Airline squeeze remains the elephant in the room

Illustration: Michael Mucci
Illustration: Michael Mucci 

With growing numbers of overweight Australians, the time is fast approaching when airlines will have to stop tiptoeing around the issue of seat allocation.

I RECENTLY had a 16-hour flight on which the passenger next to me was so large I couldn't comfortably use my seat, leaving me walking up and down the aisle while other passengers slept or watched movies.

The crew was apologetic but with the flight 100 per cent full, there was nothing they could do.

Who takes responsibility for the issue of overweight airline passengers and the comfort of those around them?

With more than half of Australian adults now classified as overweight or obese and people only getting bigger, the time is surely approaching when airlines and authorities will have to stop tiptoeing around the issue.

A survey by travel.com.au has found 70 per cent of Australians think overweight people should have to buy two seats when flying economy class.

This is up from 53 per cent of people who held that view when the same survey was done two years ago, indicating travellers are becoming frustrated with the loss of their personal space. "Back then [in 2008], it seemed the nation was grossly torn," says the general manager of travel.com.au, Lisa Ferrari. "But, two years later, the scales have well and truly tipped."

Ferrari says there has been a noticeable increase in the number of customer calls on the issue in the past two years.

Most are calling to ask what they can to do avoid being seated next to an obese passenger, while some overweight passengers are tackling the issue themselves by inquiring about options such as purchasing two seats.

A spokeswoman for Qantas says the airline receives "occasional" written complaints from passengers who have been seated next to an obese person.

She says Qantas does its best to place overweight passengers next to an empty seat, but if the flight is full, nothing can be done.

In the US, several airlines have implemented hard-line policies regarding overweight travellers, yet their counterparts elsewhere continue to dodge this highly sensitive issue.

There are few topics that send the industry ducking for cover as much as this one; many airlines and travel agents contacted for this article declined to comment.

In the absence of clear policies, frustration and embarrassment can abound.

When a passenger has bought one economy seat but is too big to fit into it, it is left to check-in staff or on-board crew to deal with the situation, potentially causing great embarrassment to the passenger. When staff are unable to find a solution, such as when the flight is full, it can ruin the flight for other passengers.

The issue hit the headlines earlier this year when American film director Kevin Smith was thrown off a Southwest Airlines flight for being too big to fit into one seat.

Smith said he had booked and paid for two seats but had moved to a different flight as a standby passenger and no second seat was available. Southwest Airlines has a clear policy that passengers who cannot fit into one seat are required to buy two, with the cost of the second seat refunded if the flight is not full.

Air France and KLM also flew into controversy earlier this year, when it was reported they would require overweight passengers to purchase two seats.

The carriers have since clarified that it is a recommendation rather than a requirement, with large passengers able to buy a second seat at a 25 per cent discount, with the promise of a refund on the second seat if the flight is not full.

Some have suggested airlines could get around the issue by installing rows of extra-wide seats for large passengers, while others say the onus is on overweight passengers to buy appropriate seating.

One of the big problems is how to define an oversized passenger, with body mass index an unreliable indicator and measuring or weighing passengers deemed unacceptable.

Some airlines say passengers must be able to fit between the armrests, without compromising adjacent seats, while others say the passenger must be able to use the standard seatbelt, without an extension strap.

However airlines decide to tackle it, it is certain there will be passengers who are disgruntled or out of pocket.

It is equally certain that the airlines will have to tackle it.

If you need extra space

PREMIUM economy is the ultimate solution for overweight passengers, according to travel.com.au spokeswoman Lisa Ferrari. Premium economy seating gives passengers extra seat width and leg room "without shelling out the big bucks for business class".

"It won't break the bank, or the ego, as much as being made to purchase a second seat at check-in," Ferrari says.

Overweight passengers should inform their travel agent or airline at time of booking, to avoid embarrassment at check-in or on the plane.

jane@janeefraser.com.au

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