

Unless they have a real interest in those scenes, I would be hesitant to recommend those places to my clients, but of course, they have a right to go wherever they like.

What about cruises?

Cruises are pretty good, actually. For the most part you get to watch the scenery pass you by as opposed to having to walk around to admire it. But the cabins can be small, and when it comes to taking a shower, or if the passenger gets around by scooter, you have to make sure you pick a comfortable cabin.

Do you sympathize with travelers who are seated next to larger travelers that encroach on their space?

I respect where they’re coming from. No one wants to be uncomfortable on a flight, no matter what their size is. But again, I come back to the fact that airlines need to do a better job accommodating people of all sizes. Once they offer wider seats, it’ll make all the customers happy.

And what’s the best way for travelers who find themselves next to a large person and are uncomfortable to handle the situation?

If there are open seats, then it’s easier to handle. If not, I guess the person should just be respectful and approach the flight attendant discretely and see what arrangements can be made.

Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s fattest countries.

Photos courtesy of Tony Harrell, (Female traveler photo from Corbis) and final photo via Kyle May on Flickr.

Australian airlines see obese passengers as growing problem

In the United States, finding ways to accommodate oversized passengers may be the subject of uneven enforcement, but in Australia, it’s uncharted territory. In fact, this in-flight service problem is so ignored that the terminology isn’t even standard. According to Virgin Blue, being too grande for the seat is considered an impairment, while Tiger Airways isn’t sure if it’s a “comfort” issue or a “medical” issue. And last year, Jetstar demonstrated the genius of making one large passenger by two seats: both of them on the aisle. A spokesman for Jetstar, by the way, says, “Obesity is not a disability.”

Then, pray tell, what is it? Distinction from does not equate to definition of. And an inability to define imperils the formulation and enforcement of any policy … not that that’s a problem for Jetstar, whose spokesman added, “There’s no rules around what requirements we should do for somebody if they’re above a certain height or weight.” Virgin Blue also doesn’t have a policy for this.

Qantas has received complaints, too, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, but it punts responsibility back to the passengers: “”The only way for a customer to guarantee extra space is to purchase two economy tickets or fly business- or first-class.”

Needless to say, the majority of Australians support a formal system for addressing obese passengers, according to a study by In fact, 70 percent of survey respondents weighed in favorably believed that “obese or largely overweight people should have to purchase two economy-class seat tickets when travelling by plane.” Only two years ago, 53 percent felt this way.

Clearly, this is a growing problem for Australian airlines. The county’s Department of Health and Ageing puts 41 percent of men and 25 percent o women in the “obese” category. Twenty years ago, the rates were only half as large.

[photo by didbygraham via Flickr]

Air France goes prix fixe, not buffet

Starting in April, Air France is going to make you pay for what you consume. If you consume only one seat, that’s all you’ll have to buy. But, if you require more than one seat, expect to whip out your plastic. For some reason, airline spokesman Nicolas Petteau calls it “a question of security,” but I don’t think so. To me, it seems more like a question of getting what you pay for … and asking you to pay for everything you get.

The new policy includes refunded additional fares for obese passengers taking up two seats on a plane that isn’t full. Air France estimates that these refunds will be granted in 90 percent of big-passenger cases. Nonetheless, the airline cites economic factors as behind the decision (aside from the bizarro comment about security), which is not only believable but appropriate.

Air France, which denied the policy in the French media, ran into some trouble over this issue three years ago. A passenger weighing 353 pounds successfully sued the airline, which had to pay him $11,423 in damages and the cost of the second seat from New Delhi to Paris. (Let’s just hope he had an empty seat next to him.)

Other airlines have similar policies, including Southwest and JetBlue — and I applaud them. Forget about everything except the simple fact that the ticket you buy entitles you to one seat on the flight. If one seat does not meet your needs, buy two seats. After all, if I go to a restaurant and buy one entrée and remain hungry, I have to buy a second one.